Building a Response-Able Workforce

In a world filled with constant change, organizations should create environments in which employees can respond to challenges effectively. Alison Reynolds, Faculty at Hult Ashridge shares key insights into why leaders should adopt generative behaviors that facilitate invention and adaptability.

What we need more than ever, are organizations in which people’s diverse talents can flourish in addressing the major challenges and opportunities we face. We need to galvanize people behind a purpose beyond simply creating shareholder value, managing within budgets, or merely surviving.

Those of us in senior positions need to consider what is our role in creating an environment in which others can flourish. Too often we seek to control outcomes by defining intricate decision authority matrices with less and less decision-making scope the lower down the hierarchy you go. The assumption being that more senior people are more qualified to make more costly, impactful, or weighty decisions than less senior people.

It’s not hard to see the failings of such an approach. Consider paramedics looking after patients being rushed to hospital in an ambulance. The decisions they make have life and death consequences. Paramedics are not the most senior people in the hospital hierarchy. While in many organizations, the decisions that people need to make at lower levels of the organization may not involve life or death, they often have the potential for creating much more customer value than the decisions made on the executive floor.

The question of who should have decision authority over what should not be answered based on seniority but based on how well-positioned and connected a person is to make good decisions on behalf of the organization and its goals. We need decisions to be made where it counts, by people with the right knowledge, experience, and understanding of the context - where they can make a positive difference.

The world in which we live is complex and uncertain, full of unexpected disruptions, threats, and opportunities. There is no set of delegated authorities that can legislate for all occurrences. Adaptability is not achieved by controlling what happens; it is achieved by the invention in the face of what is happening. The point is not to make people responsible but to enable people to be response-able.

Over the last three years, we have conducted research with over 200 organizations from across the world on the behaviors that facilitate invention and adaptability, which enable people to be response-able. The findings are clear. 87% of organizational cultures are dominated by the following behaviors: hierarchical, controlling, cautious, conforming, directive, and resistance. These organizations reported low confidence in executing organizational change. We refer to these cultures as non-generative environments – poor at innovation, agility, and adaptation.

The 13% of organizations that were not dominated by non-generative behaviors reported high confidence in executing organizational change. These environments, which we refer to as generative environments, were dominated by very different behaviors: curiosity, encouragement, experimentation, flexibility, resourcefulness, and appreciation. They are able to create value by responding proactively to new threats and opportunities.

As well as asking people about the dominant behaviors we also asked them about the dominant emotions in their environment. Again the results were stark, the non-generative environments were dominated by the following emotions: demoralized, fearful, powerless, defensive, fatigued, and constrained. This is not an environment that supports invention and adaptability. The generative environments, on the other hand, were dominated by very different emotions: optimistic, engaged, valued, empowered, involved, respected. These are environments in which people’s diverse talents can flourish in addressing the major challenges and opportunities we face.

Based on our research we developed the Qi index and approach to building organizational resilience for helping leaders to adopt the generative behaviors that create innovative and adaptive environments.

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Alison Reynolds designs and delivers executive education and consulting initiatives at Hult Ashridge Executive Education. In 2019 Alison was announced on the Thinkers50 Radar, recognizing her work on Cognitive Diversity.

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School
Ashridge Executive Education