During these chaotic times, many companies that have previously enjoyed high employee satisfaction are now finding themselves in an unfamiliar situation, dealing with an increase in employee churn and employee dissatisfaction. Some leaders who prided themselves on building great and collaborative teams are finding that team health issues are becoming their primary focus. A colleague recently recommended David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around, a book about Marquet’s experience as a US nuclear submarine Captain, where he turned around the performance and morale about the USS Sante Fe.
Although the book was written several years before the pandemic, Marquet highlighted that team health and job satisfaction were already critical issues facing business. He writes that from 2004 to 2012, less than half of US workers were satisfied with their jobs; while a 2009 survey showed worker satisfaction to be at its lowest rate ever. Dissatisfaction is also very costly, as he shows that it led to lost productivity of up to $300 billion in the US alone.
The crux of the problem
One of the strongest drivers of workplace dissatisfaction is that most organizations are built for workflows that made sense 50, or 500, years ago but have not kept up with the time. I found this insight particularly strong coming from Marquet, as the military has traditionally embraced very hierarchical leadership structures (though it echoes what General Stanley McChrystal describes in Team of Teams).
Marquet explains that most companies are structured on a leader-follower approach, where decisions are made by a boss and carried out by the workers. This design works great if you are trying to build a Pyramid, or even during the Industrial Revolution, but not for jobs that are dominated by cognitive tasks and decision-making. While the leader-follower approach creates great Pyramids, it does not lead to efficient attack submarines or gaming companies.
Moving to a leader-leader organization design
At the root of Captain Marquet’s success turning around the USS Sante Fe was empowering workers and overhauling the idea of leadership. Marquet argues that to create a satisfied, empowered workforce, you need to move to a different leadership structure, a leader-leader system.
The difference between a leader-leader and leader-follower approach is exposed by the way decisions are made. In a leader-follower structure, information is sent up the chain of command, and a decision is made only once the information has reached and been digested by those at the top. In a leader-leader system, the power to make decisions is distributed throughout the chain of command, allowing individuals to act even on newly arrived information.
Marquet uses an example from his navy career to highlight the difference in approaches. “A navigator realizes his submarine is off course and in very shallow water. Instead of alerting his commander first, he jumps into action, rectifying the problem safely and effectively. “
Building a leader-leader system by giving up power
To move to a leader-leader system, and thus improve both productivity and team health, you need to recreate the building blocks of your organization. The first step is to ensure that decision-making involves employees and is sustainable. To do this, however, you may need to give up some of your perceived power.
There are several ways to empower better your team;
- Talk to everyone and ask them how you could better empower them.
- Encourage deliberate action. By deliberate action, ask your team to pause, vocalize and gesture toward what they were doing before they did it. In the case of the Sante Fe, Marquet used a simple three-word phrase to involve actively the entire crew in the running of the submarine. The phrase was: “I intend to…”
- Change your emphasis from briefing to certifying. When briefing, you can only ensure the competence of the person giving the brief. Those being briefed often daydream or stop listening halfway through, as the task is a familiar one, and they’ve heard it before. Rather than just giving information, certifying makes your team members answer questions about the task you assign to them.
Develop and communicate core values
I wrote several months ago about best book I read this year, General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams, not coincidentally also by a military leader and he and Marquet share a very important common learning. Both Marquet and McChrystal saw the need for core values to keep your organization united and productive. When you are empowering your team, you set them up for success by conveying the company’s values and strategy. This information helps everyone make decisions that drive your company forward.
It is also important to align the culture, with your words and rewards, towards these values. Marquet understood that praise had the greatest impact when good performance was recognized immediately. He also believes that the way rewards are structured can have an impact on an organization’s productivity. Man-versus-man rewards, where employees are encouraged to compete against each other, are unproductive. Man-versus-nature rewards, though, pit employees against an external enemy, which helps build camaraderie and a stronger work either among workers.
Turning your ship around
To improve your team’s culture, as well as productivity, Marquet shows that a traditional leader-follower approach to leadership is ineffective and does not tap the natural leadership abilities everyone has. Changing to a leader-leader structure entails a reassessment of the way you lead but the benefits of such a switch will benefit both your team health and your productivity.
- Less than 50 percent of people are satisfied with that job, and Covid has made the situation more dire.
- The key to improving employee satisfaction, and growing productivity, is evolving from a leader-follower approach (where you tell people what to do) to a leader-leader approach (where people control their decision-making.
- To move to a leader-leader organization, you need to empower your team (including asking them how to empower them better) and encourage deliberate action where they vocalize what they are doing rather than ask what to do.
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