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looking backwards – Part 3 – recognising the individual

October 12, 2010

I was having coffee with an old friend ‘K’ the other day and it turns out we really haven’t known each other that long. She is in the process of leaving her current employer because, in part, she doesn’t feel valued. We were bemoaning the challenges presented by many of the organisations the people we know work for – the list was long and more than a little depressing.

After a thoughtful pause, K looked up and asked me the obvious question “So what does a good organisation look like?” Put on the spot like that, I had no answer.  It has bugged me since then and it wasn’t until today that I remembered I had already found part of the answer – while I can’t point to an organisation that exists today, I can point to one that used to!

A while ago I looked at the introduction to GUIDING PRINCIPLES AND OBJECTIVES IN EMPLOYEE RELATIONS.  It is a document I discovered from what I call my ‘1968 corporation’. After my coffee with K I took another look at it and it turns out that the first section that follows the introduction is:

Individual Recognition… and there in the first paragraph are the three reasons K is leaving.

She doesn’t feel that she is being given the opportunity to develop her talents. She regularly experiences her responsibilities being exercised by someone higher up the organigram who has decided they do not need to consult before taking action unilaterally. Successful efforts are often just considered ‘part of the job’.

So how does my 1968 corporation suggest K’s employer avoid losing more good people? There are a total of eight points in section one but in this post I want to look at just the first three.

It is management’s responsibility first to “assure that each individual fully understands his assignment and meets his accountability with the framework of this understanding“. Then they (management) should “delegate with each assignment sufficient authority to ensure accomplishment.”

K’s organisation is not the only one I see that regularly fails in this regard. Assure means ‘to make certain something happens’ and when you add that to each person fully understanding their particular assignment you deliver a significant challenge to the leadership of any organisation.

I think that many leadership teams believe they are very good at assuring that the people who report to them (the managers) fully understand their assignments when they use words like:

“You are responsible for delivering the following change in this organisational indicator … a 10% decrease in injuries, a 10% increase in availability, a 10% decrease in costs, a 10% increase in sales, or a 10% decrease in the number of non-compliances.”

A budget is set, authority is given and a team of direct reports is provided to create that change.

Where I think that many leadership teams fail is in assuring that each person in that team of direct reports receives what they need – remember the responsibility is to each person in the organisation. In K’s case it is clear that the person she reports to chooses not to acknowledge the specialist nature of K’s role and may delegate assignments but retains authority. To my mind that adds up to a failure to meet their accountability as a manager.

K is pretty clear about who is responsible but I think you need to look a little further for the cause of that failure.


I have lost count of the number of times I have met people who have been promoted into roles they are not ready for. Most often it is described as a ‘developmental role’, something that will allow the person to ‘develop the skills they need to be successful in the role…’

Stop right there. I’m sorry? You are putting someone you recognise as lacking a particular set of skills into a role that requires them to have those skills to succeed? It is the Sink-or-Swim school of management that sees a drowning employee dragged from one pool only to be thrown into another where they will continue to thrash about and drag yet more people down as they struggle to keep their heads above water.

In contrast, for my 1968 corporation the focus is on developing talents, things we have already displayed an aptitude for.

Organisational leadership regularly fails employees like both K and her manager. Both suffer as a result and neither are able to make the contribution they are capable of towards organisational goals. It is a lose-lose-lose situation in the short-term that quickly results in the organisation losing one or more of the means by which it accomplishes its purpose – their employees!

Why is it then that leadership teams are surprised then when good people start looking for roles in other organisations?

In Part 2 I touched on the third piece of recognition – that ‘competitive levels of compensation’ are necessary but will only go so far.  When it is not there people notice, but when it is there the employee sees it as ‘just part of the job’. Section 1.3 now adds another dimension:”in accordance with their responsibilities and performance“. Given managers bear most of the responsibility for delivering recognition to the individuals who work for them, how many organisations do you know where the manager’s compensation is linked to their performance in retaining staff; where their bonus was linked not to the performance of the corporation but to how well they develop and recognise the capabilities of their team?

I wonder how quickly organisational cultures would change if they were?


This is the 3rd in my looking backwards to find a way forward series examining what corporations have forgotten in the last 50 years. The earlier piece can be read here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2010 7:03 am

    As I was finishing up this blog an email came in from Dan Rockwell via his Leadership Freak blog and it shares a great example of an organisation that understands the importance of recognising the individual. He calls it “finding the sweet spot” and what I particularly like about it is that it makes it clear that it isn’t easy to do – but when it is done right everyone benefits. Here is an excerpt:

    “On another occasion, with another leader, finding the sweet spot required several conversations. We explored opportunities. Identified activities they needed to give up. In addition, we tried and failed at a new initiative. Eventually we discovered a life changing, organizationally sustaining sweet spot.”

    I recommend you read the whole of his post at


  1. looking backwards – Part 4 – the value of credit and criticism « finding my own Way

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