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Win-Win Leadership: Making It work for you

Many people view organizations with a mechanical paradigm or mindset. The organization is like a machine: If something is broken, it needs to be fixed. If you can find the problem, get the right part, stick it in and turn it on, it will work.

The truth is that organizations are not mechanical. Actually, they are organic. They are living, growing things made up of living, growing people. A living organization, like a plant, is not immediately "fixed" by replacing a non-working part; it must be nurtured over time to produce desired results.

Too often we look at organizations through the mechanical paradigm. We assume that for the organization to be "in control," upper management has to micro-manage the methods and actions of each individual, making sure that the organizational machine works according to a predetermined blueprint.

The need for control - for overall integrity, direction and continuity within the organization - is obvious. But equally obvious is the need - both for the individual and for the effectiveness of the organization - for greater individual autonomy and freedom, for decisions to be made as close as possible to the action front.

The "Agricultural" Paradigm

To shift our thinking from the mechanical paradigm to the agricultural paradigm - where we can view the organization as a living, growing entity - requires us to do two things:

First, we must recognize that "control" doesn't mean that some people control the actions of others. Instead, it means the organization is "in control" - the parts work together responsibly to create the desired results. A better term for this is perhaps "accountability," meaning that the organization is accountable to the people in it for overall results, individuals are accountable to the organization for their performance and all parts of the organization are accountable to each other for the integrity of the organization.

Second, we have to defuse the chronic conflict between organizational control and self-supervision.

If we recognize that the organization's greatest asset is its human element, this conflict ceases to exist. The core problem is not that there is a conflict between organizational control and self-supervision, but rather the idea that there is a conflict - assuming that the two ideas cannot coexist and that we must decide between the two.

True effectiveness is not a case of either organizational control or self-supervision. In fact, choosing to work exclusively from either one could be disastrous. Both values are sound; both elements are vital to an effective organization. Rather than falling victim to "either/or" logic, we can choose to work through "and" logic - organizational control and self-supervision.

Using Win-Win Agreements

"And" logic is the foundation for win-win agreements. Win-win agreements between organizations and individuals seek for mutual benefit and work to create a greater overlap between what the organization cares about and what the individual within the organization cares about.

A win-win agreement requires a clear, up-front mutual understanding and commitment in five areas:

The win-win way of thinking and interacting seeks constantly for mutually and maximally beneficial, creative, third-alternative solutions. The need for absolute organizational control diminishes as individuals operate on a day-to-day basis within the framework of win-win because individuals understand that working for the benefit of the organization can also benefit them, and upper management understands that giving individuals the freedom to act on their own can work for the benefit of the organization.

As trust grows in the win-win paradigm, organizational control and self-supervision are no longer seen as values in conflict. In fact, they become two additional conditions of empowerment.

Making It Work

The most essential part of the framework for win-win is an atmosphere of trust. Consider the situation of an organization that gives lip service to win-win but is constantly second-guessing and undermining the decisions of low-level managers. No amount of negotiation, empowerment seminars or organizational restructuring can resolve the underlying problem: The organization is unwilling to give up total control in favor of mutual accountability.

When trust is high, self-supervision becomes the practical process in which individuals plan, execute and control their own performance within the agreement. In this situation, individuals have access to the primary elements of empowerment - knowledge, skill, desire and opportunity. Time and money wasted on "snoopervision" - micromanaging individuals who are theoretically autonomous - can be reinvested in high-leverage leadership and management activities.

Just knowing about win-win is not the same as knowing how to create it. Going back to the agricultural paradigm, we can understand that desired results in the organization are created not by the mechanic but by the gardener. The gardener knows that life is within the seed. Although it is impossible to make the seed grow, the gardener can select the best seed and then use "and" logic to create the conditions - correct soil temperature, adequate sunshine, water, fertilizer, weeding, cultivation and time - that maximize growth.

Creating win-win is similar to creating a garden. Win-win cannot be created, but it can be nurtured. Effective win-win leaders understand that growth in the individual and in the organization follows the same process as growth in the garden, so they work to create the conditions that nurture growth.

So Just What Are These Conditions?

If the desired results are for individuals to work together effectively in a high-trust win-win culture, the conditions can include helpful systems and structures that will reinforce those results. For example, a compensation system that rewards competition among employees cannot nurture cooperation. A communication system that puts roadblocks in the way of direct-line accountability limits effectiveness. Both the systems and the structures - the organizational framework and role definition - need to facilitate, not impede, the accomplishment of desired results.

Just as a gardener understands that he must water what he wants to grow, an effective win-win leader helps to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual accountability and builds organizational systems and structures that contribute to such an atmosphere. Leaders can do some specific things within their circle of influence to improve these conditions:

  1. Take inventory and evaluate personal and organizational effectiveness.
  2. Focus on creating change in personal character and skills and then expand to interdependent areas of influence.
  3. Start the process of creating win-win agreements with supervisors or subordinates.
  4. Work to create and strengthen supportive systems and structures within the organization.
  5. Teach, exemplify and reinforce.

These steps are not "quick-fix" techniques; they are based on sound, time-proven principles of growth and change. Leaders who choose timeless principles as the foundation for their paradigms of leadership understand that natural laws in the human dimension are just as real as those in the physical dimension.

Principle-centered leaders also focus first on changing themselves, then on expanding to other areas of influence. They understand that growth comes from the inside out. Through learning to cultivate a win-win attitude within themselves, they learn how to better create the conditions that lead to empowering win-win situations among the other individuals within their organizations. And creating win-win situations is the foundation of cultivating an organizational culture that allows for individual autonomy in harmony with mutual accountability.

Stephen R. Covey is the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families and other best-selling works.

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