After two conversations with team leaders this week about frustrations they are experiencing at work, I have been wondering how aware CEOs, executives and managers are of all the work-arounds their people and teams do to achieve success. You know what I mean by work-arounds: those creative efforts to work around obstacles like bottlenecks, outdated rules, inefficient procedures, broken processes, and that co-worker who just can’t deliver.
Because work-arounds generally get the job done, we probably don’t give them enough thought. There are, however, good reasons for identifying work-arounds—and eliminating the need for them.
- Work-arounds mask problem. Work-arounds are necessary because something isn’t right. Insufficient resources? Inefficient or broken processes? An outdated rule or policy? A co-worker who isn’t up to the demands of the job? There may be any combinations of problems. But because work-arounds get the job done, the problems stay hidden and can’t be fixed. Success rarely drives us to ask, “What went wrong?”
- Work-arounds have hidden costs. If they are busy creating and managing work-arounds, your people cannot perform at their best. They are using up their resources—time, energy, creativity and budget—trying to bypass obstacles, and their productivity suffers.
- Work-arounds negatively affect employee satisfaction. Successfully working around the occasional snag can be a morale booster, but creating and managing work-arounds as an ongoing part of your work is like hauling rocks up a hill. It is frustrating, exhausting, and no one likes it. People can become unhappy and negative, and the impact of employee dissatisfaction is far-reaching, ranging from high turnover and low productivity to loss in revenue and poor customer service.
The Most Important Things Managers Do
The most important thing that any manager does is decide who winds up on the payroll and who doesn’t—that is, ensure that the right people are in the right jobs. The next most important thing a manager does is eliminate obstacles so that people can actually do their jobs to the very best of their abilities. If you don’t support your team members by removing the things that prevent them from delivering, you are setting them up for inefficient and unpredictable results.
Eliminating the Need for Work-Arounds
1. Set an Example.
Start with yourself. The power of setting an example should never be underestimated. What you say is always critical—but what you do speaks louder. Identify your own work-arounds and the obstacles that make those work-arounds necessary. Make changes and improvements so that your work-arounds are no longer needed. You example can build an environment in which seeking improvement is valued and expected—and making things better can become standard operating procedure.
2. Listen Carefully.
Listen to what your people are saying about “the system”—about your company’s rules, procedures, methods, customs, policies and the like. The way your people talk about “the system” will tell you where they experience roadblocks if you listen. Take what the people who do the work say seriously.
3. Ask Questions.
Develop the habit of asking questions when you hear your team talking about “the system” in ways that make you suspect they are experiencing obstacles. Get them to clarify for you the need for work-arounds. Asking for this clarification reinforces the environment in which seeking improvement is valued and expected—and lets people know that you are actually listening.
Also develop the habit of asking what-went-wrong questions—questions about snags, challenges and difficulties—even when the work was completed successfully. Don’t assume there weren’t obstacles just because the outcome met your expectations. The outcome may have only been successful because of a number of work-arounds. Furthermore, by asking what-went-wrong kinds of questions, you do more than uncover obstacles; you acknowledge that the person or team overcame challenges. People like that kind of acknowledgement.
4. Do Something.
You do need to be prepared to do something about the obstacles you uncover. If you aren’t, then don’t bother with 1, 2 and 3 above. You will only frustrate your people further and show them that you aren’t actually interested in making things better. Remember: what you say is critical, but what you do speaks louder.
Whenever possible, you should use the resources at your disposal to make the obstacle simply go away. No fuss. No bother. Obstacles do, however, come in a variety of complexities, and sometimes removing obstacles requires real organizational change. In those cases, involve the people who do the work. When it comes to change buy-in by the people affected is good, but ownership is better. Additionally, if you have done your job well—and hired the right people for the right job—no one knows how to do the work better than the people you hired to do the work. Use their knowledge and expertise. You might just avoid creating new obstacles for them. Of course, if the obstacle really is a co-worker who isn’t the right person for the job, that’s a problem that falls back to you to solve.
5. Celebrate Improvements Wins
I hope that celebrating wins is already a part of your corporate culture. However, in the non-stop pace of business, it is easy to focus on what is coming up next and forget to acknowledge and celebrate what has been achieved. If you ignore your team’s wins, you miss a critical opportunity to inspire them to even greater successes. You also miss an opportunity to strengthen your own personal leadership brand—but that’s a subject for another time.
So, which of your own work-arounds are you going to tackle first?
Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education, counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.
LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher