The past year forced a lot of changes in the way work happens. When, where, and how we work was disrupted in a way that we’ve never seen before.
Organizations have adapted in some pretty compelling ways.
Safety was made a top priority through changes to the physical workspace along with new protocols, practices, and equipment. This was in response to a needed wake-up call because unless it was core to your business pre-COVID, safety (both physical and psychological) was taken for granted in too many workplaces despite being one of our most fundamental needs as humans.
Technology capabilities that were once thought impossible to deploy were rolled out in days to enable remote working. An era of unprecedented work flexibility was born overnight. And this genie is not going back in the bottle.
New communication tools and processes were put in place to help employees navigate the immense waves of uncertainty they were facing. This has resulted in more frequent and meaningful communication than ever before.
And, perhaps most encouragingly, an investment in well-being programs has been deployed to help the employee navigate and survive these challenging times. Employee well-being has too long been overlooked and ignored. It took a global pandemic to finally wake us up to the reality that work performance starts with well-being.
From my seat, these all look like an acceleration towards a better future of work. And my hope is that we’ll have the wisdom to build upon this progress as we emerge from the pandemic.
There is one area where I fear we’ve not made as much progress:
That’s not to suggest that managers haven’t learned to adapt to this disrupted world of work. I’m sure many managers feel like they’ve had to change a lot throughout this past year.
But, management wasn’t working all that well before the pandemic. Employee engagement has been atrociously low on the average for the past several decades.
And it’s not the manager’s fault. We’ve been trapped in an outdated model of management for decades.
Management Needs an Upgrade
Our model of management hasn’t changed that dramatically over the past hundred years. At its core, management is still viewed as the function that ensures employees are doing their jobs.
In other words, management is responsible for enforcing compliance with the “contract” of employment, whether that contract is formal or implied. The manager’s job is to ensure the organization gets its money’s worth out of the employee.
The manager is aided by management and HR processes designed to assist in this compliance work: policies, performance appraisals, job descriptions, performance improvement plans, and more.
When you step back and look at these processes using the lens of history, it becomes clear that there are some significant underlying assumptions built into traditional management practice:
- Employees will only perform up to their expectations at work if they’re made to do so through oversight and regulation.
- Employees are a means of production. They are the machinery that creates work products.
- Management’s job is to maximize these human machines’ production output to give the company the best ROI on its labor investment.
If this sounds harsh, I get it. We’ve learned not to talk about people this way. Instead of human machines, we call them human resources. It sounds nicer.
But, look back at the discomfort leaders had with sending people to work from home.
Employees had been clamoring for more flexibility and permission to at least occasionally work from home for years. They were told it wasn’t possible.
Then, the pandemic forced it into reality, and leaders openly worried about people not doing their work when they were at home, removed from their “management.” It was assumed that people would watch Netflix all day.
There was little faith in the beginning that it would work. The assumptions of traditional management were showing themselves.
The Problem with Performance Management
Another place you can see these assumptions show their faces is when an employee is under-performing. Traditional management leads us to conclude there’s something wrong with the employee.
Typically, we assume they aren’t adequately motivated or focused. To fix the performance issue, you need to fix the employee. That’s why performance improvement plans exist.
And, it’s why they are terribly ineffective. A performance improvement plan is more likely to break an employee’s spirit than to improve their performance.
This model of management is outdated and dangerous.
Work today in no way resembles the work that gave birth to this model. In today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) world of work, the things that create the most value are not only natural to humans but are things that we are intrinsically motivated to do.
If management would just get out of the way.
Employees Are Not Machines
Employees are complex, living creatures who are capable of extraordinary things.
When vast numbers of employees were sent to work from home, often while also managing caregiving or homeschooling responsibilities, they rose to the challenge despite the expectations to the contrary.
People have proven that they can do good work—sometimes better work—when released from the burden of constant management oversight.
Management is the operating system of your organization. It defines how work gets done.
What we’ve seen clearly over the past year is that the current operating system isn’t compatible with the needs of modern work.
It’s time for a new operating system starting with an entirely new set of assumptions.
