Some time ago, I had a conversation with a colleague at work, in which I raised some issues about a work flow process that I had observed. As I shared my views on how the process could be improved, she nodded her head enthusiastically in agreement. Since I was new to the team, I asked her if she had ever suggested to the supervisor that the process be reviewed or changed. She shook her head and said no. I further asked why she hadn’t, and she nonchalantly replied “that is what they get paid the big bucks for, that’s not my job”. She repeated this sentiment a couple of times, so I stopped and dropped the subject. I resolved that I would raise the issue at our next team meeting.
Does this sound familiar to you? How often have you heard a colleague at work make these kinds of pronouncements and or express similar sentiments about what they believe their role/job is?
Believe it or not, scenarios and remarks such as these, are not unusual in the average work place. These pronouncements are not just common among dissatisfied, jaded or frustrated employees at “lower levels” of the organization. They may even come from hardworking employees who are committed to their jobs, and new recruits who might be a bit unsure of themselves in a new environment. It may even surprise you further to find that, these sentiments may also come from people in “higher level” positions in companies as well. Regardless of which level they function, employees who embrace this mindset or express these sentiments, tend to believe that their position/level in an organization, determines their behaviors/actions, the impact they could have on the organization and/ or their ability to influence meaningful change.
This does not mean that, these employees do not understand their role in the organization. In fact, most if not all of these employees do. They know their jobs, do their jobs, and understand clearly what their roles and responsibilities are as “laid out in their job descriptions”. Unfortunately though, organizations will not and cannot grow, thrive or successfully adapt quickly to changes in their environment, if their teams operate like this. If this is true, what accounts for this disconnect? I believe that, at the heart of this issue, is the belief that leadership is positional.
Other possible reasons for this disabling mindset might include:
- Misconceptions about employee(s) role in organization: Some people believe that leadership is positional, and should only be displayed by the employees so titled, or those in authority. In so doing, they form expectations that limit/restrict what an individual can or cannot do, or what projects they can support. This is not to suggest that any employee ignore policies or procedures or the organization’s structure. But one’s the ability to lead should not be tied to any position, title or pay grade and or title.
- Employees’ disempowerment: Employees do not “own” their jobs and may not feel valued and/ or recognized for the work they do, or might not see how they fit into the organization’s “big picture”.
- Low self-esteem or lack of self-confidence: Sometimes, employees lack confidence in their own skills, talents and capacity, and may experience self-doubt. When/where this happen, these employees tend to shy away from asserting themselves or sharing their valuable insights, which might benefit their team/unit/department/organization.
- “Professional hurt”: From time to time, employees suffer hurt or have negative experiences on the job, or they experience others being “put in their place” by a supervisor or manager, on the basis that, “it’s not their place to say/do something”, which might well be in their scope of authority. Overtime, they disengage, morale declines, and they do only enough get by.
- Organizational culture: Unfortunately, not all companies are learning organizations. Some organizations can be bureaucratic, top-heavy and slow to change. Leadership and management styles might not promote open dialogue, the sharing of ideas, and communication flows all across the organization instead of just top down.
As a strong advocate and believer in the philosophy of “leading at your own level of responsibility”, I believe that, it is important to understand the organization (its vision, mission, values), and one’s role and responsibilities. But, I reject any mindset that suggests that, an individual’s position on the organizational chart, should in any way shape or form, determine the quality of their contribution/potential. Understanding one’s “role/place”, should never lead to any employee developing a mindset which suggests that, “my position determines the value I can bring to the organization, dictates the impact I can have, or the degree of initiative I can show and /or the importance of my views and opinions. Unfortunately though, at times, the management styles and attitudes of some supervisors, the quality of leadership displayed by senior executives, and the overall culture of some organizations, all serve to reinforce these disabling mindsets among some employees, with potentially limiting consequences.
How so? For each employee that embraces the view that due to his level or position in the organization, he can’t make a difference, his ideas won’t count, his opinion doesn’t matter, there is an opportunity missed. Better yet, an innovation might be lost which could have improved a process, or lead to a new product introduced, or even solved a problem that, consultants might be hired to come in later to unearth and fix. So, naturally, I reject these mindsets in the employees who hold them, and from the employees who reinforce them.
So how do you navigate around these mindsets, and help everyone to understand they bring value to the organization regardless of where they sit? How do you help employees to change their thinking to understand that they can, and should lead at their own level of responsibility? How do you prop up others, and enable them to lead, dream, and discover opportunities that will lead to greater success in their personal and professional lives?
- As individuals: Discourage any belief/thinking that leadership is positional, and lead at the level that you are at. While not everyone aspires to leadership positions, each of us has the capacity to lead in our own spheres of influence. Leadership and self-leadership only requires that one takes ownership for their role/job, find creative ways to solve problems, show initiative, display courage in uncomfortable times or situations, and/or suggest way(s) to improve on processes that not work or could work better.
- As managers/supervisors: Recognize that not all leaders are so titled, people can lead at all levels of the organization. Don’t discourage individuals with the inclination to lead, empower them instead. Some leaders aspired to such roles and were prepared for them, others will emerge in different situations and some will need to be nurtured and developed.
- As organizations: Identify, develop and empower talent all across the organization. An employee’s current position, in no way determines their potential or ability to succeed in other roles, and add value to a company. Organization that fails to manage their talent, will fail or fail to grow. Through effective on boarding programs, careful performance management, and individual development planning, organizations can foster and promote a culture of learning and engagement. In this environment, employees can learn, grow, and be motivated to attain levels of success, that surpass even their own expectations for themselves. After all, how many success stories have you heard of people who rose up through the ranks of their organization, from lower level positions such as Janitors and Administrative Assistants to become CEOs and senior executives of organizations?
These stories can be your stories too. So get started – Lead at the Level You’re At!
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