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Leading a more balanced playing field

Your success and aptitude can take a turn when you're in unfamiliar territory.

5 min read




Recently, I participated in a Passover hotel retreat with my family in the Catskill Mountain region of New York state. The program organizers worked hard to keep everyone — old and young alike — busy throughout the week with entertainment and activities that offered fun and recreation. One such activity was a game room, which was set up in the hotel’s expansive lobby.

My 11-year-old son asked me to play some of the games with him. One game in particular, a basketball game, had two small hoops within a close distance of each other and a collection of rubber kid-sized basketballs. The objective was to score as many baskets as possible within 30 seconds. I did pretty well all things considered (I hadn’t shot for a while, just sayin’) but after each round ended I looked up to see that my son had beaten me yet again.

I am pretty confident that had I played him on a regular basketball court with a standard-sized ball he would have stood little chance of achieving even a single victory. Not that I am so great, mind you, but my size advantage and experience would have carried me to victory. However, once the playing field changed, with different equipment, a playing field of different proportions, and no defense, all of my competitive advantages fell by the wayside.

As I considered my neutralized position in this indoor game of hoops I began to reflect upon other situations where people seem to hold advantages, not because they are intrinsically better or more talented, but because of some other factors or considerations.

The concept of a changed playing field extends to the workplace as well. For instance, let’s consider organizational hierarchy.

For the most part, those who ascend the organizational chart do so based on their distinct knowledge, talents, experience, and achievements. They become promoted to leadership posts (or assume them from day one, such as company founders) because their history, credibility and results say that they should. (Obviously, there are some who get bumped up based on less “credible” considerations, such as longevity, popularity or being in the right place at the right time, such as those who filled a void following an administrative shakeup. Such people, however, are in the minority.)

Despite the intellectual and experiential advantages that most leaders enjoy, their competitive advantage, as it were, may disappear when the office playing field is “evened out,” such as when exploring new areas that the company has little experience with or others haven’t developed. An example of this might be integrating a new technology or engaging with younger clients who are used to a different way of operating and communicating.

It is important for organizations to establish and maintain a reporting structure and related hierarchies that allow for clear decision-making and governance. However, it is also critical, especially in today’s fast-moving, ever-changing work environment, for leaders to think humbly and creatively about their teams to ensure that they are focused more on who and what is going to get the job best. This, rather than which employee should own — by virtue of their title, experience, or previous superiority in terms of knowledge and/or skills — a new project.

In addition to developing talent, leaders who willingly empower lower-ranking team members can achieve many benefits, for themselves and their teams. These include:

  • Increased engagement. Workplace engagement continues to be a major challenge, costing companies millions in lost work hours, employee turnover, etc. Companies that offer staffers growth opportunities and chances to demonstrate their gifts and abilities are ones that enjoy higher levels of workplace engagement.
  • Stronger performance. On the whole, engaged workers perform their tasks with more effort and greater interest, resulting in a superior performance. They know that they are likely to be recognized and appreciated for their work, which motivates them to keep going and growing.
  • Increased morale. Workplace morale rises when workers feel that their efforts are valued and they are given a chance to shine. They also begin to see their work as part of a bigger effort, which adds to their feeling of belonging.
  • Culture of learning and creativity. Workers who are encouraged to contribute beyond their title and rank tend to learn more and think more creatively, knowing that their ideas can gain traction and acceptance. They are also likelier to share ideas, collaborate with others, and think with abundance (and not territorially), as there is opportunity for everyone to shine.
  • Priming the leadership pipeline. It’s always a good idea for companies to proactively position people to assume open leadership posts as they become available.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) became an executive coach and organizational consultant following a career as an educator and school administrator. Read his blog at Download a free chapter of his upcoming leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.”

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