I overheard a conversation on the bus the other day, where someone was talking about how she had been to see her child’s teacher, to ask her to help with some minor bullying that had been going on. She had clearly handled it well, with both politeness and firmness – a lovely example of being grown-up – and she had achieved the outcome she wanted. Her finals sentence was: ‘If only I could be like that with my boss!’ and that left me wondering why not as well?
Somehow we have generally learnt to behave more like children than grown-ups at work: there are goody-goodies, shirkers, those who hide at the back of the class, little cliques, the popular ones – it sometimes looks and sounds more like a school playground than a workplace! I know, I am exaggerating, but you know what I mean.. And we give away our control to ‘them’ – some ill-defined stereotypical people in authority, the ‘bosses’ – and then moan about our lack of autonomy.
I think this happens because of the history of the workplace: once upon a time it was generally true that bosses ram the place by command and control, and treated workers as if they were unreliable, unruly children with no intelligence or maturity. But I believe the story has changed, and there is more recognition of the importance of working together to produce results, and of the need for people to feel empowered to achieve that.
However we all then have to choose to be empowered for it to work – no-one can give us empowerment, we have to choose to behave in that way – and we are habituated to being victims of circumstance.
So how do we become more empowered? We have to take responsibility for our own actions and attitudes. If we know that we have done the best we can, we stand by that: if we know we have made a mistake, we own up, apologise, make it right. We recognise if we’re not in the mood for something we have to do, and do something to change that mood. We admit if we need help, and ask for it. And we treat others as we wish to be treated, even if they don’t reciprocate.
And if you are one of those ‘bosses’, then you need to encourage your team members to adopt the behaviours I’ve listed. Notice and acknowledge when they are behaving in a grown-up way. Encourage them to show initiative, to be proud of what they achieve, and to feel Ok about admitting to something that isn’t so good, even if it doesn’t always work out. And don’t fall into the ‘boss’ trap: remember to adopt empowered and empowering attitudes and behaviours yourself.
Most people are grown-ups and are good at making their personal lives work for them. Let’s apply the same attitudes and capabilities in the workplace, and have organisations where people feel in control and valued for being the grown-ups they are.