Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Bossy bosses are counterproductive

Published 01 October 2012 05:02, Updated 07 May 2013 10:36

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Bossy bosses are counterproductive

Back off boss ... The approach of hiring good people and then getting out of their way has helped breed innovations such as 3M’s Post-It notes and Google’s Gmail.

If you want to get the best out of people, you have to stop telling them what to do.

OK, this is another one of those management “truths” that takes what you know (or what you think you know) and turns it on its head.

The business world is full of these clever inversions. They are great at getting your attention and making you question the things that you – unthinkingly – do every day.

But one of the reasons counter-intuitive recommendations like this are so popular is that they often have the ring of authenticity.

Who likes being told what to do? Not me, that’s for sure, and I’m willing to guess you don’t either.

Being directed all the time makes us feel stupid, as if we can’t be trusted to do our jobs without strict supervision. It takes away our initiative, because we know that whatever we do will be corrected and fiddled with, whether it needs it or not.

It is frustrating and belittling. And it destroys innovation and creativity.

Author Daniel Pink says this aversion is important because business success depends out ingenuity: the “ability to iterate something new”.

At last week’s Hrizon 2012 convention in Melbourne, Pink said great creators – such as engineer Steve Wozniak who co-founded Apple – are also artists.

And artists need a certain amount of autonomy to create their greatest works.

“The most powerful cognitive skills today belong to artists and I would argue that great entrepreneurs, great engineers have an artistic sensibility,” he said.

In fact, most of us have creative elements in our work, whether it is trying to find better and more efficient ways to do things, crafting presentations, or inventing new products and services we didn’t know we needed.

Pink, whose latest book is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, quoted the research of Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile, who analysed the output of 23 artists.

Some of the works of art were commissioned pieces and others were freely created. Each artist put forward 20 works and they were assessed by professional critics.

Pink said the results were striking.

“They were similar in technical quality. They were all very, very good. But over and over again it was the non-commissioned works that were deemed very creative,” he said.

“The commissioned works were judged to be significantly less creative.”

Amabile interviewed the artists to find out why the process of commissioning by a client appeared to hamper the creativity and quality of their work.

The artists told her that a few constraints were fine and helped define the project but “past a certain point with too many constraints, I can do a good job, but not a great job, because it is no longer fully mine”.

There you have it: people need to have a sense of ownership over their work. They need to feel in control of it. And yet, in many workplaces, managers feel compelled to tell people what to do, to direct and correct.

“You look at almost any workplace … there’s no non-commissioned work. Everything that people do in the job is commissioned work,” said Pink. “And yet we have this scientific evidence that says fewer constraints leads to more creativity.”

Pink says employees are unnecessarily constrained because we take “management” too seriously and it is now out of step with our modern world.

“We think that management has always been here. But that’s not true, management didn’t emanate from nature, it wasn’t given to us by God.

“Lets take management off its pedestal for a moment and think about what it is. Management is simply a technology – that’s all it is. A brilliant technology for organising people into productive capacities.

“It is a technology for the 1850s. Management is a technology for compliance … to get people to do what you want them to do the way you want them to do it.”

Pink says we want some compliance in our organisations but we also want engagement – and you can’t have engagement without autonomy. Pink says the reason engagement scores have been falling for the past 25 years is that we are using the wrong “technology”.

“Human beings engage by getting there under their own steam. So the technology for engagement isn’t management.

“If you really want engagement, the technology is self-direction. Autonomy.”

Hiring good people and then getting out of their way was a good approach, he said, and Pink also admires the way companies such as Google, Atlassian, and Intuit give employees regular free time to pursue their own pet projects.

These are the kind of projects that have resulted in innovations such as 3M’s Post-It notes and Google’s Gmail.

“[Non-commissioned time] is really where the world is going”, he said. “Carve out some time for non-commissioned work. Don’t go crazy. Twenty per cent time, that’s way too much. Ten per cent time, that might be too much.

“I am convinced that this is going to be the norm in the next ten years that the nature of work itself is going to be that there is going to be commissioned work, and there will be a small percentage of non-commissioned work, because we need this kind of breakthrough.”

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