What Sam Walton And China’s Lao Tzu Can Teach You About Team Building

Sam Walton was famous for saying that if his management team was not making support of employees “Job #1,” then they could go work somewhere else.  This shows that Sam understood that the value of a vibrant and growing company comes primarily from the ideas, activities, and engagement of its workforce.

300px-Confucius_Lao-tzu_and_Buddhist_Arhat_by_Ding_Yunpeng9Lao Tzu

If supporting employees is your first responsibility as a manager, then it is clear that your job is not simply to “boss people.”

Bossing is often mistaken by uninformed observers as “being effective” – but it is not.

If you are a manager, I recommend reframing your mission away from “telling people what to do,” which is a simplistic view of management. And it is one that will ultimately not produce the best results for you or your company. Instead, a powerful alternative is to consider your primary responsibility as “facilitating and bringing out your employee’s skills, talents, and interests.” I manage a team of people that build software. I could take it as my mission to tell everybody what to do, and how and when to do it, but that approach would never bring the full value and talents of the employees to the surface.

Recent studies in manufacturing have shown that self-managing teams are more efficient and produce higher-quality output than closely managed teams of workers that do not have operational discretion or decision-making authority. I recommend a management approach which is just 1/2 notch less than democratic, in that it takes the input and ideas from every team member, but ultimately maintains and asserts final decision making authority when needed. As the manager, set the major objectives. Then carve out large swaths of creative decision making and hand it off to the employees. Those major objectives will be assembled by your team as ideas, and then executed.  While many times the manager would have been capable of simply dictating the “how” for these tasks, the company is not ultimately well served by that kind of approach. Why? Among other reasons, here are four:

1) Strategies are limited to what the manager knows.

2) Highly managed tasks do not allow employees to grow as much as self-managed tasks.

3) The team is dependent on management, making people far less willing to make even minor decisions.

4) The team is less engaged and doesn’t feel much, if any, ownership. Ownership is the magic factor that brings out the best in ourselves and our team members.

You still need to manage. As the leader of the group, watch and guide the decision making to make sure people don’t go down any blind alleys or pathways that won’t work well. Often, the group will need guidance on how to get tasks done, but that guidance should be given in terms that allow the team to maintain their sense of ownership.

The ancient Chinese philosophical text  called the “Tao Teh Ching” discusses an approach to leadership that says, “When the goal is reached, the people believe that they did it themselves.” This is a management style also known as “leading from behind.” On big-picture stuff, the employees must have guidance from management in communication of business goals and demonstrating the core tenets of company culture. This is a top-down responsibility for management. In getting the work done, then, it is management’s role to  set direction, hire the right people, and then get out of the way.

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Kevin Ready

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