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Top-down vision rarely inspires superior work

While working with a client recently, I mentioned to the senior manager that it didn’t seem that his people were working from any collective vision about the future. He was obviously upset when he replied, “Well, you’re definitely wrong there! Didn’t you see our vision statement on the plaque by the front door?”
Since I had read it, I confessed that I had. I then asked him how long it had been hanging there. With some obvious pride he said, “We’ve had it there at least three years, ever since my staff and I came up with it.”
This is the way many organizations deal with what George Bush called “the vision thing,” if they deal with it at all. Senior managers of organizations are supposed to have vision (at least that’s what the books and consultants say). So they develop a vision statement and let everyone else know what vision they should be working toward. With that responsibility taken care of, they can now move on to really important matters, such as creating new structures, processes and expectations to get the numbers up.
This way of dealing with vision renders ineffective a basic aspect of human nature that has the potential to get employees emotionally involved and committed to the organization’s future.
Many organizations start (and sometimes end) their visioning process with a statement formulated by senior management. Since many vision statements today seem to have been created by rote, it’s not hard to understand why most employees are profoundly unmoved by them. It’s awfully hard for most employees to be excited about “extraordinary return to shareholders” or “becoming a world-class (fill in the blank).” The fact that an organization has a vision statement does not mean that it has vision.
Traditionally, after the establishment of a vision statement, the process usually moves to what I call “telling and selling.” Senior management tells people what the new vision is and then looks for ways to get people to “buy in.” In order to get others to buy, someone must sell. If you have any doubt about how that goes over with most people, you have only to remember the last time someone aggressively tried to sell you something. Whether you wanted to buy or not, the process of being sold felt like being manipulated. That’s the way it looks to many people when you try to get them to “buy in” to your vision. They may agree with you just to get you out of their hair. You can make book on the fact that they don’t believe in any meaningful way.
Usually, the next step after the “telling and selling” is for senior managers to wonder why other employees are not as committed as they are. This can lead to strict enforcement of policies and procedures designed to force people to take action based on senior management’s vision. Most senior managers realize this will not deliver top performance, but are often at a loss for another way to manage.
Even organizations that are effective at developing a collective or shared vision often misunderstand the real power of vision for motivating change. Although vision can be described in many ways, I would say that a vision, whether for the individual or for the organization, represents their deepest aspirations and commitments for the future. Our vision also contains elements of our purpose in life (“mission,” in organizational lingo), what we should value and how we should act. In short, our vision can provide a focus for defining and even creating or changing our deepest attitudes and beliefs. Our attitudes and beliefs, of course, determine how we act.
So, people take action based on the future they envision. If the future employees envision for their lives is at odds with how they view their likely futures in the organization, they will take steps to protect themselves (which looks like resistance). If the future they envision is in sync with the organizational future and looks like something they want to get to quickly, they often will move heaven and earth to get there.
Therefore, one of the most powerful things a leader can do to motivate people toward extraordinary performance is to help them build vision, both for themselves as individuals and a compatible one for the organization, and then to help them to work from that vision.
How can senior managers and other leaders help employees develop both personal and shared organizational vision? First of all, a vision statement, at best, can act only as a framework for the development of personal, team and organizational vision. In other words, the development of a vision statement by senior managers is just one way to start the visioning process. If members of the senior management team are to be effective at building vision in the organization, they must realize that their statement represents only their vision of the future from the perspective of their role. Even if it is possible to get the rest of the organization to believe in senior management’s vision, it would not be effective. They don’t have senior management’s perspective, nor should they.
You can, however, get employees to believe in and take effective action from their own visions for the future, based on their roles within the organization. And you can influence their vision by sharing what you believe about the future. And you can help them through a process that allows them to develop a powerful vision for how they can fit in and contribute to the organization. Every team can also create a vision for how it will contribute to the organization as a team.
As one way of starting this process, ask every team or department to discuss senior management’s vision. Have someone from senior management explain his vision and how he arrived at it.
Ask employees to create their own visions from the perspective of their roles. Give them a real choice to change or add to the vision or even start from scratch with their own. Make sure everyone knows you’re not trying to get them to buy in, but to contribute their own vision to the organization.
Let them know the vision is not complete without their contribution. Ask every individual to invent a personal vision for their own future within the organization and how they want to contribute both to their team and to the total organization. Make sure each team’s and each individual’s vision is given as much opportunity to be heard and as much validity as the senior management’s vision. After all, they all contribute to the whole.
At this point, many managers may be thinking, “Wait a minute, I could end up with 100 different visions running around in my organization.” In practice, this almost never happens. Usually, managers are surprised to learn how people are really committed to the same things they are, just in a different way with a different perspective.
If you do end up with many conflicting visions, just remember, all of those visions were already there, you just didn’t know about it. At least now you are aware of it instead of ignorant and upset over trying to figure out why your organization doesn’t work well. And this is where leadership comes into play in an organization.
Leadership is about influencing (not controlling) thinking. Leaders influence people’s thinking, and thus their vision. If you end up with too many different visions to get effective and coordinated action from the organization, it’s time to find a new way to communicate with people so they can see the future you see. It may look chaotic at first, but eventually a shared and collective vision will emerge and everyone will know they have a part in it.
The most important part of any visioning process is that it be continuous. Vision disappears over time if nothing is done to keep it in existence. Especially during times of stress, vision becomes displaced by day-to-day problems as people lapse back into a struggle for survival. Make sure there are ongoing processes where every employee continues to refine and share what really matters to them and where management and other leaders really listen to what matters to people. This will allow the organization to continue to build a collective vision, purpose and spirit that generates effective performance in even the most trying times.
This is only the bare bones of visioning. Each organization needs to flesh out processes that work for it given the size and type of organizational structure. The exact process is not nearly as important as management’s commitment to have each and every individual and each and every team or department contribute their vision on a continuous basis.
People always “buy in” to the organizational vision when they have a hand in creating it. You may never get this vision to be all neat and tidy so that it can hang on the wall, but it will be a shared vision that motivates the entire organization.
(Paul Fraser is president of PDF Associates, an organizational development and management consulting firm specializing in accelerating change. If you have questions, concerns or problems that you would like this column to address, please write to him at 50 Merry Hill Drive, Rochester, N.Y. 14625. Or, fax him at 381-5212 or e-mail him via CompuServe at 75607,1732. No references to individuals or particular organizations will be made in his columns. Comments and feedback are welcome and appreciated.)

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