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Cogs and Wheels

I often over hear conversations in the office, at coaching forums, networking or even chatting with my friends and there is a common parlance that comes up on a regular basis. You hear someone describing themselves and it often starts with I AM, followed rapidly by JUST and then what they do(insert job title!).

"Ohhhhh Im just an architect, Im just a developer,......... a builder, a doctor, a freelancer, a writer......"

There are not only 3 issues with this which I will cover shortly, but it points to something that I have been thinking about now for a while. Im working for a large programme contracting at the moment and the team is made up of a number of highly skilled and incredibly 'can do', dynamic and clever people, so its not often that I actually hear this contextual framing with the people around me. However I do quite often hear it from suppliers and their teams and it highlights a couple of key issues and concerns for me, often impacting the workplace - how teams are effective and empowered within often fast paced and stressful delivery environments. In this case, business transformation on a massive scale and delivery. But, and I am quick to say 'but' - this applies to every environment I have ever worked in and if you hear these types of verbal cues then you should act fast to reframe the situation and get to the crux - a stitch in time and so forth.

3 key issues:

  1. Minimisation of self

  2. lack of understanding of why the cogs are as important as the wheels

  3. lack of empowerment

1: Minimisation of self - the worst of the lot which also implies the next 2! When you hear; "I am", followed rapidly by "just", this is a common way of people who are trying to offer an opinion and often don't feel heard. It can also imply that they are not feeling valued. Or in fact that they don't see the value in what they do or the role they are playing in the team and in the environment they are working in. They are minimising their role, their importance in the given hierarchy. In networking it happens because people are trying to play themselves down and not seem pushy or proud of what they do or the skills they have achieved and learnt - social etiquette seems to dictate that we shouldn't stand up and state what we have achieved - we must be humble (and of course I don't mean the ones who crow about it - thats just uncool!). Whatever the scenario, NO ONE is ever JUST ........... we ARE! It is fundamentally one of the worst things a person can do to their self esteem to minimise themselves.

2: Lack of understanding of why the cogs are as important as the wheels!

This leads on fundamentally from the last point. Both cogs and wheels are ultimately necessary in every workplace/team. For the purposes of this article, the wheels (both steering and where the rubber hits the road) are the drivers, leaders, accountable, responsible and often the leadership roles in an organisation, project or team. The cogs are the doers, the ones who get stuff done, they build, test, design, create, listen and translate.

We all fundamentally know that we can't get anything done without the cogs. They are core to whether something is imagined and realised or achieved/ delivered in any process. The main problem here is three- fold. In todays career structures and roadmaps for success, people are constantly expected to be aspiring to management roles - the leaders are deemed to be the ones with the experience, the know-how:

a) not everyone can be a manager or leader (or has the natural ability to be one)

b) without the doers, the worker-bees, the coal-face roles, nothing would ever get achieved and completed

c) and if you don't want to be or don't aspire to be a leader or a manager you are somehow deemed unfit, lacking or failing.

3: Lack of empowerment - resulting in disillusionment, poorer team bonding, poorer quality in output and less productive teams. Enough said! If teams don't feel valued, then all the above apply.

So, if the wheels don't respect that they need the cogs (and the skills, knowledge and experience that they have), then the cogs start to grind - metaphorically! They slow, and sometimes even halt completely! We hear it time and again that we have to look after our best asset! Our people - our teams. After all if we don't then there is nothing to build from.

1) Nurture your team, value them, don't sweat them, acknowledge the critical role they play.

Some leaders make the mistake that they can just switch people out, that they can replace people and that creates another who set of problems that Ill cover in my next blog post, but the important thing here is to acknowledge all people and their skills equally for what they offer to the delivery chain, especially if you want to transform and achieve against the goals laid out.

Cogs and Wheels are complimentary to each other.

  • If you are a wheel then mind that you aren't also minimising your team, respect their role, their skills and what they offer the team dynamic - you can't deliver without them.

  • If you are a cog, then understand the wheels can't function without you! You are a necessary part of the picture and you

2) When you hear the word JUST, what ever role or function you play, quietly correct the person and remind them that no one is a 'just'. And feel free to remind them of the skills you value in them and what you see that makes them good at what they do, or challenge them on why they are minimising themself.

Its ok to empower people and to remind them of who they are and in team environments go a step further if you get the chance, and get them to restate the two most powerful words in the English language I AM, followed by how they describer themselves - without the just!

Are you a cog or a wheel?

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