[Traduzione a cura di Allen Montrasio di John Peter Sloan – La Scuola]
Work environments are first and foremost social systems, and over the past few years they have changed in line with the rest of society: there have been generational and gender changes which have generated new, different needs which managers need to address(1).
Each manager is called to manage work relations that are less hierarchically(2) encoded and – to use a political metaphor – have become more democratic and inclusive compared to some decades ago, with conflictual situations that have more to do with personal differences than with social categories.
For many old-school managers, democracy at work leads to inefficiency, but I have a different opinion and I’ll try to explain why.
I often ask myself how much my political values have influenced my managerial style: what I do know is that people management is the most important skill I assess(3) in candidates when I conduct an interview, and the one I consider when I decide whom I will make responsible of a task.
This aspect is becoming more and more important(4) in selecting managers both in private business and in corporations, but is absent in the public sector – as leadership assessment is not among the criteria included in tenders for public sector managers.
If, on the one hand the people management aspect has become key in selecting new managers, at the same time I believe that recruiters still have some prejudice in the correct interpretation of what managing people and working as a team actually means. In other words, it’s not enough to say that we are looking for authoritative – as opposed to authoritarian – leaders; this is a much used term, but it really makes sense to define authoritativeness, and to qualify it as democratic and inclusive.
What does being authoritative mean? Is an authoritative leader one that is never challenged or one who is always right?
In my experience there are no places where nothing works or where things go wrong because people are inept. There are places where responsibility is unclear and undefined, and where everyone expects someone else to solve whichever problem arises, places where individuals are not integrated and included, and do not feel they are part of a team. These places survive when the going is good(5) and succumb when things start getting tough(6), and there is no doubt that the recession has determined a change in mentality, a kind of genetic mutation to avoid extinction: only a functional working environment can survive a crisis. The point is: how do you go about(7) creating a functional working environment?
For me, a functional, innovative creative work environment is also a democratic and inclusive one. To achieve this I look for continuous exchange between myself and my direct reports, I foster discussion and I welcome their challenging remarks. A leader who is afraid of criticism from their staff has an Achilles’ heel(8) and, good as they may be, they will eventually make a mistake and no-one will have the guts to tell them. So: listen, and embrace dissent.
Curiosity is a part of listening and it works on two levels: professional and human. If you are not curious about the people who work for you, how can you assign the right task to them? If you are not curious about their ideas, how can you innovate? Knowing the people who work with us means that we are better able to form teams of people whose skills feed off of each other or are mutually compensating. Knowing people also means knowing which words to choose when giving negative feedback so that it results in improved results or behaviour.
Knowing people means trusting them, and trusting means delegating. A leader who doesn’t delegate will eventually(9) find themselves in trouble, because they can’t be everywhere all the time. Delegating means defining areas of responsibility and fostering managerial skills: this is your task, this is your territory and it is for you to manage. Obviously delegation implies discussing issues exchanging information and, once again, in order to delegate we must create a work environment where any issue or doubt can be addressed without fear; actually, we should favour doubt, because this in turn favours thought.
Also, being able to speak, to decide, means being included in the broadest sense of the word. We are used to talking about inclusion thinking of diversity, but true inclusion (in politics as at work) is accessing responsibility, being included in the control room. The more we delegate our people, the more they will be empowered and feel ownership for the work they produce. This for me is true inclusion: not acceptance, but ample and full delegation. It’s the manager’s responsibility to assign tasks and delegate according to individual skills and aptitude.
In this sense I have a Socratic approach to management. Some skills and traits such as assertiveness, listening, the ability to delegate, the ability to understand and place people are in the nature of people and develop early in life; the most one can do is remind people that they have these skills, in a Socratic way.
It’s not so easy to teach an adult to listen or to become sensitive to human nature, but on the other hand a good manager will have these traits and will also be able to get the best out of the people who work with them. Ultimately, by favouring teamwork over disloyal competition among people, will bring out their best. This is what we must look for in the people we want to turn into future managers.