Heads Up, Heads Down

Over the years I’ve had many conversations with clients frustrated that their organizations are too inward looking. They’re missing what is happening around them and finding themselves at the mercy of market forces – rather than anticipating where they should be going and building competitive advantage to get there. A piece of work I’m handling right now has convinced me there is a different danger lurking in many a business today. And that is the pressure on people to conform – whether as executors of organisational machinery, or clones of cultural norms, or more probably both.

You would think in an era of individualization, empowerment would be on the rise. But it’s not, and the hunger for liberation lurking in employees is not being addressed. It’s a new kind of heads down: not so much about being inward looking, but actually a danger of not looking at all. So what’s got us to this point, and what can we do about it?

Adult relationships

In the last twenty years, we’ve all congratulated ourselves on the democratization of the workplace. We’ve left behind the vestiges of command and control and welcomed a new era of adult-to-adult relationships between bosses and workers. This didn’t happen out of altruistic tendencies, but because choice widened in the workplace and Gen Y was ready to take advantage of it. Employers no longer offered ‘jobs for life’. In response, we exercised our options to build working lives on our terms. So companies began to realize they had to work harder when it came to attracting and retaining talent. In many parts of the world, things looked set fair for a more employee-empowered working world. What happened?

Well, big business and regulation happened. We’re now in a world where command and control has come back in – through another door – and the bigger the business, the more people seem stifled by rules and controls.

Dehumanizing

It also doesn’t help that big businesses seem to treat people in a one-size-fits-all way – further dehumanizing working life, many would argue. It’s not surprising, then, that so much recent research has shown that loyalty to the corporation is waning. Employees across all sectors bemoan a lack of purpose and a chance to make their mark. More worrying is that the heightened regulatory world is turning passive disengagement into active poor performance. And yet we don’t come to work to do a bad job. So when people stick their heads down and ignore an opportunity to ‘do the right thing’, what’s really happening? Those who study the human psyche have often pointed to the dichotomy of what drives the individual versus the social self. Strange to think that a majority would rather be wrong and ‘belong’ than be right and out on a limb.

If the cultural context does not provide a sense of freedom to challenge the status quo, nor any incentive to do that, then nothing changes. Or worse, inaction gets the organisation into trouble. Employees adopt a herd mentality and employers treat them like that in return.

Confidence required

‘Heads up’ comes with a belief that it’s worth taking in the view, plus the confidence that you’re secure in your immediate surroundings. There will always be those who are more comfortable with a narrower vista. But the organization needs to empower (there’s that word again) those who want to find a better way. Of course, how that translates into tangible solutions varies from organization to organization. But understanding the degree to which your people are looking up versus looking down is a very good starting point.