More ideas, more energy: Give managers the freedom to free their teams

It was great to get such an excellent reaction to our blog last week – “Why it’s time to smash down the walls that damage and divide your business” – #SmashDownTheWalls – and one question arising from your feedback has been how businesses can use the opportunity of greater collaboration within their organisation to foster more creativity and practical innovation.

The answer for us lies in two principles:-

1)  That the answers to most challenges almost certainly already lie within the imagination and talent of those working the organisation. They just don’t know it yet.

2)  That there are clear ground rules for the way leaders and their so-called “middle managers” are allowed to work together to liberate 1).

I’ve always thought that middle managers get a terrible press. Squashed from above, prodded at from below – they are pilloried for stifling initiatives with a lack of imagination, obsession with process and general negativity. Yet my experiences of consulting on collaborative working initiatives is completely the opposite. Middle managers are usually ready, willing and able … yet not enabled by their leaders.

Recently we, working with our partners at 10Eighty, engaged a panel of 100 leading HR and L&D practitioners in the UK and internationally to show how businesses can harness the potential of collaborative working and learning. At the top and bottom of the organisation over half of senior managers (51%) and over four in 10 younger workers (43%) were seen as clearly understanding the positive virtues of a positive step change in working collaboratively. However, this figure dropped significantly for middle managers, with barely a quarter (27%) judged to have either the confidence or competence to apply it to their organisation.

Middle managers deserve our support, not ridicule, because their influence in liberating ideas and energy is critical. Most try gamely to collaborate with others in their everyday lives, but are rarely incentivised to do so by the organisation that employs them. And they don’t know how to talk about the business “value” of innovation to those they manage.

This “value” is that an intensified level of collaborative working promotes a “project mentality” – that is to say learning in specific situations or projects through sharing knowledge across the business. Enable middle managers to be bold and smash down the false functional barriers in their business and you increase their learning potential, energy levels and value to the business many times over.

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