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A knowledge worker is defined as a person whose job involves handling or using knowledge. In other words, they "think for a living". The father of modern management, Peter Drucker, first coined the term around 1959. Knowledge workers have always been among us i.e. doctors, teachers, lawyers, professors, architects, and scientists. Yet the 21st century leader must understand and adapt to leading "new" knowledge workers. Social media specialist, analysts, software developers, app developers etc. New titles and new names means new expectation and new standards.
It used to be that knowledge workers were not the majority. During the industrial age skilled manual labor workers were more prevalent. Not so anymore. " Now, anywhere from 25% to 50% of jobs require people to create, use, and share knowledge." source The bachelor's degree is like the high school diploma. It is considered the minimum for most knowledge worker jobs.
The leader of the future must understand who knowledge workers are and how to lead them. I was listening to an interview with famous executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. When discussing knowledge workers and the leader, he stated pointedly, "They know more than you do." For high achieving smart leaders, this can be a problem. Issues of ego and being rubbed the wrong way will come up. It used to be the person who knew the most about the job was promoted to leadership. That person could then tell other what to do and how to do it. The new age of leadership can't be sustained on that archaic idea.
It is now expected that leaders are not the ones who are technically the smartest, they are the ones who are "people smart". Leaders in the knowledge worker era must know and understand the dynamics in this era and also have the skills to lead well.
How to lead knowledge workers:
1. Coach them. Don't boss them.
Coaching is a skill where the leaders helps the individual come up with solutions instead of telling them what to do. While coaching involves skills like listening and asking powerful questions, it also involves another unique skill set. I called it the "suppressing skill set". This skill requires one to learn when, where, and how to suppress certain skills or instincts for maximum leadership effectiveness. For instance, bossing in its purest unbiased sense means telling or explicitly giving direction. Coaching involves guiding one to a direction and being detached from the outcome. Suppressing the "bossing" instinct at the right time is a skill leaders in the knowledge worker era must learn.
2. Give them some autonomy
Depending on the industry, knowledge workers prefer and benefit from a certain level of autonomy. I remember when I was Director of Training for a consulting company, I would meet with my boss to get a sense of the direction and parameters. Then I wanted to be free to create, design, and solve on my own. I would check on with my CEO for updates but I worked best under those circumstances.
3. Give a compelling and values-based "why"
This might be the most important one of all. In my eBook, 7 Communication Mistakes Women In Leadership Make, one of those mistakes is not having a values statement for your team. The values are the heartbeat of the team. Give knowledge workers a "why" that is dipped in their values. This assumes you know their. The effect of doing this is an explosion of creativity and initiative. If a knowledge worker understand the why, he or she can create a solution one never though of. Steve Jobs is a perfect example of this. Apple computers and its subsequent line of products and services are not about just advancing technology. It was about advancing human kind. That "why" led the company to literally change the world. Why are you asking your knowledge workers to develop, analyze, produce etc? Have you given them a why?
There you have it folks; three ways you can effectively lead knowledge workers. What suggestions do you have for effectively leading knowledge workers?
I know each unit and team is different and maybe you'd like a personalized look at how you can lead your team better. Do you find your team infighting more than collaborating to get things done? How much time and money are you wasting with the discord?
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