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Systemthink: Leaders encourage, managers punish

You may have noticed that our discussions in this column are centred on leadership; we try not to dwell on management. I believe that leaders are more attuned to a level of appreciation of people matters that would make them better potential systemic thinkers than managers.

I hope the discussion will resonate with some of the issues you have observed in organisations over time. Warning; this article may change your view about you being a real leader.

The differentiators of leadership and management are numerous, however we will discuss a handful that have an impact on the systemic success of leadership; with the potential to take your organisation into the future.

The greatest way of ensuring an organisation has guaranteed sustainability is to foster an environment that is conducive to the creation of new and better ways of doing business. Innovation is fostered through the freedom to act, availing to employees the appropriate latitude to try what has never been tried before.

Successful leaders are either innovative themselves or they create innovation friendly space in the organisation. Such leaders would constantly keep eyes open for new trends and innovative business strategies. Managers on the other hand would maintain what is clearly spelt out in policies, procedures and processes. Managers have a compulsion to control everything, ensuring the “t’s” are crossed and the “i’s” are dotted. According to this cohort of management individuals, everything in the organisation should follow the laid down tried and tested norms.

A number of forward-thinking organisations have realised the need to harness innovation, by creating what I would call “thinking space”.

The Post-it-Note was created by scientist Art Fry in 1974 when he realised that he could apply adhesive to the back of a piece of paper that would be a perfect bookmark which would remain in place in his church hymnal.

This was invention was created during Fry’s “15% time”, an innovation time window that was afforded to him by his organisation; 3M.Technology giant Google, gives its employees a day a week, thus 20% of the time, to allow them to follow their passion; that is innovative space created for the employees. Are leaders within our midst giving people “thinking space”, thus a chance to be innovative, or the mantra on their lips is about promoting presenteeism through managing physical presence.

Employees should be given the freedom to explore their ideas to see where they may lead. If your organisational culture is such that each work hour has to account for tangible progress, your employees are inherently prone to avoid risks by towing the line of doing the routine work.

It is important not only to allow employees’ innovation initiatives to fail, but also to celebrate what I would term the “success of trying”; thus succeeding at the initiative of trying out something new is the “first success”; an eventual successful output is the “second success”. Thomas Edison had failed thousands of times in his invention of the light bulb when he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10 000 ways that won’t work.” It is important to allow the team member to “fail better”.

Let us explore some ideas of how you can allow your team the opportunity to fail better.

When the leader helps team members by supporting them through difficult situations or rough patches in their projects, it is an opportunity to teach them to learn lessons from failure. Instead of letting them sink, teach them how to swim.

Team members will be much more willing to risk failure if the leader encourages them to make courageous decisions with uncertain conclusions, instead of punishing them. Leaders encourage team members to take risk, managers punish all and sundry who make any mistakes; do you see the difference.
To learn from failure, the leader has to be upfront about admitting them and taking ownership of the consequences.

The team, under the guidance of the leader, has to openly analyse and discuss failures. If its happening in a project, this should be not just at the end of a project, but also at regular intervals throughout it.

It is important to create a conducive team environment for the leader to be honest and forthright about mistakes that they or the people on their team make. When leaders cover up mistakes or sugar coat them; then the opportunities to learn everything the team possibly can from the mistakes are diminished. Such an approach takes courage, so the leader needs to be brave. The bravery that a leader needs entails keeping one’s ego at bay.

To admit a mistake would call for one to make a u-turn at times from an idea that one would have advocated for that would turn out to be less effective than previously thought. It is true that a wise man changes their mind and a fool never.

The team should be allowed to change their ideas if need be without risking being castigated. If that is allowed, the team members will fail better because they can correct the situation. In the face of possible ruthless criticism and punishment, team members will not change the course of action based on ideas they would have advocated for even if they realise that all is leading to a dead-end.

They would rather spend their time looking for scapegoats, such as lack of support from others or the external environment to blame for the failure of their ideas. Being invested in one’s ideas is what is a trap of escalating commitment as one get deep committed into a particular approach that they cannot let go of it; even after been shown to be the wrong one.

Mistakes teach leaders to accept their fallibility and face their fear.

Mistakes teach leaders and their team to take responsibility.

Sam Hlabati specialises in Systems Thinking and Reward Management. He holds the following certifications; Senior Professional Human Resources®, Global Remuneration Professional®, Certified Compensation Professional® and an MBA in Systems Thinking. You can join the discussion through email on samhlabati@gmail.com and follow on twitter @samhlabati.

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