“If You Want to Lead Change, Start Thinking of Your Employees as 'Work Stakeholders',” Published in Forbes

This article was originally published on Forbes. Read it here!

Want a more innovative culture? Creating a culture of innovation is on every leader’s to-do list. The question is, how? How do you lead in a way that fosters flexible, future-focused thinking?

Sure, you can set up cross-functional teams and even revamp workspaces to promote collaboration and creativity. But that will not succeed if you don’t change how people think at work.

For all the talk about the future of work, so many leaders are still operating from the mindset of the past. As a result, so are the people who work with them. If you want people to collaborate on reimagining products and creating new markets, let’s start inviting them to be “work stakeholders.” Let’s stop calling them “employees.”

The word “employee” is defined as “one employed by another usually for wages or salary and in a position below the executive level.” It connotes a passive participant in the world of work and often comes with a set of attitudes that undermine innovation.

Work stakeholders, on the other hand, ask questions like these:

• What do my customers (internal and external) expect? What are the accountabilities? They are focused on creating clear results and operate with a flexible schedule. For them, it’s not about filling time but maximizing time to balance their work lives and personal lives.

• What are we committed to accomplishing? How can I best contribute? Work stakeholders feel invested in the team’s goals and in the organization’s mission. They see beyond their own cubicles, view their individual tasks as part of something larger, and look for ways to partner with others to achieve more together.

• Who is making the decision? How can I lead in my area of expertise? Because work stakeholders are committed to the outcome, they actively look for ways to support the decision maker with the view they have access to. Instead of waiting for a flawed idea to fail, they speak up; instead of shrugging their shoulders and silently saying “that’s not my department,” they initiate collaborative communication if they see something that could impact the team’s success.

What can we learn from mistakes? How do we fail fast and get to the best idea, process or product faster? Work stakeholders build trust with their team members, who collectively view mistakes as learning opportunities for the individual and the group. Individual accountability still matters– the team relies on everyone’s individual competence to succeed together– but it’s also grounded in the belief that risk-taking, experimentation, and resilience are highly valued.

People who think like employees ask:

When do I have to work? They’re looking for a rigid schedule— say 9 to 5 or 2 to 10.

•What’s my job? If it’s not my job, why should I do it? There’s a tendency to confine their thinking to their cubicle instead of taking a broader view of the team’s or organization’s success. They’re also hesitant about stepping on other people’s toes— seeing boundaries as more important than the bigger picture of the collective mission.

Who will tell me what to do? People stuck in the employee mindset expect top-down communication instead of looking around to see where there’s a place they could jump in. They await instructions instead of initiating conversations across teams and other levels for ways they could have an impact.

What if I do something wrong? Will I be blamed? Avoiding risks, finger pointing, and taking a cover-up approach to work result from this mindset. This might be the most counterproductive aspect of the employee mindset because it limits creative thinking so quickly.

Changing how people view work is more important than revamping workspaces. Redesigning rooms with more tables than desks will encourage people to sit together, but that is not enough if people’s thinking is still stuck in the past.

The word “employee” describes the transaction of work for money; the phrase “work stakeholder” goes beyond that. It denotes that the participant has an interest in the success of the work. Whether you’re leading a team of cashiers, software designers, or executives, it is important to communicate the value of the work being done to the overall success of the company so they can connect the dots to the big picture and what they are doing now.

In thinking about your own role and your own relationship to work, which would you find more inspiring? “I’d like you to come work for me,” or, “I’d like you to partner with me in achieving this milestone of success together.”

To create organizations that are future-focused, start using the language of the future. If we’re serious about creating innovative cultures that can adapt to the speed of change and imagine solutions to problems existing now as well as those on the horizon, then let’s invite everyone to see themselves as pioneers participating in the process of establishing new territories, and let’s call them work stakeholders.