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Cultivating independent thinking

One grave challenge among smaller teams is the lack of clarity on whom to follow. This is quite prevalent in teams with multiple figureheads (aka directors or co-founders). People are always confused about whom to follow despite a clear team structure, as in, they know who they report to for their work.

Of course, there’s no room for confusion there but it just happens. A lot has to do with power distance. For example, one of the co-founders is on vacation for the next couple of days and you (the other co-founder) step in to manage and direct team as necessary during her absence. The team seeks your advice on solving a particular challenge they’re facing and you lavishly give all that you’ve got. And they love it!

Everything goes smooth until your co-founder gets back to work. She doesn’t like the changes and would like to do things her way and advises the team to do so. The result? Besides the internal conflict the team goes back to its ways which wasn’t perfect to begin with and now that they’re aware of it errors and/or goof ups start popping up all over the place. This, of course, concerns the boss who checks in with you for intervention.

So, you set up a team meeting to investigate what’s really going on. Their response? “We’re not sure whom to follow?” You roll your eyes and simply say… “follow your boss, of course! But when it comes to resolving the challenge at hand… make a case for why you think something needs to change instead of blindingly following mine or your bosses advise.

Let me tell you what happens after this — nothing at all! The team goes back to its old ways and settles down on what they’ve always been doing. The errors and goof-ups are a thing of the past though they’re still following a process that isn’t perfect but who cares? Investing time to create a business case for change isn’t just worth it or they’re unsure if it would make sense.

Have you ever faced a similar issue at the workplace? Let me assure you, more training isn’t the answer. You, the leader, needs to facilitate independent thinking (aka freethinking) over anything else. And in most cases, all the team needs is a little bit of encouragement and the freedom to communicate their own ideas. I think it’s the best training you can give to the team.

Having multiple authorities in a small organisation isn’t a new phenomena. It’s a business necessity and there’s no workaround to it except that we get better as team players. The best service we can do as leaders is to cultivate a culture of thinking for the self and beyond. You’ve got to have people with their own points of view. I think it’s a business imperative that’s seldom carried out with enthusiasm or appreciation.

Yes, thinking is hard work and it doesn’t come easy. The loudest of your team members would be happy to follow what’s been told than think of an idea (backed up with solid evidence, of course) that would resolve a business issue. But, I don’t think any organisation — big or small — would want to have robots or parrots for team players. Although that’s exactly what ends up happening if you don’t allow them to exercise freethinking.

It’s a choice that we make as leaders who run the ship. Think about it!*

P.S. Pardon the pun… but at times I can’t help it!