A ‘heads-down’ work culture actually is not a good thing

Heads Down Culture

If you lined up 100 managers at 100 different types of companies and asked them what types of employees they want under them, I’d assume more than 70 would describe some version of the classic ‘heads-down’ employee. That basically means a person who works within one silo (i.e. IT), is focused primarily on one task/project/deliverable or set of tasks/projects/deliverables, and typically doesn’t attempt to understand what’s happening in other parts of the organization or how that work is connected back to what he/she does.

I’ve been working for 13 years, and I think about 7 in 10 people I’ve ever worked with are true ‘heads-down’ employees in the sense I described above; at some companies it’s about 5 in 10, and at some companies it’s basically everyone, but it averages out to about 7 in 10, best I can tell. I’ve worked in multiple industries so there’s some degree of context here.

Managers love ‘heads-down’ employees because managers are typically all about chasing those daily targets and deliverables and running around with their hair ablaze screaming about how busy they are.

But in the modern business world, are ‘heads-down’ employees actually a good thing?

I’d argue no, and even a 100 percent ‘no.’ Here’s why, in a nutshell:

The No. 1 thing you can try to move towards is this idea of ‘a networked culture,’ whereby the organization is a big hub with a lot of connected spokes. (You’ve probably seen diagrams like this in your life.) The military shifted from a straight hierarchal base to a networked base in the last 15-20 years, largely because of how you need to fight terrorism and their cells. What’s ironic about that is that there’s a huge connection between ‘first-world business’ and ‘the military,’ to the point that corporations regularly pay generals five-six figures to speak to their employees. And yet here we have industry and corporations running behind the military when it comes to org structure. Odd.

Here’s the real challenge, though: how do you get your employees to care about, or even understand, that you’re trying to shift to a more networked culture where people are aware of what others do and work on? There are a couple of ways, IMHO:

  • Start with leadership: This is mentioned in every “How do you get rank-and-file people to do something” article, but it’s 1000 percent true. A rank-and-file will never do anything unless leadership mandates it or models it. See also: brain, human functions of.
  • Incentivize: Most people at work exist in a place where they have their deliverables and they understand that and mostly they just think they’re so busy and no one understands them and they’re such an important cog in the machine and blah blah blah someone place a machete next to my right arm and just pull it right down. There are a million and nine theories about motivation in the workplace, which about 95 percent of managers don’t understand, but at base, here’s how it goes: if you want people to do something, you need to explain to them what’s in it for them. A promotion? More respect? More PTO? Closer to power structure? Perks? Etc, etc. Working with other departments is a stretch of an idea for most people. How do you incentivize them to actually do it?
  • You need some type of system: I feel like companies should just have a Google Doc where you list, every Friday, what you’re working on. I’m sure most people would half-ass this and say stuff like “Grinding along on Q3 deliverables!” or whatever, but if there was someone analyzing it every Friday or Monday, you might see patterns of “OMG, Josh and Tim are working on the exact same thing and probably don’t talk!” That’s massively ineffective but it happens in organizations all the time. When I talk about trying to eliminate a ‘heads-down’ culture, all I mean is making work more effective by people who work on the same things actually working on them somewhat together.

One of the main things here is teaching people — and this is really hard — that management isn’t intuitive at all, so instead of hoping for a team of heads-down grinders on projects, you should hope for a team of curious, self-aware, interested people who want to understand how the org functions in all sorts of different ways.

What do you think — would you rather a total ‘heads-down’ culture where people just execute on their silo’s tasks, or do you want an org where people understand what other departments are doing and think about ways to contribute there?

Ted Bauer

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