Asking “Why?” …


Snow FLowerChip Bell regularly stimulates my leadership and management thinking … as he did recently with an amusing, but thought-provoking post over at the Lead Change Group, cleverly titled “Don’t Be A Leader of Stupid Rules, which ranks as one of my favorite blog post titles of 2016 so far.  

Chip’s post addresses the all too familiar tendency in the workplace to have rules and processes which everyone follows, but few know why.

Here’s my response to Chip’s post, with a little editing for clarity and expanded reflection:

 

I was once responsible for helping employees install a standardized organizational system for both paper and electronic workflow in an organization.  As part of that, I would spend much time working with individual employees as they literally took their workspace apart, organized all items into standardized categories and reorganized how they stored data and materials.

Analyzing work processes was a big part of this changeover.   One time,  an employee struggled with what to label a work step in which she received forms from another employee and in turn, gave them to a third employee, without doing anything to the forms, such as verifying or sorting.  After much discussion, we were unable to determine why she needed to do this step, other than that familiar “I was told this was part of my job and I’ve always done it this way” statement.

Similarly to Chip’s story about Catherine The Great and the flower , I finally learned from a long-time employee that decades earlier, two women who did not like each other each had responsibility for a step in this work process.  Since they could not get along, their manager chose to assign a third employee to receive and pass on the documents.

Over the years, just like the soldiers guarding the empty spot, generations of employees were taught to follow this  “system” without any awareness of why that step existed.

Two lessons here for me: 

1)  MANAGERS CREATE PROBLEMS WHEN THEY ARE RELUCTANT TO ADDRESS PROBLEM …

This is first and foremost a failure of management.  The original manager had the authority and the opportunity to directly address the issue.

Had that original manager addressed the workplace impact of  both employee’s behavior with them, and either directed or coached the employees to work together without affecting workflow, this story would not be mine to tell to illustrate poor management practice.

2) EMPLOYEES OFTEN FOLLOW DIRECTIONS WITHOUT QUESTIONING WHY THEY SHOULD DO SO …

Sometimes leaders overestimate their impact and sometimes they underestimate it.  Many employees, especially those new to a process, a workgroup, or an organization, will simply accept whatever they perceive as “the way we do it”.   In order to fit in, they then attempt to master doing whatever it is that the system requires them to do, with little reflection on why they are doing it

Fortunately, this is changing in the modern workplace, due to the efforts of a few thoughtful and forward-thinking souls.  A valuable employee is now more often seen as the one who will say “Wait … why are we doing this?” and expect a reasonable answer.   They will comply when to do so makes sense, but will question when motivations and reasons are not clear. 

Ira Chaleff is one of the most valuable and articulate voices driving this welcome workplace and societal trend.  For a great deal more about “FOLLOWERSHIP, click the link to read my previous post on this topic. 

Related Observation:  A GOOD MANAGER KNOWS WHEN TO ASK “WHY”  …

As an operations officer (think Chief Training Officer) in the US Army Reserve, I learned quickly that simply walking up to a tank idling in the wilderness and asking the crew “What are you doing?” as innocently as possible was a good thing.

Listening to the responses to this simple query would provide me with a wealth of insight into their morale, how the training was going, and whether they understood their roles and responsibilities within the context of our mission.

Pretty good return for a simple question …

Chip’s post is a good reminder of how we need to continually analyze what we are doing, why we are doing it, and whether we should stop or change doing it:)

Trying to remember to follow my own advice in the Heartland ….

John

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