In “Leading Ideas”, an online publication of Booze-Allen-Hamilton, Laura Geller reports on an interview with Ralph Sink, consultant to companies about high-performance systems and author of “My Unfashionable Legacy” which appeared in Strategy+Business. Describing Sink’s views, Geller writes:

High-performance systems, also known as self-organizing teams and participative management, require employees to take ownership of their jobs, to collaborate with one another to establish control over their work, to be innovative, and to deliver results — to maintain accountability for the business and be treated with corresponding respect, regardless of their level within the organizational hierarchy.

Sink says that given the nature of companies today and the expectation of the new generation of workers who believe they will have a say in what and how things are done, and given his success with a participative management approach in several manufacturing companies, organizations should implement high-performance systems.

Geller asks Sink what stands in the way of executives implementing this approach. In response, Sink makes an analogy to knowing all the elements of wine (grapes, sugar, pulp, yeast) but not being able to produce good wine because of a lack of attention to the delicate and complex process of winemaking. He says that executives know the ingredients of the business but fail to facilitate the process that people must go through to develop a shared vision, shared goals, shared accountability, and interdependency. He adds that executives must “give up authority” and trust their people.

I agree that this is part of the problem, but I think a critical factor that Sink does not address directly in this interview and in the article he wrote for Strategy+Business, is the driving need that executives (most people, for that matter) have for control. A large part of the job of executives is putting controls on complex systems (i.e., policies and procedures) so that these systems are manageable and predictable, or at least they appear to be manageable and predictable. Executives fear that if they give autonomy to teams, even within certain parameters, that they will lose control. Both failure and success of the teams are a threat. If a team is not successful then the exec fears that he will be held accountable and suffer in reputation and finances. If a team is successful, his fear is that this success won’t be attributed to his leadership and he won’t have a sense of personal accomplishment. These are genuine fears that prevent executives from doing what they know will have the most benefit for the company. And what makes this need for control particularly difficult to confront is that for the most part executives are not aware of how strong this need is and how much it drives their own behavior. If we can help execs become aware of their need for control and fear of teams, we might be able to engage more of them in developing high-performance teams and systems.

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