How to establish credibility in a democratic workplace?

Flattening of organizations is an oft-repeated phrase that means different things to different people. My favorite connotation is what I call as ‘democratization of management’, which essentially means a more symmetric power distribution between erstwhile ‘management’ and the erstwhile ‘worker’- if at all such words make sense anymore. While there are serious advantages of such an organization structure, it obviously doesn’t come free of cost. For example, a key byproduct of such change is moving away from ‘leading with authority’ to ‘leading with influence’ where leaders can’t rely on their positional power or the organizational title to basically get things done. Instead, they need to establish their ‘credibility’ to be accepted as a ‘leader’ and the harbinger of change, and get things done. Sounds simple? Well, it may not be so easy…

In the old world where management unilaterally made rules, managers were empowered with making all key decisions and the workers were simply expected to follow them. Henry Ford created the moving assembly line where basically the supervisors made all decisions and the shop-floor workers were fungible to work on any of the low-level tasks. Naturally, it didn’t require much for a supervisor to demonstrate his ‘power’ – all he literally had to do was show up and shout orders. People knew who was the boss, and given the roles they were hired into, either they were not of adequate intellectual level to be able to see the big picture, or were not allowed to think of the big picture. And even though last few decades were prime examples of worsening industrial relations, the workplace conflict between management and workers essentially got managed because of ‘clear’ division of labor – management made the rules to govern the work and output of workers, and the workers made the goods by obeying orders from management.

Enter the new world, the flat hierarchy, the knowledge economy, the informal Gen X and the indomitable Gen Y, and the old system comes down crumbling fast. Gone is the bad old world that essentially ‘exploited’ the workers. The good new world is all about collaboration, shared leadership, joint decision-making and other similar 21st century values and norms. There is simply no place for three-piece suits and bombastic titles in such a workplace. There is no corner office – at best, there is a corner cubicle! Everyone gets their own coffee, and everyone picks up their own printouts (from a common printer, did I say?). The notion of ‘experience’ gets blurred in such a context. I blogged about it earlier on inexperience is the new competency.

Such workplace sounds so romantic! Gone are the high walls that separated managers from real people. There is much freer flow of ideas and feedback, and makes the perfect setting for some real work. Right? Well…maybe…

But it also comes with one BIG caveat – how does someone, anyone, establish their ‘position’ in such a flat world? There is no title anymore to rely upon or hide back behind. Decision-making is often a teamwork and though it might have some real dangers of groupthink, it still has more advantages to be taken up seriously. If you are new to the team, or have the onerous task to bring in new ideas, how do you do that? What are the chances that the team will give you any hearing, let alone adopt your ideas? In short, what is your credibility to bring in new ideas? In the absence of any demonstrated credibility, why should anyone listen to you and waste their time?

Sounds very humbling and outrightly brutal, isn’t it? But, I believe that is the idea workplace of today – and one has to be lucky to be in such a workplace (and I will come to that later). Such workplaces don’t accept the ideas just because they come from someone sitting on a better chair, or drawing more salary, or wearing expensive designer suits, or is seen hobnobbing with the power that be. Such workplaces are ‘democratized’ and believe in bringing out and bringing up the best ideas just on its sheer merit. Let the game begin and let the best idea win.

While this could be real fun to participate in a workplace with such unbelievable energy, it could be equally frustrating for someone trying to bring a new idea, e.g. trying to convince for a new product, or rallying for entering new markets, or pitching for some process change, etc. Actually, if you think of it, most of us would be doing one such activity at any time (and those who are not doing are anyway getting closer to extinction, but that’s for another blog post). So, how do convince your peers, your team members (yes – even they need to be convinced, you can’t simply shove a decision down their throats anymore!), your boss and other key stakeholders? Why should they believe in your story? Do you have some proofpoints? What if they listened to you and the whole thing bombed? After all, you don’t come with the credibility that IT managers in 60s and 70s often believed in – “No one ever got fired for buying an IBM”. This simple ‘feeling of safety’ made them buy IBM with literally their eyes closed. Do your ideas come with such ironclad 30-day money-back guarantee?

A lot of these questions are because you haven’t yet paid your dues yet. You are too new to the system, or your ideas haven’t been fructified yet. Or maybe they have in the past, but this is a new manager. Or the rules of the marketplace have changed and you have a much shorter runway than in the past. The hard truth is that you don’t have credibility, and the absence of credibility means you don’t have enough ‘political capital’ for others to support your ideas. It’s not that they don’t like you or your ideas – just that you haven’t been able to register yourself in their minds as someone who is innovative, trustworthy and reliable enough to not only bring up sexy ideas that matter to them, but also willing to endure a long and hard fight to set those ideas to fruition. Question is, how do you earn such impeccable credibility?

I have been lucky to learn some valuable lessons in building credibility. Here are seven of them:

Learn from history…but don’t be enslaved to it

When you are new to a democratic workplace, you often find a combination of multiple factors – you are chartered to initiate and execute a change but the organizational history is against that change (and hence you) because of bitter experiences in the past. While it is very important to study the history and learn from it, it is even more important to not let history dictate the future! Quite often, false starts and fire drills desensitize people from jumping headlong into future change initiatives…they become sceptic of motives and impact of such failed change attempts on their own careers, and hence prefer to stay away till there is more clarity. You, as the change agent need to learn all you can learn from all those failed endeavors – without falling in the trap of sympathizing with the status quo. If despite all failed attempts in the past, you have still been given another chance, it is only because someone up there still believes that this change is needed. Don’t shortchange them – and yourself!

