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5 Ways you could be stifling staff, and 5 Steps to harnessing their full potential

March 10, 2016

It can be exasperating when staff don’t use their initiative, or they go about solving problems in a seemingly baffling way, but often workers donning their stupid hats as they clock-in can be because of how you act as their boss.

If you regularly find yourself cursing the stupidity of your employees, then you really need to take a look in the mirror because your actions and behaviour could well be the root cause of this. To help you understand more about how you could be inadvertently stifling your workforce, let’s look at five common reasons for staff not fulfilling their potential;

1. The culture of the business

Many people unconsciously think of a business as a body: the head decides what the limbs will do. That leads to the opinion that thinking is a management skill, and if a worker believes they’re not paid to think, why would they be motivated to do it?

This is especially true when the culture of the business is such that efforts to contribute are not acknowledged, or when it takes a senior manager to pick up on an idea before it is taken seriously.

2. A safety-first attitude

In some workplaces, making suggestions or showing initiative carries too great a risk. This may be because someone was once publicly humiliated when a suggestion they made was ridiculed by a management figure. Or perhaps, when an idea from the shop floor failed because of the execution of the idea, blame was heaped on the person who suggested it.

Too many experiences like this and staff learn that the safest way to get through their working day is to keep their thoughts to themselves.

3. No, or poor processes

The lack of a suitable forum to exchange information and/or views about issues and challenges can also be a barrier to initiative. Without a process for people to act as an ‘intelligent system’, they merely struggle on.

Perhaps they’ll devise a solution to an issue in their small area of the organisation, but without effective communication of wider challenges, a long-term way forward can be elusive.

4. Inhibiting informal interaction

Although poor formal communication processes can be a hindrance in some businesses, for others, problems aren’t solved because of an inability to communicate informally.

In environments where it’s frowned upon for staff to be away from their desks, instead of resolving an issue by talking directly to someone in another work area, a problem can become bigger than it should.

5. Zero good will

If people feel they’ve been unfairly treated at work, they may not make a fuss, but instead opt for a low risk protest: withdrawing good will.

Volunteer behaviour is fuelled by good will. Without good will, workers will not engage fully in a business; any extra effort is smothered by the phrase: not in my job description.

This deprives the organisation of two valuable things: shop floor originated fresh ideas, and critical evaluation of management ideas. When good will has been lost, workers may keep silent about flaws management can’t see.

5 Steps to help you harness the collective intelligence of all employees

So what can be done to release the individual and collective intelligence of all your employees? Here are 5 steps you can take to help staff reach their full potential;

1. Change the business metaphor

Move away from the idea of your organisations being a machine or a body with a central control mechanism. Think of it as a living system, such as a flock of birds or a swarm of bees.

Living systems use the intelligence of all their members to self-organise in the face of opportunity or danger to act in a coordinated and synchronistic way.

Your business should be the product of the behaviour of the many rather than as a design of the few; it should value the unique perspective of every member of staff.

2. Encourage initiative and contributory behaviour

To encourage staff to risk using their initiative and/or making contributions requires management to recognise and reward very early and tentative attempts. Initially, any idea put forward needs to be welcomed with open arms; this will grow people’s willingness to contribute thoughts and observations.

It is necessary for the work force to truly believe that their ideas and efforts are genuinely welcomed and appreciated before critical evaluation can be applied.

3. Use co-creative problem-solving processes

The people with the problems, the solutions and the decision-making power need to be brought together to create solutions or plans for change that are fully informed and robust. Appreciative Inquiry is excellent for this, as is SimuReal.

Methodologies that bring whole systems together to create sustainable change are also available from World Café and Open Space.

4. Encourage local problem-solving and decision-making

Positive interaction between staff members is very important; your people need to have relationships with their co-workers that are strong enough to cope with conflict and disagreement as well as creative and innovative thinking.

Business owners and managers must show that they value the time invested by the staff in building such relationships as well as the time invested in problem solving or generating new ideas.

5. Build social capital and good relations

By social capital (at the organisational level) we mean the degree of connectivity between different departments or functions. With a good level of connectivity, the development of trusting relationships between departments can be encouraged; it also facilitates information flow around the business.

Consistently good relations between all the different levels of staff accumulates in relational reserves that can be called upon in times of trouble.

In other words, when staff feel they have been well treated by an organisation over time, they are much more likely to respond very positively to a call for all hands on deck to help with an unexpected catastrophe.

About the author

This guide has been written for ByteStart by Sarah Lewis M.Sc. C.Psychol, the founder of Appreciating Change, a business psychology consultancy specialising in helping organisations to achieve sustainable change. She is an acknowledged Appreciative Inquiry expert, a regular conference presenter and author of ‘Positive Psychology at Work’ (Wiley) and ‘Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management’ (KoganPage).

More help on managing and motivating staff

You can find more insight and ideas on how to motivate and reward staff in these other ByteStart guides;

And for guidance on other employment issues, try some of these guides;