Three steps to creating an environment where your people’s ingenuity can flourish

Conrad Thompson

By Conrad Thompson, Amy Finn

We teamed up with the Financial Times and invited a range of senior executives from across industries to dinner. Here’s what we learnt from what they had to say about being more digital and flexible and empowering the workforce.

Our relationship with technology is not only changing our expectations of what it means to be a consumer, it’s also changing what people want from the world of work. Even as organisations confront external disruption from competitors, they face internal disruption as their people increasingly come from different generations with vastly different expectations of what it means to be an employee.

Our survey of 500 leaders from some of the largest organisations across a range of sectors found the top-performing organisations financially have made a conscious effort to create a work environment that’s dynamic, encourages collaboration and in which all employees are empowered. These are organisations where people work in aware, alert, inclusive and responsive teams that tune into, and bounce off, each other attentively and rapidly, responding to their customers and competition. These are organisations that are creating a positive human future.

But many organisations struggle with cultures in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few who are unable, or unwilling, to devolve decision making, which makes them unable to respond to rapidly changing conditions.

1. Liberate your people by tapping into the energy and working practises that arise in a crisis and applying them in the day-to-day

Confronting such challenges may seem overwhelming, but there are steps you can take to become more agile, liberate your people and create the conditions for better management and stronger leadership to your advantage.

At PA, we believe in the power of ingenuity to build a positive human future in a technology-driven world. And we believe that today’s disruptive environment presents incredible opportunities for organisations. Yet we also recognise that to seize these opportunities will require radically new approaches to how you lead.

Finding ways to unleash the creative capital of your staff will enable you to achieve better results, but to do this you need to let your people off the reins. This can be a tough learning curve for many executives, but there are ways to model the behaviour you want.

For instance, looking at how some organisations react in crises provides important clues as to how agile businesses respond to the constant changes they face in the digital era. For example, the way workers react in difficult situations shows that in times of trouble people feel more liberated, have a clearer view of common goals, find better ways to mobilise cross-functional teams and work together and experiment more to achieve results.

In times of ‘business as usual’, however, workers become more risk averse and constrained as to what they can do and their objectives can be hard to see. The clear lesson is that empowering your teams and line managers to deliver on their goals in the way they feel is best is the surest way of them succeeding.

2. It’s good to talk – but the conversation has to be two-way

Everyone now has more control of their own communications, and workplace entrants expect the same kind of transparency and freedom from their leaders as they have in their everyday online interactions.

Creating a culture in which people feel they can ask questions and raise concerns without fear of reprimand or punishment will foster trust and improve goal delivery.

One thing that delighted us is the extent to which many organisations at the dinner are being genuinely open in their internal communications and using collaborative tools like Facebook Workplace to have a two-way dialogue with staff.

One of the organisations we spoke with, for example, hosts regular live, interactive TV sessions, facilitated by a journalist in real time, in which senior leaders respond to open, unscripted questions from the global workforce.

Instead of carefully selected questions to prompt pre-arranged responses, an authentic conversation is taking place. It’s OK for leaders to say they don’t have immediate answers and that they will get back with a response.

This is where clear leadership is needed: communication has frequently been handed to HR teams that are focused on risk control and damage limitation. Relinquishing this tight control of the corporate comms is a pre-requisite for the success of a two-way dialogue strategy.

Authentic leaders will act to remove the blockages preventing people taking part in real debates, and this includes making time for such dialogues to take place.

3. Remember, we’re all in the ‘people’ business

You need to ensure your line managers have the support and authority they need to act without being stifled by over-supervision.

Many line managers have been promoted for their technical expertise in fields such as science, accountancy or engineering, rather than ‘people skills’, so it is only fair to give them time and training so they make the transition to successful team leader. This is particularly true if they have been promoted from the ranks or live near other workers, as often those they are bossing are their close colleagues or friends.

The line managers will, in turn, model themselves on the leaderships’ behaviour. If you only talk to them about P&L lines and concentrate on quarterly results, that is what will be filtered down.

Instead, leaders must ensure the messages line managers relay to teams are clearly aligned with the aims and values of the organisation. Your second and third tiers of management must engage with the people in their teams so information about goals and ambitions flows easily across the whole company, which is why a two-way engagement (not just comms) strategy is so important.

The input of everyone is key to delivering better customer experiences. To get the best from your people, they need to be trusted by the whole chain of command. You’ve spent a lot of time recruiting the best people you can, so ask them how to achieve objectives, give them a goal, get out of the way, and only step in if they need support.

Leaders who do this well will have bigger opportunities, greater creativity and respond to change quicker and more effectively. Remember, every organisation is in the ‘people’ business and focuses on the ‘customer experience’. If you concentrate on the ‘staff experience’ first, then the customer experience will improve – because your employees understand they are in the people business too.

Representatives taking part in the discussions included senior leaders from Transport for London, Thames Water, RBS, Rolls-Royce, Yorkshire Water, Aviva, UK Power Networks, Royal Mail, Metro Bank, Lloyds Banking Group, Sainsbury’s, GSK, Aviva Investors and BT

About the authors

Conrad Thompson
Conrad Thompson PA innovation expert
Amy Finn PA people and talent expert

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