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The Way of the Beaver

Setting limits on how far people can go also gives them the freedom to move

 by Ken Blanchard

In my last column I revealed the first of three secrets discussed in my new book, Gung Ho!, co-authored with Sheldon Bowles. In the book, Peggy Sinclair, a manager faced with the task of turning around a failing manufacturing plant, learns these secrets from her Native American mentor, Andy Longclaw, who heads the only productive department in her operation. With the first secret to empowering employees, the Spirit of the Squirrel, Peggy learns that squirrels work hard because they engage in worthwhile work.

Andy then reveals the second secret, the Way of the Beaver, to Peggy. He takes her to watch a group of beavers rebuilding their dam after a heavy rain has swelled the river. While Peggy watches the beavers' purposeful, independent activity, she understands why the phrase "busy as a beaver" has become a part of our language. She finds the beavers, like the squirrels, tireless in their work effort. But when Andy asks Peggy, "Who is in charge of this reconstruction effort?" she is unable to come up with an answer.

Peggy learns that the Way of the Beaver means acting as your own boss. Beavers operate like independent contractors, and this attitude should prevail in the workplace. An organization where employees believe they perform worthwhile work but management requires them to follow prescribed methods won't reach its highest potential. Nothing kills productivity faster than chipping away at people's self-esteem by insisting things be done the boss's way.

The Way of the Beaver describes an individual's relationship to the organization. People need to work as their own bosses and control their own jobs. What prevents that from slipping into chaos? Three parts to this second secret keep order in the system.

First, employees must have a clear understanding of a company's overall purpose as well as their positions in it. By setting key goals and values, a company defines the playing field and the rules of the game. Managers should decide who plays which position, but then they must get off the field and let the players move the ball.

The players, in turn, understand that as long as they follow the rules, they can go anywhere within the lines. They know that management will keep off the field when the ball is in play. They have the liberty, and the responsibility, to work to their highest potential. Paradoxically, setting limits on how far employees can go also gives them the freedom to move.

     The second part of the Way of the Beaver involves people knowing that their thoughts, feelings, needs and dreams are respected, listened to and acted upon. Empowered employees are those in the information loop. They understand why their work is important for the organization.

     Beavers respect each other. They can't control their own destinies if everything they do gets ripped apart. And one beaver doesn't hide a good tree from other beavers. They all share what's available to get the job done, and that includes full, accurate and up-to-the-minute information on everything. No secrets. In an organization, everyone must support and respect each other if, as individuals, they want to succeed in their best efforts.

The final part of the Way of the Beaver allows people to take control of their work. Not only must they have the freedom to perform their work, but they must find the endeavor challenging. Beavers have work they can do; they build dams with trees and mud. They couldn't control their work or accomplish their goals if they were expected to build concrete dams. The Way of the Beaver requires work that's achievable. A manager can't expect to motivate employees beyond their reasonable capacity or beyond their skills and training.

Set realistic goals for employees. People become discouraged and unmotivated when they fail to reach impossible goals. Conversely, goals that don't challenge employees' abilities ultimately drain their self-esteem. If people can't do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, they feel demeaned.

The Way of the Beaver helps create an empowered work force. It's important to think of the process as a journey, not an announced destination. Managers can accomplish this journey with ease if they pay attention to employees' natural skills, then figure out how to adapt their organizations to take advantage of those skills. Too many managers go at it the other way around: They make people adapt to their organizations.

In my next column, I will talk about the final Gung Ho! secret, the Gift of the Goose. For now, remember that the Secret of the Squirrel and the Way of the Beaver mean right work done the right way.

About the author

Ken Blanchard is chairman of Blanchard Training and Development Inc. in San Diego and author, with Sheldon Bowles, of Gung Ho! (William Morrow & Co. Inc., 1997).
© 1997 Blanchard Management Report, Blanchard Training and Development Inc. Telephone (800) 728-6000, ext. 5201, fax (619) 743-5030 or e-mail kblanchard@qualitydigest.com.


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