A Work Environment That Values Individuals

Sixth in a series on the culture of engagement.

According to Gallup, a work environment that fosters personal responsibility requires a combination of strategies, cultural norms and structural elements. Rewarding and retaining people, a strong sense of personal responsibility, independence and a track record of self-motivation should be recognized as the foundation of healthy rugged individualism. A culture where taking calculated risks is encouraged and failure is seen as a learning opportunity motivates people to think creatively and independently.

While promoting individualism, it’s important to foster a sense of team cohesion by encouraging collaboration and ensuring individual goals align with the overall mission and values of the organization. Leaders in the organization should exemplify rugged individualism in their own work ethic even when it’s uncomfortable. While fostering individualism, it’s important to maintain a balance to ensure the workplace remains collaborative—a team of self-reliant individuals who can also work together effectively is the goal, says Forbes.

Fostering self-reliance at work can lead to increased confidence and productivity. People should have the freedom to make decisions within their roles for problem-solving and independent choices. Micromanagement will kill risk-taking. Tasks and projects should be delegated based on a person’s strengths and abilities. Such an approach distributes work and places real decision-making at every level of the institutional hierarchy. Phil Jackson, the legendary Basketball coach, said it best, “The strength of a team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

A culture that values strong individuals also encourages continuous learning and personal growth within the organization. As knowledge increases and skills are honed to a fine edge, people are more likely to become self-reliant problem solvers and take on more responsibility. Leadership should demonstrate self-reliance. When leaders set the tone of “blaming up or down” in the organization, others will eventually exhibit the same behavior. It is a manifestation of the “blame game.” Responsibility enacted will become responsibility absorbed and projected. Organizations will be more effective in accomplishing their mission.

Encouraging positive risk-taking in a corporate setting is crucial for fostering innovation and growth, says Chuck Swoboda. A culture that values and rewards innovation and calculated risk-taking, even if they don’t always lead to success, eliminates the fear of failure and leads to a greater acceptance of personal responsibility and stronger organizational performance. People should be encouraged to take on small-scale experiments or pilot projects. Enabling low-stakes opportunities will encourage greater innovation. The challenge for organizational cultures is to support individuals who try new ideas rather than frighten them into robotic routines. The idea of a nontoxic, supportive place for thinking and doing is critically important. A work culture focused on solutions rather than hiding from failure is the seedbed for progress. Cultivating an environment that values learning, growth and failure is an expected byproduct of improvement rather than an opportunity for finger-pointing. Interactions across different departments and teams can lead to new ideas and approach problems from multiple perspectives. Typically, all complex problems require diverse views to create solutions. A workplace culture that values growth and supports continuous development not only benefits the individuals but also contributes to the overall success and competitiveness of the organization.

Bureaucracy in organizational behavior is the enemy of progress, especially in larger governmental organizations like universities. Practices that foster efficiency, flexibility and individual empowerment produce progress and excellence. Decision-making at all organizational levels allows a response to situations and promotes individual autonomy and personal responsibility. Bureaucracies are intended to do the opposite by creating complex authority structures so that no one can ever be credited with the success or shoulder responsibility for a “good idea” if it goes south. Bureaucracies hide behind the disguise of consistency and fairness. Shifting the focus from strict adherence to processes to achieving desired outcomes leads to growth and quality.

The greatest deterrent to organizational progress is a culture that encourages yes-people, according to Management is a Journey. Consistently agreeing with and supporting the ideas, opinions or decisions of leadership without critical evaluation and open, constructive feedback is harmful and undermines leaders. Innovation and creativity are stifled when the status quo is tolerated. Leadership, management and everyone in an organization needs honest feedback and critique. Our culture is so bent on positive reinforcement that any difference of opinion is seen as negative, even when the opinion is intended to improve the organization or prevent harm.

Such organizations become echo chambers where only ideas consistent with “the bosses” are considered worthwhile. Trust and morale evaporate and open communication is a fleeting memory of days gone by. Groupthink takes over. We see it every day in organizations that were once vibrant with dialogue, debate, discussion and disagreement. One must swim upstream today to create vibrant and effective organizations, or maybe we always have.

At West Texas A&M University, we believe it’s important to encourage the engagement of rugged individuals who exhibit a balance of respectful disagreement, open dialogue and diversity of perspectives to create a healthy organizational culture. Dialog makes organizations sing.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.

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