Leading Knowledge Workers

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There are several definitions of “knowledge worker.” Almost all them use a phrase something like “workers who think for a living.” But it’s more than thinking, it’s also making decisions and spotting opportunities. Knowledge work is different from manual work or clerical work.

If you lead manual workers or clerical workers, you know how the task should be done and how the processes should be followed.

Your job is making sure that they do their work correctly. When you lead knowledge workers, you have a different challenge.

Knowledge workers know more than you do about their work. They exercise independent judgement. They’re expected to make wise decisions. That should change the way you lead.

The basics of leadership aren’t going to change. You’re still responsible for setting direction for the group. Your job is to accomplish the mission through the group and care for the members of the group. Your most important challenge is making it easy for team members to do high-quality work.

When you manage knowledge workers, there are three important things you must do. You must let them have control. You must create an environment where they can do good work. You must help them develop competency.

Let Go of Control

Letting go of control is scary. After all, you’re the one responsible for the performance of the team. But letting go of control is essential when you are leading knowledge workers.

Knowledge workers will be more productive when they plan their own work and are accountable for doing it well. You should expect them to do their work promptly and well so that the team accomplishes the mission. Make sure your team members have the resources, including time and information, to do good work.

Create a Good Work Environment

You make it easy for knowledge workers to do great work when you create an environment where great work can happen. Psychological safety is essential.

You have psychological safety when team members are comfortable disagreeing with each other and with you. The most effective teams don’t avoid conflict. Instead, leaders help create an environment where conflict drives improved performance.

Effective teams of knowledge workers provide social support for each other. They think they’re doing important work with people they like. Your leadership challenge is to make effective collaboration more likely and deal with any toxic team members.

You should expect that your team members work and play well together. You should hold them accountable for their effect on the team environment.

One other important part of paying attention to the environment is coordination. You must assure that different autonomous workers coordinate their efforts with each other. That’s how positive synergy happens.

Help Team Members Develop

For as long as I can remember, business leaders have spouted that line about “People are our most important asset.” Most of the time, that was great rhetoric and nothing more. When you’re leading knowledge workers you must treat them like important assets.

You control or reduce costs, but you should make assets more valuable. That means part of your job is helping them grow and develop.

Make learning part of the job. Look for ways to help team members improve their competence by learning new skills. Help them reach their goals.

Bottom Line

Knowledge workers know more than you do about their work. Your job is to make it easy for them to do high-quality work. Let them make key decisions about what they do. Create an environment where good work and innovation can happen. Help individual team members develop their competence and succeed in ways important to them.

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