Are we only as strong as our weakest link?

We all want speed, agility, adaptability, innovation and sustainability in our businesses, especially in these difficult, complex and volatile times. To attain these measures of success, our organizations need to take a look in the mirror. We are only as productive and effective as our “weakest link”. For some leaders, this may be a process like distribution or sales. For others it may mean finances or shareholders. Still other leaders look at specific managers in their second tier or even the “bottom 10 percent” of the workforce as their weakest link. Another way of looking at this is from the position of our workplace environment.

Bill Marriott used to say, “treat your people right, and they will treat the customer right.” Or another way of saying this is that leadership’s primary mission is in creating a workplace fit for the human spirit. If we get the workplace culture right, we can fix everything else, and there is no “weakest link.”

What are the four critical attributes of a workplace that is fit for the human spirit?

Trust: Trust is the most critical ingredient for our relationships and the ability of leadership to mobilize the workforce to achieve superior outcomes. Unfortunately, fear is the predominant driver in organizations today, and only a persistent effort by leadership to create a psychologically safe environment, where the front line can speak truth to the corner office, can this fear be overcome. And when it is, the business will be transformed forever — for the better.

Ownership: I’ve said this many times in this column — “People take care of what they own; they don’t wash rented cars.” If the workforce, who knows the business processes better than anyone else, is given “ownership” of those processes, then productivity, quality, speed, and innovation will dramatically increase.

Interdependence: The type of leadership that is needed to create this type of workplace culture is one that recognizes our interdependence — we are all in this together. No one person has all of the knowledge, especially in our matrixed organizations which operate across departments, countries, cultures, and time zones.

Collaboration: At the end of the day, we can call this workplace culture “collaborative”, where people are truly working together, with a unified purpose, a “we” that is far more powerful than the competitive and political culture of egos that so pervade our workplaces today.

We have a choice. At this year-end time of reflection and planning for a new direction, we can give ourselves the gift of a different kind of workplace, one where there is no “weakest link”. Because we know that if we give people a workplace where they are free from fear, where they can create and innovate, where they feel safe and able to fully be themselves, that we will outstrip the competition. But more importantly, we will nurture the soul of our organizations, our legacy of integrity, and the dignity of each member of our workforce.

*Dr. Edward Marshall is a Senior Partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. He can be reached at marshalle@ccl.org, or 919.265.9616.