In this Harvard Business Review article, Athens University professor Charalambos Vlachoutsicos describes how to create “mutuality” between boss and employees. He believes these lessons are especially important for managers who cling to the old style of top-down leadership and rigid hierarchy. “The rewards are huge,” he says, “when you stop trying to control your subordinates and instead engage, empower, and motivate them to contribute their knowledge and experience to a consensus approach.”
• Be modest. Bosses who pontificate and tell stories of their successes are just showcasing their insecurities, says Vlachoutsicos. Share mistakes as well as successes and focus on the challenges faced by your colleagues.
• Listen seriously – and show it. He tells how an employee in an eastern European flour mill once accused him of not listening because Vlachoutsicos was taking notes on loose sheets of paper. “If you were taking our input seriously,” said the man, “you’d be using a bound notebook, as you see me do.” When Vlachoutsicos showed him notes from previous meetings carefully filed in a three-ring binder, the man did a 180 and accepted why certain decisions had been made. “People tune in to your body language,” says Vlachoutsicos, “where you look, what you do with your hands… Whatever you do, don’t look at your watch or check the time on your mobile device while someone else is talking.”
• Invite disagreement. Sometimes this can be as easy as holding meetings at a circular rather than a rectangular table, says Vlachoutsicos. But more often people need explicit encouragement to speak up. “Managers should view every interaction with subordinates… as a chance to tap their expertise and encourage them to express what they really think,” he says. And some people, for cultural, generational, or professional reasons, will speak up only if they are asked in a private, one-on-one meeting.
• Focus the agenda. Vlachoutsicos tells how a regional manager in his family business’s office in northern Greece allowed meetings to ramble on and often didn’t get to the most important items. When the man learned how to put the most important agenda items first, limit discussion time on each item, and handle as much as possible before and after meetings, things picked up – and the manager enjoyed his meetings more.
• Don’t try to have all the answers. “To be successful, managers must see themselves more as catalysts for problem solving than as problem solvers per se,” says Vlachoutsicos. It’s a sign of managerial skill to say, “I’m not sure what the answer is. Let’s have a team toss some ideas around.”
• Don’t insist that a decision be made. “If you can’t get agreement on a decision, don’t rush to impose one,” says Vlachoutsicos, recalling how in his early days he made lots of bad decisions because of a misplaced need to bring closure to discussions. When he asked subordinates why they didn’t speak up, they said they figured he knew things they didn’t know or had already made up his mind and didn’t want to hear dissent. He changed his management style and got better decisions. Sometimes they took longer and sometimes they weren’t unanimous, but they were better and maintained people’s goodwill.
“How to Cultivate Engaged Employees” by Charalambos Vlachoutsicos in Harvard Business Review, September 2011 (Vol. 89, #9, p. 123-126), no e-link available