Identify passionate practitioners…and let their voice matter

While new ideas often have the power and potential to create disruption and hence create resistance among rank and file, there are always some people who are extremely loyal to some of those ideas – how so much minority they might be, and some of them are often quite good at it. Instead of appointing experts from outside, the better way is to identify those internal subject matter experts, and elevate them to play more important role in change management. Instead of ignoring them, turn them into your biggest allies. They carry invaluable institutional knowledge with them, and understand how and why some of the previous attempts failed. Since their heart bleeds for the given change, they will be willing to risk their own personal credibility to support you in your endeavor. They should be your A team.

Learn the “real world” first…don’t simply forcefit process to it

My favorite pet peeve against the snake-oil salesman (a.k.a. “process gurus”) is how cleverly they use the principles of FUD to scare the hell out of you, and forcefit their version of process to your version of problem. They almost make you believe that your problem is wrong because it doesn’t confirm with their solution. Stay away from those ‘experts’. Rather, look at the real world and understand the issues – whether or not the solution addresses it or not. My favorite is from the Swiss Army manual – if there is a difference between map and the terrain, trust the terrain! If people see you as an internal spokesman for an external paid consultant, then you can safely kiss your chance of being accepted as the neutral and well-balanced voice. Till you have properly understood the problem, don’t rush into a solution. It not only insults people’s intelligence (which is bad for you, and hence the organization too), it also significantly reduces chances of finding a better solution (which is bad for the organization, and hence you too).

Don’t preach from the top…demonstrate proofpoints

It is a human tendency to rush into ‘showing’ expertise by taking a position and adopt a condescending stance in an anxiety to establish oneself in a new team or a new organization. Sometimes, being negative or just showing a casual aloofness is considered as a proven way to create an aura of expert. I think all this is nonsense. People are smart, and they can spot fake from miles. Preaching without any proofpoints is meaningless. Preaching creates the impression that all people are naives or idiots, and hence need such prescriptions. However, I think people are basically smart. Anyone in any position of responsibility and accountability must be trusted to have some common sense – they need you to solve some specific problem, but they haven’t allowed you to change their lives. Instead of selling panacea, you would be much better off taking up specific problems that create objective and repeatable experiences, and allow people to form their own views about it. Don’t put words in their mouth that they might not like, instead leave them with experiences that they can relate to and form their own opinion, even if that goes against you – as long as that is good for the business and people.

Validate ideas externally…but don’t hardsell them internally

What do you when people won’t listen to your ideas internally? You have tried all tricks of trade – got external experts to come and talk about it, or shared world wisdom internally, but people are still sceptic. Sometimes, such sustained rejection of your ideas could set you back in your endeavor, and in extreme cases, kill your spirit enough to drop the change agenda. What do you do next? Perhaps the best move it not to pursue it aggressively but first go out and validate your ideas from external world – the professional network, the practitioner community and so on. Listen to their challenges and adventures and share your own with them. Learn from each other and improve upon your ideas. A few things will happen when you do it: your ideas will improve when you listen to feedback, and your own ability to articulate your ideas and your conviction in them will shoot up tremendously when you talk about your ideas a few times. Finally, when the world starts talking about your ideas, even your peers will sit up and take notice of them. That’ just the way we humans behave – we just need someone to initially endorse the ideas for us to support them.

Don’t try to boil the ocean…rather, establish beachheads

Very often, when we are chartered with a change agenda, we immediately start daydreaming of world domination. We start fantasizing how we will change the world with our romantic ideas, how we will become the next big thing that mankind has never known! Armed with such ‘dangerous’ ideas, we run like possessed spirits looking to infect everyone with our newfound ideas, energy and enthusiasm. However, depending on how the world sees us, they either ignore us, or shun or simply reject our ideas! Even if our ideas somehow get decreed by law, people in democratic workplace simply choose to ignore them and keep doing things their own way. So, what do you do? If you force yourself further upon people, their resistance only hardens. You need to back off. In short – don’t try to boil the ocean. That is simply not the 21st century way of doing things. Ideas, take a subset of the problem that is more tangible, and has higher chances of accepting your ideas. Take that up and establish the beachhead, and create a rocksolid success story around it. That will earn you much better support than aiming for land grab.

Socialize with key stakeholders…multiple times

No idea can survive in isolation. Being a lone ranger is of no help in pushing any significant idea in any meaningful manner. It takes a village to raise a child. If your idea is what I like to call ‘laminated’, meaning it can’t be modified or soiled, then it is meaningless. First of all, to make people take any level of meaningful interest in it, the idea can’t be positioned as being immune to modifications or enhancements. If it appears so much change-resistant, people might reject it because they might think of it as a mandate much against their own views about it. Secondly, if they have not had chance to put their fingerprints on it, even the idea might remain immature and not grow up to become strong enough to deal with all complexities. So, the key is to socialize the idea with key stakeholders as many times are it makes sense. Each interaction might make the idea one baby step better and the eventual result might exceed all your initial expectations.

So, there you go. These are my seven learnings on how one can establish credibility in a democratic workplace. What are your learnings?

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