From Production to Cultivation
As a kid growing up on a farm, I got put to work at a pretty early age. By the time I was 11 years old, I was being sent out into the field to do tasks like picking up rocks and, my least favorite, walking beans.
At the time, walking beans was the most effective way for farmers to deal with weeds. Weeds grow far faster than the soybean plants in the fields, so they will choke out the beans and ruin the farmer’s yield if left unchecked.
So, a small crew of us would walk up and down the long row in the fields, using a sharpened garden hoe or corn knife (think machete) to cut the weeds out one by one.
It was boring, mundane work.
Battling weeds is one of the many things farmers do to care for their crops. They also have to fight disruptive insects, add fertilizers, irrigate when there was too little water or tile when there was too much.
For farmers, this work is called cultivation.
Farmers start with the assumption that when they put a seed in the ground, as long as it has what it needs to grow (water, nutrients, etc.) and there aren’t any obstacles that get in the way of its growth (weeds, insects, etc.) that seed will grow and flourish into the best version of itself.
Farmers trust the plant to do what it is programmed to do in its DNA: grow and perform. The work of cultivation facilitates and enables the plant’s growth by ensuring it has everything it needs to optimally grow AND quickly remove any obstacles or barriers that might get in the way.
The plant does the rest.
Approaching Management as Cultivation
Just like the success of management, the success of farming is tied to the performance of living things. Certainly, humans are more complex than plants, but it’s hard to argue that we are just as programmed from birth for growth and performance.
If you’ve ever spent time around young children, it’s impossible not to marvel at how they learn and develop simply by observing the world around them.
Small children learn to communicate, talk, crawl, walk, and so much more simply through observation and genetic programming. We are born to learn, grow, and perform. It is in our DNA.
When our needs are met and our path is clear of obstacles, we can do remarkable things. And we all have a longing to be better, to move along that path being remarkable. We all have an innate desire to succeed.
I’d ask you to consider if you’ve ever met someone who you honestly think wakes up in the morning every day hoping to fail, longing for the opportunity to let others down.
I’m confident I never have. I’ve met people who have ended up in a self-destructive place due to years of unmet needs and brutal obstacles. But, no one who deliberately chose to end up in that place.
Given the opportunity and support, I’d argue that every human being would choose success over failure every time.
When we realize this truth, something becomes very clear. The farmer has the model of management we need.
It’s been right in front of us the whole time.
The new operating system of management must be cultivation.
The Cultivation Mindset
The first and most important step to replacing our production-oriented management model with a cultivation management model is to replace the faulty assumptions about people and management laid out earlier.
Cultivation starts with an entirely different set of assumptions. I call these the cultivation mindset.
When we adopt a cultivation mindset, everything about how we approach and think about management starts to change.
The cultivation mindset is built upon the core assumption that humans are naturally programmed for growth and performance. Managers should operate with the same confidence in this programming as farmers do for their crops.
That means management’s work is to deeply understand the needs and obstacles of their people to ensure they’re creating an optimal environment and opportunity to perform.
Let me frame this up in another way.
The Assumptions of a Cultivation Mindset:
- Growth and performance is the default setting for all humans.
- When people have what they need and are free of obstacles, they will choose to perform and do the right thing.
- The role of management is to cultivate performance by meeting needs and removing barriers.
- Cultivation requires a deep understanding of the needs and challenges of your people.
- When there is a performance issue, it’s a failure of management.
From these assumptions, you are likely to make different decisions about how you approach management and your role with your team.
When you look at the research about what employees are clamoring for at work (development, care, connection, trust, coaching, etc.), it’s crystal clear that this is the type of management they are longing for.
Particularly now, when our workforce is more distributed and dynamic than ever before, the need for cultivation has never been more urgent.
This is why we created my Managing Virtual Teams course and why it begins with an entire module on mindset. Managing successfully going forward isn’t simply about learning a few new techniques.
It’s about adopting an entirely different way of managing. And that’s a huge opportunity.
How we got here doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what we do next.
Cultivation is the key. You can start the transformation today.
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