Business leaders' efforts at fostering employees who can think and act on their own are meeting an all-too familiar obstacle: tradition.
Even though organizational leaders are talking up a storm about empowerment and self-management, most workers out there don't really understand the new expectations, say two BYU professors who recently surveyed more than 10,000 U.S. wage-earners."Workers seem to be locked into old management traits," says David Alcorn, a visiting professor at BYU and senior partner of Alcorn & Associates, a management consultant group in Salt Lake City. "They still honor the age-old stereotypes that followers are passive, doing no more than what they are told to do and drawing all their creativity and energy from their leaders.
"Apparently, many workers are caught in a transition gap and are suffering from corporate cultural lag. In other words, leaders are encouraging employee empowerment while followers cling to traditional work roles."
Yet as organizational charts in American companies become more flat, it is not "sheep" that corporations need or want but the exact opposite: self starters and independent problem solvers.
That is why Alcorn and Bruce Chadwick, a BYU professor of sociology, were surprised by the results from their national survey. When asked to rank the most important traits of a follower, workers usually placed qualities associated with independence and ambition at the bottom of their lists.
Men and women consistently placed "enthusiasm, creativity, flexibility and influence" at the bottom. Even "initiative" was ranked ninth.
The No. 1 trait was "job skills," followed by "dependability, cooperation, pride in work, social skills, honesty, commitment to work and good judgment."
"It's not that we didn't expect people to list job skills as very important," says Chadwick, "but we wanted to go beyond the obvious."
Because of the expectations of leaders, we anticipated followers would list such traits as initiative and creativity in the top 10; instead, creativity was ranked 17th. This is all very ironic because these are the skills that company executives and managers are saying they want to see in their employees.
"We suspect that several things are happening to account for this discrepancy. Managers may just be giving lip service to the idea of self management; consequently, empowerment processes are not being evenly or uniformly practiced throughout the company.
"People in leadership roles may not understand nor appreciate the benefits of self-managed followers. They may not know how to empower others or are anxious about the results of the process itself. Hence, many leaders may inadvertently communicate old ideas to followers who, in turn, continue to believe that the best way to be a follower is to get to work on time (be dependable) and do the job well (job skills).
"Or, it could be," Chadwick says, "that leaders really want to empower their employees, yet followers are still acting on their own stereotypes.
Whatever the reason, it is clear from our data that workers are locked into traditional ways of thinking about their roles, while leaders are seeking more progressive definitions."