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Teach Them To Fish

by Judy Ryan

Many systems and strategies of the past are no longer effective. Schools were originally designed to cultivate conforming, compliant factory workers. Families expected children to be seen and not heard. Businesses were run in reaction to the war and the Depression and were characterized by mechanistic, linear operations within a hierarchical management structure. These now need to be replaced with agile, concurrent processes in which technology – new platforms and tools – as well as new human systems for how people think, feel, speak and act and other business innovations must not only be embraced rapidly and regularly but also integrated intuitively, with your youngest team members often providing equal or greater value than your older, seasoned employees.

Key to my work is creating responsibility-based workplace cultures in which all employees, at every age and in every role, develop internal leadership; live by purpose and values; and own how well they get along, how much they get done and how happy they are. A responsibility-based workplace model teaches employees to fish. As a manager or business owner, sometimes it feels good to dole out fish because it may fulfill your idea of a good leader, give you the kick of recognition for your contributions, feed your sense of significance when you’re dispensing control from above or simply seem to be the quickest, most reliable way to accomplish things.

In my work, I see how uncomfortable developing leadership can be. Employers and managers often fear they won’t be good at it, worry about employee resistance and are anxious that it takes too much time. Employees fear they won’t be able to do it well, grumble about discomfort of ownership, and also fear it takes too much time. Developing internal leadership is new, is uncomfortable and does take time, but the same requirements come along with cleaning up many negative effects proven to arise from a lack of emotional and social intelligence, low motivation and productivity, poor teamwork, and disengagement.

You cannot, nor should you, force people to become responsible. As a leader, however, you can model responsibility, set up systems so staff engage in it, provide resources to fund it, create buy-in for adopting it, highlight positive effects of it, inspire people to enjoy it and, most important, relinquish your role in enabling others to avoid it. Employees most resistant to developing it are almost always those who most need it.

For example, a manager at one of our client sites recently had a direct report decline the offer to develop his leadership skills, saying: “I’m not paid to come to work and manage relationships with others and work out problems. That’s your job as manager.” He was the first in line to relinquish his problems to his manager, who said: “Hmm. Let me remind you that turning down the opportunity to learn new skills we offer doesn’t mean you won’t be affected by the direction in which we are heading. I will no longer manage relationships for you. I will offer you support in learning how to manage them yourself if and when you are ready. This is our direction now. What will you do?”

In this manner, the employee is provided with an opportunity to grow hungry enough that he may become sufficiently motivated to take up the offer to learn to fish or he may move on to another organization in which he can continue to be fed fish. Either way your organization takes a stand for high performance. Organizational health is where collaboration and diverse strengths blend within socially intelligent teamwork, and it is your greatest competitive advantage, proven to net you the greatest profits and reputation. So … what will you do? Will you choose to feed your staff fish or teach them to fish?

Business owners, community leaders, and educators hire Judy Ryan and Lifework Systems because they want the advantages of an extraordinary workplace. Judy’s book, “What’s the Deal With Workplace Culture Change?,” is available on her website and Amazon. Contact Judy at 314-239-4727 or

Submitted 5 years 321 days ago
Categories: categoryThe Extraordinary Workplace
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