3 Steps to Create a 21st Century Work Culture

By Faisal Hoque, Fast Company

There was a time when it was perfectly acceptable for leaders and managers to rule with an iron fist. If a subordinate didn’t want to perform a task as assigned—or, God forbid, offered up a better alternative to an old way of doing things—he or she was given a stern talking-to, written up, or even fired.

When the command-and-control leadership style prevailed, employee engagement, commitment, and innovative thinking all suffered. These days, knowing that the do-as-I-say approach doesn’t work anymore, companies across all industries are adapting their management styles to accommodate this new world of work.

Instead of expecting their leaders, managers, and supervisors to act as prescriptive authoritarians, organizations of all sizes must take the time to design human-centric workplaces that invite—and thrive on—independent thinking, collaboration, and innovation.

Here are three steps to upgrade your culture:

1. Give your current policies, guidebooks, and new-hire materials a once-over. If your organization has been doing things the same way for decades, then a “culture upgrade” is probably well overdue. A great place to start is with the handbooks and policies that your predecessors came up with back when command-and-control was still the norm.

Then, take this step right now: Look for any language or commands that paint a picture of a company where the “my way or the highway” mind-set clearly prevails. Talk to both employees and managers about what’s missing and what approach they’d be more receptive to. Look at what other companies in your industry (or, of your size) are using. Then work to change, modify, and soften the language in a way that blends well with today’s “human” workplace.

2. Sit in on some management meeting and training sessions. These can be real eye-openers for corporate leaders who aren’t always able to get out and work on the front lines with their employees. Be the “fly on the wall” at these meetings, observe the interactions between employees and their bosses, and make a note of any areas that need improvement. If you notice that one or more managers are talking down to their subordinates, this is a clear sign that command-and-control is still in full force in your organization.
Then, take this step right now: Start talking up your corporate culture and retraining managers on the benefits of creating an environment where employees want to come to work and contribute. Remember that it starts at the top, and that if the leaders themselves are afraid of making mistakes or losing their jobs, then they’re probably passing that fear along to employees. If your company’s president or CEO is stuck in the past, then he or she is your true starting point for a change.

3. Reconsider how you use annual reviews and disciplinary actions against employees. Most people want to do meaningful work that makes a difference. Because of this, typical annual employee reviews are no longer enough to keep employees engaged, interested, and on the job. After all, as society continues to rely on instant feedback and input, waiting a year just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Then, take this step right now: Instead of just having managers write up their team members when they do something wrong, get to the root of the real problem. Are they making mistakes because they weren’t trained properly in the first place (time for some brush-up courses or mentoring relationships)? Are they continually being disciplined for the same infractions over and over again (and could it be that those infractions are actually no longer relevant in the modern-day workplace)? These are all key considerations to take, and actions to put into place, if your traditional processes aren’t working anymore.

The command-and-control manager directs, leads from the front, relies on checks and controls, and pretty much always thinks he/she knows best. The innovative leader, however, leads from the “side” to inspire his/her team members, charts out new approaches, and knows how to communicate a vision across the organization.

Knowing that command-and-control severely hampers employee engagement, reduces worker loyalty, and doesn’t do a very good job of keeping people on their toes, smart organizations will turn the page and find new ways to lead in the human workplace. They will be driven by a culture of hope–not fear.

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