Imagine the people in an organization represent two sides of the same coin. Managers make up one side of that coin. Individual contributors make up the other.
Which group spends its days working with customers and making the business run? It’s the individual contributors. They are the majority and without their motivation and commitment, nothing happens. In fact, the single most essential ingredient in organizational success is the proactive behavior of individual contributors.
Consider for example the quick-thinking Red Cross employee who turned a potentially disastrous mistake into a success story. It all started when social media specialist Gloria Huang accidentally sent out a tweet on the Red Cross Twitter feed that was intended for her personal account. It read: “Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch beer … when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd.”
Huang’s colleague Wendy Harmon quickly removed the errant tweet and responded on behalf of the organization with good humor and grace: “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”
Thanks to Harmon’s humorous, proactive communication, the Red Cross enjoyed goodwill and lots of retweets. Even the company mentioned in the original tweet, Dogfish Head Brewery, asked people to contribute to the Red Cross.
Wendy Harmon is an example of a “self leader”— a person with the mindset and skillset to proactively solve problems. Too often training focuses on only managers rather than on teaching people like Wendy who are closest to the action how to lead themselves.
Can you teach people to develop the mindset and skillset required for self leadership? Susan Fowler, my co-author on the book “Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager,” tells the story of Pete, a graphic artist who used to work in our production department.
An introvert, Pete hardly fit the stereotype of a self leader. He had several limiting beliefs. He assumed he was constrained by his relatively low-level position within the company. He believed the only power he had was task power — the ability to produce graphic art.
Susan encouraged Pete to challenge his assumed constraints. The classic example of an assumed constraint is illustrated by the training of circus elephants. The trainer takes the baby elephant and ties him to a stake with a big, heavy chain. Although the baby elephant pulls and tugs, he can’t break the chain. Eventually he stops trying. He is now a six-ton elephant with the Barnum & Bailey circus. He could easily pull the entire stake out of the ground along with the stage but he doesn’t even try. His inability to move beyond the length of the chain isn’t real. It’s an assumed constraint.
With Susan’s guidance, Pete was able to challenge his belief that having a low level position within the company was a problem. According to Susan, a good way to challenge an assumed constraint is to ask, “Is that true?” In Pete’s case the answer was no. His position within the company didn’t pose a problem. Rather, it created an opportunity.
Next she helped him identify his points of power. For example, his ability to use graphics software on the computer at a time when few knew how to do that gave him knowledge power that could be leveraged.
Finally, she encouraged him to seek out people and resources who could help him reach his goals.
Armed with his new mindset and self leadership skills, Pete began teaching computer classes at lunchtime for interested employees. That led to Pete developing personal power as he became popular and well known among the staff. He even coached me on a new laptop I was struggling with at the time which developed his relationship power.
The confidence Pete gained teaching computer classes and coaching me led him to see that although he was introverted, he was good with people. He made many measurable contributions to our company and eventually became a division manager.
Whether it’s responding to a rogue tweet, teaching computer skills to co-workers or developing an organization’s next big innovation, independent problem-solving skills are essential in the 21st century workplace. And while training managers is a must, until you train the other side of the coin — the individual contributors — you’ll only be getting half your money’s worth.
Ken Blanchard is a best-selling author, speaker and chief spiritual officer of The Ken Blanchard Cos. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.