As managers, and more so as leaders, we struggle with the notion that obedient employees will make our lives easier. No hassle, no pushback, and no complaints. Oh, if it were only so!
The truth is that engaged employees are far superior to obedient employees, in almost every way.
I recently read a great article in Inc. Magazine titled: “Don’t Wish for Obedient Employees.” It really got me to thinking. Who were the truly great employees I have worked with over the years? Were they the ones who obeyed my every command, or were they the ones who actively engaged with everyone and even pushed back when needed? My recollection is that it was the latter.
Obedient employees will do what they are told, even when it’s wrong. They don’t often have the courage to stop doing something they know isn’t working, or to stop doing something they know is morally wrong. They just do what they are told. If you want that, then don’t expect your company to grow much or be an inviting place to work. The culture is like a work camp or prison.
On the other hand, if you want to foster a culture of creativity and initiative, staff your organization with people who are engaged and committed to its success. You might not always get the answer you want, but that could save you from a lot of grief later. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if an employee could easily stop an unlawful or unethical action from taking place, or prevent you from spending more money on a losing project, or stop you from hiring the wrong person? Now, that’s what makes an organization great!
There is often talk among military professionals that one of the reasons the Allied Armies in World War II were able to beat the well-trained German Army was that the German soldiers were trained so well to obey and follow orders that when their officers or senior NCOs were killed, the German soldier was left with no idea as to what to do. They were leaderless. The American and British, on the other hand, were far better at taking initiative to complete their missions, even when the officers and NCOs were gone. Even the lowest private would take initiative.
In fact, General Patton once said: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” And John A. English, in A Perspective on Infantry (1981), wrote: “His Majesty made you a major because he believed you would know when not to obey orders.”
If I am correct, and engagement is far better than obedience, then how do you achieve engagement over obedience? There are certain actions you can take, and philosophies you can promote. They are:
- You need to build a culture of engagement, encouraging initiative and thoughtfulness.
- You need to be a coach, encouraging engagement by showing your trust in your employees and their decision-making.
- You need to welcome diverse points of view. Debate can be good.
- You need to encourage people to make defensible arguments when they see something isn’t right.
- You need to know the skills, interests, and talents of your employees, and fit them to the right jobs and responsibilities.
- You need to be consistent in doing these things. Employees need to know that you mean what you say, and that they can count on it.
- And, oh yes, stop expecting obedience. If you want that, get a dog.
If you can create a culture that fosters these ideas, you will be off to a great start.