Nigel McPolin
Organisational Psychologist, etimes2 ltd

Many organisations are realising that their employee engagement efforts are creating an additional opportunity: the prospect of being able to harness the collective intelligence of their workforce.

In sport, we often hear commentators talking about the ‘total being more than the sum of the parts’ as an unfancied team beats the favourites.  These sports teams have created the perfect conditions for their players to perform to the best of their ability, both individually and as a team.

Similarly, in business, we can generate an outcome in terms of productivity and creativity by creating the right conditions for employees to give their best.  Many organisations realise that a wealth of information and knowledge about their systems, processes, products and customers exists on the ‘shop floor’ of their business.  Senior management in these businesses acknowledge that while they possess lots of strategic knowledge and skills, they don’t have the customer facing knowledge that many employees have.

Harnessing collective intelligence: role of leaders

When such realisations are experienced, the leaders in these businesses quickly value the experience, knowledge and insight potential gained over many years by employees.  They seek to harness this collective intelligence and the many business benefits it offers.

By doing so, they are giving their employees an important voice in the organisation, a key feature in engaged workforces.  Employees who feel they have a voice that is actually heard in their organisation are more creative, innovative and productive.

How to harness the collective intelligence of your workforce

  1. Value opinions and feedback

Let employees know that their suggestions, opinions and feedback matter.  Give them a voice.  Hold briefing sessions with all managers to ensure they are on board.  Maximising this opportunity requires a clear strategy and commitment from the full management team, including all line managers, team leaders and supervisors.

  1. Psychological safety

Employees need to feel safe before they will fully participate.  When they do feel psychologically safe, they will provide you with such a rich source of information, insights and innovation.  Let them know that their opinions are valued and there will be no negative repercussions arising from their participation.

  1. Provide a forum

Truly committing to engaging the collective intelligence of your workforce requires more than a suggestion box and toolbox talks.  Your employees need to be able to make their suggestions when they have them, not wait until the next toolbox talk.  Provide 24/7 access to a forum they can access at work, from home or on the road.  Give them every opportunity to contribute.  Such a forum allows you to ask specific questions you need answers to, so you get the best of both worlds.

  1. Know your employees

Every line manager should take time to know their individual team members.  Get to know more about them and build a relationship.  Share stories on hobbies and interests outside the workplace.  Why do they participate in such activities?  What motivates them to do these activities?  Can these motivations be accessed in the workplace?

  1. Observe your people at work

This is another one for every line manager in your organisation.  Ask them to watch their team members work.  They should focus on learning what parts of the job fires each employee up.  Also note the aspects of work they find tedious, boring or demotivating.  Who likes collaborative projects?  Which employees prefer to take sole responsibility for a project or task?  Who thrives on detailed work requiring attention to detail?  Who is a creative spirit, operating best when problem solving?

  1. Be smart when allocating work

Encourage your managers to use this new knowledge when allocating work.  Of course, the routine tasks always need done and your employees know this.  However, they will engage more with your business when you are making an effort to utilise their skills and allocate tasks and projects that suit them.  Their collective intelligence will be more forthcoming.

  1. Create a sense of purpose

Of course, your company has a mission/purpose statement and a set of values which are proudly displayed in key locations.  However, did you ever think that the company values and mission statement are too distant from your employees?  That they are more likely to be affected by what is happening closer to where they work – i.e. in their own team.  Support every line manager to involve his/her team in creating a team purpose statement and values that link to the organisational version.

  1. Encourage constructive conflict

People don’t have to agree and they won’t.  So, you need to communicate the value of constructive conflict so your business can arrive at the best decisions based on the full information.  Differences discussed with respect and tolerance will drive innovation and creativity in your organisation – the life source for sustainable business.

Are you considering harnessing the collective intelligence in your organisation?  Remember, your employees want to be asked.  They will thank you for the opportunity and reward you for it.

How are you working to harness the collective intelligence in your workforce and reap the business benefits?
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