Work force harmony Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

In a business environment that operates at full throttle, it can be easy to overlook long-term strategies in favor of short-term objectives. This pursuit of doggedly chasing quarterly numbers often involves a reduced headcount where fewer employees are given larger workloads. As a result, employees can become resentful, believing they are nothing more than a cog in a machine.

The concept of slow leadership, says Andre van Niekerk, dean of the School of Business at Woodbury University, strives to bring humanity back into the workplace. “Slow leadership is about returning work to its role as a forum for expressing yourself and finding pleasure as well as a financial reward in your employment,” he explains.

Smart Business spoke with van Niekerk about slow leadership.

What is slow leadership?

Slow leadership is a movement to remind the world that work has purposes and meaning in our lives beyond the purely economic and financial ones; and that time and space must be allowed in the working week for people to express their creativity, the pleasure they take in using their abilities to the full, their desire to learn, and their needs for social interaction.

What factors in the contemporary workplace have led to the advent of slow leadership?

Too many people today are facing work pressures that go far beyond a level that still lets them retain enough time and energy for enjoying the nonwork aspects of their lives. A rigid insistence on achieving their employer’s continually escalating financial objectives first — often at the expense of nearly everything else — robs work of much of its meaning. Employees are reduced to economic functionaries: ‘human resources’ to be optimized and exploited as ruthlessly and obsessively in pursuit of greater profits as any inanimate corporate resource.

How can the principles of slow leadership develop a company’s long-term foundation?

Conventional leadership — what I term ‘hamburger management’ because it relies on a very limited menu, high speed, and the cheapest possible ingredients — looks only to short-term objectives. Indeed, research has shown that the vast majority of managers today are willing to compromise the long-term strategies and needs of their business in order to fulfill quarterly quotas. As a result, businesses are mortgaging their futures to meet unreasonable demands for short-term results.

Slow leadership offers ways to retain high levels of productivity without putting the short-term cart before the long-term horse. People can’t exist on hamburgers alone. They don’t provide a balanced, healthy diet, let alone one that is a basis for a fully enjoyable life.

How does slow leadership benefit employees?

Work is an important source of satisfaction in learning, exercising your skills, earning the regard of your colleagues and developing a balanced sense of self-esteem. All of this is undermined when people find themselves driven to cut corners and rely on quick fixes, because the organization has reduced headcounts so much that there is no time to do any better.

People want to produce quality work. But if they are driven to focus on meeting numerical targets by any means possible, they will lose pride in what they do and a sense that anyone cares about their lives. The result is alienation, frustration and lack of interest in anything other than the pay check.

What are the first steps that management should take when implementing slow leadership?

Stop basing decisions on often spurious numerical summaries of organizational activity. Look to the long-term need to increase value and provide a stable basis for genuine growth. Then make it clear to everyone that creativity, insight and fresh thinking are to be the basis for future increases in productivity, not driving everyone to do more and more in less and less time with current methods.

The deep well of creative ideas in any work force is usually ignored. If you encourage people to help you grow the business and treat them as civilized human beings, they will surprise you with what they can offer.

Once a change has been made, how can a business owner determine its effectiveness?

Slow leadership is about finding ways to be successful and still retain a civilized workplace. What you should see are more effective and productive people, a higher quality of output and service, a happier team of employees and much lower turnover. Cutting jobs and forcing those who remain to work longer hours only provides a short-term boost to profitability. Taken too far, it begins to eat into the firm’s capacity for long-term survival.

Slow leadership takes the view that the only sustainable basis for building higher productivity is the creative thinking of everyone involved. And that needs time and space to operate — the very things that thoughtless, ‘hamburger managers’ keep removing in a frantic search for greater and greater short-term profits.

ANDRE VAN NIEKERK is dean of the School of Business at Woodbury University. Reach him at (818) 252-5284 or andre.vanniekerk@woodbury.edu.