Some years ago, when I was a manager in a large industrial plant, we took the decision to scrap a whole raft of ‘performance measures’ and related practices that had been introduced some years earlier under the guise of productivity improvement and management control. Despite widely-held concerns that poor work practices would increase if controls were relaxed, we pushed on with the decision.
The reasoning was simple. If we were ever to unlock the vast wealth of untapped talent in the business, we needed to change the expectations that managers - throughout the organization - had of their staff.
Changing managers' expectations
The challenge we faced is illustrated in the figure below.
This shows that the main task was to escape from the vicious circle of low expectations, tight control and alienation which was disfiguring the leadership of the organization and limiting its performance. Our aim instead was to stimulate a virtuous circle of high expectations, self-control, commitment and contribution.
In all organizations, it is primarily the expectations that managers express through their words and actions that determine whether the dynamics of alienation or commitment result. Those managers who are unwilling to raise their expectations of people's willingness and ability to contribute, and who continue instead to impose controls that are based on low expectations, shouldn't be surprised at the response that they get!
A 'leap of faith'
Success requires managers to make a ‘leap of faith’: raising their expectations of people and enabling greater levels of self-management, even where (or especially where!) the evidence ‘on the ground’ makes this appear foolhardy. The required shift will occur if, as a result of what staff see managers doing, the patterns of their informal conversations change in line with the changed levels of expectations.
In the example I mentioned briefly above, this faith was repaid many fold. Staff who had been constrained for years grew significantly in the roles that they performed and the contributions that they made. And managers were freed up to focus on the ways in which they could add genuine value to the business.
As a final point, managers also need to ‘hold their nerve’ if, as is likely, the initial relaxation of controls tempts some people to take advantage of the situation. It is important to recognise that people will tend to perceive and interpret what’s happening through their existing patterns of assumptions about managers’ intentions and motives. The mistrust that many managers have of staff is often mirrored by staff’s mistrust of managers! How managers respond to any initially negative behaviours is therefore critical. A response that is characteristic of past interactions would tend to reinforce existing patterns and make the shift harder to achieve.