Leading Knowledge Workers

Leading Knowledge WorkersThe world of work has changed. In the past, employees used muscle to produce a product for a company. Today, employees are more apt to use their minds to produce value, sometimes still in the form of a product, but often in terms of a service. This new breed of worker, coined the “knowledge worker” by Peter Drucker in 1952, responds better to managers who empower them instead of controlling them. While Drucker forecast this change almost 65 years ago and outlined an approach towards managing the knowledge worker, some managers have been slow to change.

Drucker believed that managers would need to adopt a different management style; that the command-and-control approach of telling workers what to do and how to do it would not work with this group. Drucker stated that managements’ contribution when faced with this new type of worker would be in finding ways to increase their productivity. The approach he outlined included:

  • sharing the right information so that employees understand how their jobs add value and move the organization toward its goals
  • learning to innovate by being willing to deprecate products and services (those using older technologies and skills) that are past their prime, thus keeping knowledge workers engaged with new technologies
  • pushing decision making and accountability downward, allowing for autonomy and self-management
  • providing an environment for continuous learning so that new knowledge is created
  • sharing the organization’s mission and values, thus giving employees a sense of purpose

Fast forward from 1952 to 2009 and the publication of Daniel Pink’s book Drive, in which he outlined what motivates knowledge workers. Contrary to popular believe, it is not monetary incentives (as long as they are being paid fairly). Instead, they are motivated by autonomy and a sense of purpose. They want to become masters in their domain and have fun doing it. What knowledge workers want, according to Pink, is eerily similar to the approach that Drucker urged management to take so many years ago.

And, yet, it appears that some managers have failed to listen to the advice of either Drucker or Pink and, as a result, are suffering the consequences of a disengaged workforce: decreased profits, poor quality, and low employee retention rates are just a few examples. In fact, according to a 2015 Gallup article “The State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders,” only 30% of US workers are engaged.  In an organization where engagement scores vary across business units, Gallup reports that managers are the reason. With good managers who know how to lead the knowledge worker, engagement is higher, resulting in employees who drive their company’s innovation, growth and revenue. And what about those knowledge workers who have a bad manager? Well, they are 50% more likely to leave, with the manager cited as being the reason.

With all managers having the same responsibilities (setting job expectations, providing constructive feedback, encouraging growth and development, and building strong teams), what distinguishes a good manager, who has engaged employees, from a bad one, who has employees who want to and do leave? According to Gallup, good managers “motivate their employees, assert themselves to overcome obstacles, create a culture of accountability, build trusting relationships and make informed, unbiased decisions for the good of their team and company.”  They do an exceptional job of communicating, managing performance, and focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses, all activities that build and maintain the team.

In essence, good managers are practicing the traits of a good leader. Managers:

  • are able to set a direction, communicate this direction, and then work with their teams to achieve it.
  • are open to new ideas and approaches to solving problems, recognizing and rewarding them.
  • willingly step outside of what has been done in the past and implement steps so that a change/innovation can occur.
  • realize the importance of being present with their teams on a daily basis so that constant communication about projects and priorities occurs, with opportunities for redirecting if necessary. This daily communication allows for a rapport to exist between the leader and the team.
  • set expectations and hold their teams and themselves accountable for results.
  • inspire others through their own work toward the company’s goals, building the team concept.

Employees who work for a good manager experience these leadership qualities and traits when their managers:

  • Have regular one-on-one meetings as well as some form of daily communication (in person, by voicemail, or through email), which results in their feeling as if the manager understands their projects and tasks.
  • Express an interest that extends beyond the job to include their personal lives so that the manager has a genuine relationship with each unique individual on the team.
  • Set clear expectations with respect to work priorities, responsibilities, and performance goals, with frequent progress updates. And, then feeling that everyone is held to the same level of accountability in these areas.
  • Focus on developing strengths and put employees in jobs where these strengths can be used.

As a manager, what leadership qualities and traits do you possess to lead an engaged group of knowledge workers? What do you need to work on? As Vince Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, once said, “Contrary to the opinion of many people, leaders are not born. Leaders are made, and they are made by effort and hard work.” Get to work!

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