How family businesses can gain the edge
Family business leaders that share their history, vision and values with employees and invite them to buy in can generate a commitment that is the envy of other businesses. There is an advantageous ‘teamship’ that is more common to family businesses than elsewhere. This is terrific, but I wonder if even more can be achieved?
I have been carrying around an April blog post from Harvard Business Review for some time now, titled “Stop Telling Your Employees What to Do”. The author, Jordan Cohen, explains how important it is to define and describe a desired outcome and then let the “skilled professional [i.e. the employee] determine how best to get there”. This process “often results in a more committed worker, higher quality work, and a proud employee.”
Of course it’s not only family businesses that can benefit from such an approach (and I have much to learn in that regard at KPMG), but the closeness of family in the management of a business can at times make this more difficult than in other businesses.
The science behind empowerment
In his article Cohen tells us that “there is a scientific reason why employees are less effective when tasks are dictated when people lose their sense of control, such as when tasks are dictated to them, the brain’s emotional response center can actually cause a decrease in cognitive functioning. This perception of not being in control, whether real or imagined, would presumably lead to a drop in productivity. If a manager describes the long-term outcome he wants, rather than dictating specific actions, the employee can decide how to arrive there and preserve his perceived sense of control, cognitive function, and ultimately improve his productivity.”
Cohen explains further that the “knee-jerk reaction of many managers to a performance challenge is to ‘tighten the screws’ and get involved in how and when a task is done. Both practical experience and now scientific evidence tell us often a better approach is to protect the autonomy of the worker and provide high level direction.”
The challenge to prioritising empowerment in family business
The history, ethos and values of the family business are an undoubted strength but I would suggest even more attention needs to be paid to this area of ‘all employee’ empowerment than is currently the norm. Many employees are all too aware that the business is the family’s and has been for several generations in some cases. It can be difficult in this environment to feel truly empowered, but it’s not impossible, and I would suggest that making this clear is perhaps more essential in family businesses than in other businesses. Setting the right tone and environment is extremely important and combining this with the inherent strengths of the best family business cultures could deliver real benefits to the both employees and the business.