ATD Blog

The Lower You Go, the More They Know

Friday, September 14, 2018

The processing of information in a tradition-bound workplace tends to be exclusionary—that is, controlled by senior managers who use it to make decisions. This method may have worked when upper level leaders could thoughtfully assess the data and provide timely direction, but in today's fast-paced culture this style of leadership is outmoded.

Studies also indicate that the traditional top-down strategy is an ineffective way to attract top-notch employees. It is now time to deploy a new methodology that taps into the natural skills and latent abilities that exist within the workforce.

This foundational premise is supported by an American Management Association survey of 800 executives who reported that “the emphasis over the past years has been on high-tech skills like math and science, but what’s missing is the ability to collaborate and make key decisions at lower levels.”

When the experience and expertise housed in the hearts and minds of your employees can be brought to bear on a problem quickly, senior management will soon realize that it does not matter who rectifies the situation as long as the issue is resolved.

Change the Way You Think About Leaders

Leadership development programs tend to concentrate on training upper and mid-level managers and seldom fully engage the workforce. Such a myopic strategy may be cost effective, but it rarely results in the systemic delegation of authority.

Today’s leaders are self-taught. They learn by doing, observing what works and what doesn't, and filling their toolkit as they move from job to job. Many lower level employees know how to lead; they just need the opportunity show what they know.

This bold assertion was recently confirmed by Fortune senior writer Ellen McGirt in her feature, “Grit Is the New MBA,” (February 1, 2018) where she reported, "This electrified employment market is placing fresh value on life experience and personal qualities like fortitude, adaptability, and creative problem solving."

In a customer-centric workplace, looking ahead, initiating change, taking action, solving problems, overcoming adversity, and correcting mistakes when and where they occur are what lower level leaders do best.


Therefore, anyone who performs these functions is filling a leadership role. Who takes charge and what title they hold is not as important as having leaders strategically placed throughout the organization to ensure that the right things are getting to the right place at the right time in the right condition.

Attracting Lower Level Leaders

Employees with the desire and ability to lead are hard to find. With that in mind, here are seven ways to establish the reputation it will take to attract and retain lower level leaders.

1) During the interview, communicate the right message and make sure it is sincere. Convey that the candidates will be esteemed for who they are, for their unique skills, and for the value they add to the organization.

2) During the first three weeks on the job, make sure the new hires feel welcome. Reconfirm three points: the reason they were hired, what you expect of them, and how their contributions will be measured.

3) Assign peer coaches to guide new employees. What makes new hires feel welcome is how their peers treat them. Veterans have an important part to play in bringing rookies up to speed and helping them to fit in fast and find job satisfaction quickly.


4) Ensure that someone at the executive level is available to answer questions and remove positional barriers. This lets the new hires know that the chain of command is working and that someone with the authority to overcome adversity is easy to contact.

5) Expect senior managers to act in a collaborative manner. If new hires do not see teamwork modeled from above, there is no inspiration for them to make the effort to cooperate with people they don't know very well and have no reason to trust.

6) Address poor performance and inappropriate behavior in a timely manner. Honest evaluations contribute to the high morale of lower level leaders. Feedback clears up confusion and helps reassure new employees that they are on the right track.

7) Encourage new hires to voice concerns, challenge ambiguities, and report inconsistencies without fear of retribution. These behaviors establish the organization as a place where the only thing that will be recorded or remembered is success.

Regardless of how leadership is defined or what the role of a leader might be, the achievement of purpose should be the ultimate objective. Which theory or principle gets applied when a person exercises leadership is less significant than that person’s ability to get their co-workers moving in the right direction in a timely manner.

About the Author

Tom Jones has studied organizations and the people they employ long enough to have a keen sense of what it takes for both to prosper. He writes and speaks about those leadership challenges and management perplexities that ultimately determine the success or failure of today’s customer-sensitive workplace.

In his new book, Doers: The Vital Few Who Get Things Done, Tom shows employers how to create a workplace where doers flourish. He also shows doers how to seek out an organization where their eagerness to succeed is recognized and rewarded.

Tom holds a doctoral degree in organization and leadership from the University of San Francisco. He has lectured at six universities and currently teaches Principles of Management for the College of Business at California State University, Monterey Bay.

1 Comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Great article, Tom. It is on point and provides some nice tips to try.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.