Empowering Employees

An employee's environment enables them to create and produce, rather than conform.

While dining out the other night, I was reminded of thoughts I had provided last year about  Fostering Rebel Talent as in this particular situation, my experience was less than enjoyable. For those who may have missed my previous post, or might enjoy a refresher, take a look at this oldie, but goodie, and ask yourself:

“Am I empowering my employees to be the best versions of themselves to provide the best client experience, or simply asking them to conform and deliver mediocre?”

At Osteria Francescana, Chef Massimo Bottura breaks all the rules for running a kitchen. And he has the best restaurant in the world.

Whether it’s a kitchen, an office space, or a sports field, the environment you create for your employees/team will drive their performance. This week I’m borrowing lessons from Chef Massimo and others to serve up a multi-course plan on how to foster the best talent under the best circumstances.

The Amuse-boche — Encourage Authenticity

Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino provides her compelling revelations in the Harvard Business Review’s, “Let Your Workers Rebel":

In a recent survey I conducted of more than 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries, nearly half the respondents reported working in organizations where they regularly feel the need to conform, and more than half said that people in their organizations do not question the status quo

Another survey of more than 1,000 employees in a variety of industries found less than 10% who work in companies that encourage nonconformity

In summary: Organizations consciously or unconsciously urge employees to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door. Workers and their organizations both pay a price: decreased engagement, productivity, and innovation.

We fall prey to social pressure. Early in life we learn that tangible benefits arise from following social rules about what to say, how to act, how to dress, and so on.

Conforming makes us feel accepted and part of the majority. Classic research conducted in the 1950s by the psychologist Solomon Asch showed conformity to peer pressure is so powerful that it occurs even when we know it will lead us to make bad decisions.

In one experiment, Asch asked participants to complete what they believed was a simple task: identifying which of three lines on one card was the same length as a line on another card. When asked individually, participants chose the correct line. When asked in the presence of paid actors who intentionally selected the wrong line, about 75% conformed to the group at least once.

In other words, they chose an incorrect answer in order to fit in.

We feel validated and reassured when we stick to our usual ways of thinking and doing, and—as research has consistently found—we weight the potential losses of deviating from the status quo much more heavily than we do the potential gains. We favor decisions that maintain the current state of affairs.

But sticking with the status quo can lead to complacency and stagnation. Borders, BlackBerry, Polaroid, and Myspace are but a few of the many companies that once had winning formulas but didn’t update their strategies until it was too late.

Of course, not all conformity is bad. But to be successful and evolve, organizations need to strike a balance between adherence to the formal and informal rules that provide necessary structure and the freedom that helps us do our best work.

The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of conformity. Now we need to think about when conformity hurts us and allow—even promote—constructive nonconformity: behavior that deviates from organizational norms, others’ actions, or common expectations, in order to benefit the organization.

Promoting Constructive Nonconformity — A Six Course Meal of Rules

1. Give Employees Opportunities to be Themselves
Authenticity = high performance. Although conformity may make us feel good, it doesn’t let us reap the benefits of authenticity. Studies show that those who felt they could express their authentic selves at work were 16% more engaged and more committed to their organizations.

2. Question the Status Quo
Question standard procedures — “the way we’ve always done it.” Leaders who question the status quo give employees reasons to stay engaged and often spark fresh ideas that can rejuvenate the business.

3. Create Challenging Experiences
Maximize variety. Studies show that workers who were assigned diverse tasks from day to day were more productive than others; the variety kept them motivated. Also, job rotation broadens individuals’ skill sets, creating a more flexible workforce.

4. Promote Personal Learning
Identify opportunities for personal learning and growth. For instance, a study found that when on-boarding didn’t just focus on performance but also spotlighted opportunities for learning and growth, engagement and innovative behaviors were higher six months later.

5. Voice and Encourage Dissenting Views
Identify courageous dissenters. Even if encouraged to push back, many timid or junior people won’t. So make sure the team includes people you know will voice their concerns. Once the more reluctant employees see that opposing views are welcome, they will start to feel comfortable dissenting as well.

6. Foster Broader Perspectives
Hire people with diverse perspectives. Working among people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds helps us see problems in new ways and consider ideas that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it fosters the kind of creativity that champions change.

At Osteria Francescana the two sous-chefs are Kondo “Taka” Takahiko, from Japan, and Davide diFabio, from Italy. They differ not only in country of origin but also in strengths and ways of thinking: Davide is comfortable with improvisation, for example, while Taka is obsessed with precision.

Few leaders actively encourage deviant behavior in their employees; most go to great lengths to get rid of it. Yet nonconformity promotes innovation, improves performance, and can enhance a person’s standing more than conformity can.

Space Matters — Mashore Perspective

Look again at Osteria Francescana’s space. Not just the dining room, but the kitchen. This workspace powerfully enables the purpose and mission of the enterprise. It’s an environment that is functional, but inspirational; it serves to bring out the best in the workforce, who in turn are delighting the customers.


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