We is at the Core of Great Leadership

As the American workplace continues to evolve, traditional leadership structures are dissolving. As a result, we’re beginning to see a shift from an “I” concept of leadership to a “We” concept. This is an example of holocracy, which is making inroads in supplanting the hierarchical organizational structures of yesterday, and it’s an interesting shift.

What is holocracy? Well, it’s a management structure that brings discipline and structure to a peer-to-peer workplace, with the goals of achieving maximum creative expression while emphasizing accountability. So, how do leaders lead effectively in this new landscape? How do they get buy-in from their teams without being able to mandate it? Let’s explore.

The fact that we have five generations in the workplace for the first time in history compounds the challenges of 21st century leadership. Those challenges can be addressed by remaining ever mindful that the We concept of leadership is personified by the collective efforts of teams to make things happen, which is the basic premise of holocracy. But what does that look like in real work life?

The We concept of leadership is personified by the collective efforts of teams to make things happen, which is the basic premise of holocracy.

An Example of We Leadership

When Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson created Basecamp in 1999 (then called 37Signals), they had no idea it would become a hugely successful company spanning 32 cities around the globe.

As Basecamp grew, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson stayed true to their principles, sticking mostly with a flat organizational structure where each employee has the autonomy to choose what they work on, and has equal ownership over and a say in what’s created and delivered to customers. The culture at Basecamp is a perfect example of a collaborative leadership environment, with a focus on the “We” instead of the “I.” Fried describes it as follows:

“What we learned is that adding a dedicated manager and creating a hierarchy is not the only way to create structure. Instead, we decided to let the team be entirely self-managed. There’s still a team leader, but that role rotates among the team every week. Each week, a new leader sketches out the agenda, writes up the notes about problems and performance, and steps up to handle any troubled-customer interactions.”

Today we’re seeing a move toward adopting a management style that dissolves traditional leadership structures and empowers employees to play a broader, more powerful role in the company operations. Zappos, owned by Amazon and led by Tony Hsieh, with some 1,500 employees, is the most well-known company to embrace holocracy. Hsieh started moving toward a holocracy in 2013. But in 2015, frustrated by the fact that the company was operating 50 percent under a traditional management style and 50 percent under a holocratic style,famously laid down a directive that the company and its employees would wholly embrace holocracy within thirty days, and those resistant to that change were invited to resign. The result: The Zappos “management experiment” resulted in a loss of some 14 percent of their employees. Another, more promising result: Its operating profits for the year are $97 million, up 78 percent from 2014. Will it work for Zappos? It’s too early to tell, but it’s certainly an interesting place to work.

Changing Leadership Styles: Where to Start

In traditional leadership structures, a boss or supervisor leads a team, and is afforded a certain amount of respect befitting their title and position. Direct reports follow the guidance and direction of this individual and, even if collaborative work occurs, the manager ultimately has the final say (and is also largely held responsible for the success or failure of his or her team.

That leadership model is still used in many businesses today, particularly in the enterprise, as well as in traditional sectors like finance and insurance. However, as technology continues to blur the lines between work and personal lives, and with remote and flexible work schedules becoming more common, employees are increasingly likely to expect more than a benefits plan and a monthly paycheck when signing on the dotted line.

I’ve written a lot about what Millennials, the largest generation in the American workforce right now, really want from employers, and that’s chiefly flexibility and a collaborative work culture. But you can only create that sort of work culture if your leadership embraces a collaborative or inclusive leadership style, which is what leading as a “We” instead of an “I” is all about.

You don’t have to go all-in on a holocracy like Hsieh did—you can take small steps, experiment a bit, figuring out what works along the way. Want to give it a try? Here are a few mindset changes to consider if you’re looking to build a true partnership with your employees.

The Language of “We”

Great leadership has many elements, but language might be one of its most powerful. If you begin to pay close attention to the language you and your leadership team use, you may be surprised to catch how many times people use the word “I” instead of the more inclusive “we.” Being conscious of using “I” and limiting its use when communicating will help lay the groundwork for your teams to feel more autonomous and empowered. They’ll also likely feel they have a larger role and/or a stake in the success of the company because they’ll feel responsible for making the right decisions and the rewards that come as a result of successes.

Great leadership has many elements, but language might be one of its most powerful.

A language of inclusive leadership also requires you to work to eliminate the clichéd terms used in traditional businesses. Corporate directives and explicit instructions on how to do something should be replaced with conversation about questions, exploration and creating a safe space for employees to listen and contribute.

“We” Leadership Means Letting Go

One of the hardest lessons leaders must learn in an inclusive and collaborative work culture is “letting go.” Letting go must happen in the early stages of developing a We leadership style; it can be hard at first, but generally gets easier over time. Management can no longer assume all responsibility for unilaterally creating the corporate vision, and expecting buy-in from teams and/or individuals. The concept of We leadership means including teams in the development of the vision and planning, so everyone feels a sense of ownership and responsibility for planning, strategies and, ultimately, results. You’re not left selling anyone on a way forward that doesn’t fit their own ambitions.

Be Open to Feedback

A key element of success in a program like this is that leaders of a We team must be open to criticism and constructive feedback. For a leader or manager, this requires creating safe environments and processes for employees’ dialog on what your faults or shortcomings may be, and encouraging them to be honest with thoughts and ideas on how you or the overall organization can improve. This is arguably the most difficult challenge; but, once tackled, it will have a big impact on culture and open up a protected zone that allows creativity and brainstorming to flourish.

Bottom line, the We concept of leadership is hard to fake. If this kind of leadership style is valued, embraced, and clearly defined by the leaders within the organization, it will be obvious. Over time, it’s likely your team will feel comfortable operating under a new, collaborative management style, and embrace and enjoy this new way to work. What’s really cool about the We management style is that everyone becomes part of the leadership team, and plays an active part in the good, bad, and the ugly of running a business.

Even if you don’t go as far as the Basecamp teams’ fully flat structure, shifting the way things get done and focusing more on collaboration and autonomy can have immensely positive effects. But it’s not for the faint of heart, and requires you to engage deeply with your employees. As Jason Fried found out, the results can be both liberating and an innovative way to drive overall company performance. As Tony Hsieh is discovering, this work style isn’t for everyone. But that’s alright, too. What works for your company, your team and your culture is what matters.

Think about your own work experience and/or the culture within your company. Is it an “I” focused leadership style or a “We” culture? Have you made a move toward a more inclusive, more autonomous work environment? If so, what have you learned that surprised you? What challenges have you faced that you didn’t expect? What do you think about holocracy and/or the “We” leadership style? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

This article was first published on Switch and Shift on 1/7/16