5 Levers to Raise the Importance of the Group

by  Shawn Murphy  |  Leadership Development

There is a tendency to prize a few standout individuals while ignoring how much they draw on their surrounding systems of support,” wrote HBR journalist Michael J. Mauboussin in October 2009.  His words were pulled from an article advocating the importance of looking at the whole organization instead of individual influences/influencers.

His contrarian perspective is compelling.  The individualistic “me first. I’m going after what I want” perspective was a major factor in the downfall of our economy.  What are the impacts to an organization when its people are gunning for advancement by working to out-do a peer or show-off their talents? Sure competition can be healthy and important.  I won’t argue that.  Selfish, self-centered ambitious employees, however, threaten the health of people and the organization.  They deplete the organization and people of vitality.

Also, some leaders in today’s traditional corporate cultures will not make changes to the “systems of support” for individual pursuits.  I’d like to say they’d slowly become irrelevant. I don’t think that’s realistic or true for sometime.

But leadership styles are evolving in response to the changing demographics and characteristics of the generational cohorts, social technology (and technology) advancements, and local, national and global politics and economies.

The 21st Century Leader will work to remove influences that deplete the organization, people AND groups of people.  Today’s wise leaders and those in the future will design businesses that bring people together.  They will focus on the power and results of the group.  And the group’s successes will reflect positively on the people – collectively.

So what levers will futurist leaders pull to spotlight the importance of the group’s efforts?

Cubicle walls come tumbling down. @TalentAnarchy wrote in their ebook The Talent Anarchist’s ManifestoCubicles suck. They are where creativity goes to die.  Healthy cultures thrive in open environments.” So do teams.  Open spaces pull people together.  The environment encourages people to collaborate, to share ideas, to connect as a community.

Flatten the hierarchy. Multi-layers of managers tend to create bureaucracy.  Decisions stall. Ideas grow stale. Getting new products and services to market is more essential in our global, 24-hours-a-day economy.  With fewer layers of managers who have learned to let employees do their work and come together in groups the pace of progress picks up.

Building emerging leader competency.  It’s natural that when people come together one or two people begin to emerge as the informal leader. The 21st Century Leader will have spent time developing employees to overcome the awkwardness often associated with emergent leadership in groups. It will help groups gel and perform faster.

Mature self-organizing teams. Self-organizing teams come together out of necessity.  Employees know the skill sets of others.  Using this knowledge when a project is started, employees will organize a team to successful implement it.  21st Century Leaders will create financial incentives, train on group dynamics, and allow “work as a laboratory” to occur.  The latter concept is a creative way to say a culture of creativity, entrepreneurship, and curiosity enables employees to try out ideas and learn from mistakes and breakthroughs.  It’s part of the creation process.

Reinforce that a great life is most important.  Google co-founder Larry Page said about the company’s culture, “We don’t just want you to have a great job.  We want you to have a great life.  We provide you with everything you need to be productive happy on and off the clock.”  Perhaps not all companies will go as far as Google, but the belief behind the relationship with employees will be foremost in leaders of the 21st century.  Such leaders have learned that when employees know that their employer supports their pursuit of a quality life, richer possibilities open up.  These possibilities lead to competitive advantages.  They attract top talent. They keep employees engaged.

Communities of employees coming together to create, improve, sustain solutions that meet customer needs is an important outcome of leadership in the 21st century.  This may seem daunting to some. The beauty of it, though, is it is rooted in our human nature.  We want to connect with people.  We are social. We want to make a difference. We can do this best working in groups.

Read Michael J. Mauboussin’s article referenced at the beginning of this post.

What other levers are important for futurist leaders to pull to bring people together in groups?

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

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What People Are Saying

Leigh Steere  |  10 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Shawn, I really like Flatten the Hierarchy, Mature Self-Organizing Teams and Reinforce that a Great Life is Most Important. I’m wondering if you could say more about Developing Emerging Leader Competency. Do you mean helping the informal leader learn how to lead in ways that are acceptable to the group and foster group productivity? It would be neat to hear an example or two of what this looks like.

I’m also curious to hear others’ opinions of Cubicle Walls Come Tumbling Down. I’ve always thought cubicles were uninspiring and sterile, not an ideal environment for creative thinking. But what about introverts? Introverted thought leaders need time and physical space to “go internal.” Being with a group provides fodder for ideas and brainstorming, but an introvert’s best ideas may bubble to consciousness later, in privacy. Open work spaces can be heaven for an extravert but downright painful for an introvert. Are organizations that focus on open work spaces inadvertently self-selecting an extravert workforce? Are open work spaces a subtle form of discrimination against introverts?

Shawn Murphy  |  10 Mar 2011  |  Reply

What a thoughtful reply. Let me start with the second part of your reply. As an introvert, I completely understand the need to go “internal.” When designing the new work spaces, companies should include quiet places (conference rooms or designated quiet zones). This not only helps the introverts, it also provides privacy and a space for those animated conversations. I think companies need to be very careful in self-selecting an extravert workforce. Quite simply, it removes diversity in thinking and in behaviors.

In terms of Developing Emerging Leader Competency, here’s an example. Today many organizations have a matrixed structure within a hierarchy. Within the matrixed structure, you have people from across the organization working together on projects or group together to support a need. In these situations it can be that no formal lead is identified. Eventually a leader emerges. The delay of the emergent leader can have a negative impact on execution: timeliness, group dynamics, quality, for example. And as organizations flatten the hierarchy they are exploring self-managed teams. So, there are trends today that point to groups and teams coming together where no formal lead is identified. I see this happening more and more given the social trends in our society. So, it becomes critical for leaders to develop the knowledge, skills, abilities, and shape behaviors that strengthen a person’s ability to emerge as a leader quickly, effectively, with little awkwardness.

Hope this helps. It was a good question. Probably a blog post on its own.


Heather Coleman-Voss  |  11 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Absolutely brilliant, Shawn! Thank you for writing this, absolutely on target!


Shawn Murphy  |  13 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Hello. Thank you for your continued support. You demonstrate what Lead Change is about.


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