The ability to inspire and motivate staff is one of the most sought after and least understood attributes of effective management. Senior executives that inspire and motivate staff consistently outperform rivals by almost every measure, yet businesses are still struggling to encourage a truly inspirational corporate environment.
“It all starts with a mindset,” says organisational psychologist and globally renowned management specialist George Kohlrieser.
It’s a mindset which enables people to think about how to work in a better way.
Having worked extensively with large corporations in the US, Kohlrieser cites research which suggests that up to 80 per cent of employees in the US don’t ‘trust’ their employers or managers. Without trust, he argues, the corporate culture remains closed and defensive, making it almost impossible to inspire people to innovate.
Ultimately there are a number of factors that facilitate the kind of communication which is necessary to build trust within an organisation, and unless these steps are taken, Kohlrieser says inspiration will be impossible.
“We have so many people in organisations who are not thriving, not creative, not innovative, not really enjoying what they do so the best of them does not come out,” he says.
Kohlrieser argues that the first step towards becoming a more inspirational leader is to make sure staff feel encouraged to come up with and contribute new ideas.
“Trust is the biggest commodity of leadership there is, and it has to be earned.”
Building trust through listening
Earning the trust of staff and establishing relationships with them usually involves a very ‘hands-on’ approach, especially within organisations that have been through a difficult period.
A classic example of this is the way Joe Copeland, the former CEO of Goodyear Australia, set about meeting as many people as possible in his first few weeks in the role in 2005. With a significant business both in manufacturing and in retail, the company was dealing with the dual challenges of a strong local currency and global competition. Copeland himself was also facing significant cultural challenges from disengaged staff who felt they had been ‘left behind’ in a poorly performing business when the Pacific Dunlop group was broken up into separate companies.
Copeland immediately set out to listen to staff and customers at Goodyear’s more than 500 locations all over Australia.By reaching out to people in this very direct way, Copeland gained their trust and ultimately could rely on the feedback they supplied.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘I have an open door’. To be a real leader you need to be prepared to walk out that door and talk to people directly,” says Glenn Dobson, Principal of management consultancy and training company KONA. “You have to inspire your staff every day of the week, not as a one-off party trick.”
Inspiring a culture of change
Having worked through change management programs in some of Australia’s largest companies, Dobson says even the most well-intentioned attempts to inspire staff often fall by the wayside because the staff themselves are simply not ready to listen.
“Australian culture is like that, people don’t want to upset you, so they’ll say one thing to your face and then do something entirely different,” Dobson says. “Even if staff buy into the processes you want to adopt, they need to see a constant demonstration of what you’re trying to achieve at all levels of the company.”
By paying more attention to staff at Goodyear, Copeland was in turn able to encourage them to pay more attention to customers and this increased engagement and provided the foundation for the company’s subsequent growth.
“There is often an assumption at board level that change is taking place throughout the company, because people have said ‘yes it’s happening’ but the staff just haven’t bought into it,” Dobson says. “But unless they are out there talking to staff they simply won’t know what’s really going on.”
Spreading inspiration throughout the organisation
Professor Gary Hamel from the London Business School says senior managers often struggle to inspire staff because they underestimate their creative potential. As a result, many senior managers only pay attention to a small subsection of ‘creative types’ and fail to capitalise on the ideas that exist in the rest of the company.
“There is often the view within organisations that creativity is very narrowly distributed, and the view is reinforced by the fact that you don’t teach people to think like business innovators,” Hamel says. “If you don’t encourage all your staff to constantly challenge orthodoxies, and to seek out unmet customer needs then you’re not going to see a lot of innovation in your company.”
Hamel’s premise is that organisations invariably miss out opportunities to innovate because they are narrowly focussed on encouraging creativity within only a small percentage of staff. Hamel, like Kohlrieser and Dobson, emphasises the importance of open communication as well as an appetite for risk.
“It’s not only about giving people skills, it’s about giving them the opportunity to try things, to start things, in small, in risk bounded ways but nevertheless giving them that opportunity to have a go without having to go through a gauntlet of permissions before they try something new,” Hamel says. “Without inspiration and innovation you won’t grow as fast, you don’t see the opportunities to meet new customer needs and you’re much more likely to be run over by somebody who is really exploiting that creativity.”
Removing hierarchy to encourage creativity
Hamel suggests that the hierarchical structures set up to run corporations during the industrial revolution are no longer applicable to the current economic environment where change is continuous. The culture of constant innovation necessary for today’s businesses is destroyed by hierarchies and chains-of-command, which prevent spontaneous innovation, he adds.
“If we’re going to unleash that human capability we need organisations that are much less hierarchical, much less bureaucratic, much more open, transparent, and experimental,” Hamel says. “There are companies that are beginning to do this in a more systematic way, on a large scale, like the US company Whirlpool, that has trained thousands of people to be innovators and has changed everything about its management system so it supports rather than frustrates innovation.”
This kind of change, according to Dobson, is only possible if the senior management is willing to break down the walls and engage in meaningful communication with staff at every level of the business.
“Far too many companies leave change until it’s too late,” Dobson says. “There is a radicle disconnect between what appears to be happening from the senior management point of view and what is actually occurring on the ground, and this makes it impossible to change even when it is necessary to do so.”
- a powerful force for change in business
- must be built on trust, and maintained through communication
- is only possible where communication is open and two-way
- and creativity is not restricted to ‘creative roles
- is a powerful force to respond to constant change