Vincent Tsui for HBR
“My children don’t seem to need me anymore,” a friend complained to me the other day. That isn’t unusual; I often hear parents express their concerns about how little their children learn from them nowadays or ask them questions. From finding the meaning of words and searching for street addresses to understanding how things work, children are increasingly turning to the net instead of their parents.
In the workplace, a similar transition is taking place with the widespread adoption of information technology. Managers are increasingly taking a back seat as information providers. From the moment employees sign up, organizations direct them to company intranets to understand different aspects of the job, the organization, clients, company policies, and often, the performance development program and its measurement metrics.
For the first time, perhaps, managers find themselves overshadowed by the net’s omnipresence in answering questions about the what and how. Their authority as information-providers is eroding quickly, putting to rest that once-key role. As executives adjust to that new reality, they are asking themselves what team members seek from them today.
To find an answer, let’s go back to parenthood. As a parent, I understood our kids’ changing needs only gradually. Instead of a knowledge bank, they wanted me to be a mentor and a friend who would help them succeed. Rather than feeling insecure that they had access to a source of information bigger and more powerful than I was, I chose to join them. Together, we searched online for the information they needed; decided how credible it was; and how we could apply it. Divergent expectations converged into a pool of collective benefit, and yes, it helped restore harmony around the home.
At a recent meeting with young managers, I asked them what value they felt they added to teams. These smart people recognized the change in their roles. Instead of being controllers or hoarders of knowledge, they viewed themselves as collaborators or mentors, trusted for their experience — not their gigabytes of memory.
How do you think a team would respond if, instead of being a gatekeeper to information, a manager transferred the responsibility of staying abreast with changes to team members? Some may argue that doing so would chip away at the manager’s respect. It may affect the manager’s role as the knowledge leader, but having the confidence to lose some control and share responsibility might actually add to his or her respect too.
In this cloud of change, value zones have moved to the frontlines. These frontlines are dominated by digital natives adept at finding information and hungry for empowerment. By transferring the ownership of change to team members and assuming the crucial role of empowering the value creators, a manager could end up earning more respect as the navigator who guides the ship to the port of success.
Would you agree?