About 6 months ago I had to manage a project in a Government Organization where there was a strict hierarchical origination that was part of the corporate culture. No one would act with out being directly told what to do. It was difficult to get the project team to make decisions. I wanted the team to have greater ownership and make more decisions independently. I had a hard time breaking down this barrier. What techniques would you suggest that could help?

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    One thing that popped up in my mind is... does the team wants to be proactive? I mean, there are people that really likes to be doing strictly what's required (and specially in government organizations). At least around here...
    – Tiago Cardoso
    Commented Jan 25, 2012 at 12:27

10 Answers 10


Two simple things I've found that can help any team.

1- Opinions lead to Ownership: The act of asking a person their opinion creates an ownership relationship. It’s practically an unconscious response. You are investing yourself in your opinion and that then extends to whatever the opinion was made against. I've used this with very resistant engineers, who thought the product itself was a lousy idea. Even when their ideas didn't make it into the final product, they became some of the biggest supporters of the product.

It's a tool to team enablement.

2- Understand how people communicate: Jeff is a brilliant engineer. He probably recodes Linux kernels in his sleep. Jeff is also what would typically be called "deathly shy." You don't ask Jeff his opinion in a twenty person meeting. You meet with him for lunch and talk to him one on one.

I've used the DISC profile model to great effect. I got a job by using DISC to understand who I was interviewing with and adjusting my communication style to theirs. I was speaking their language.


My experience in this regard was like this.

  • Lots of offline/informal discussions which builds great rapport among members
  • Listening to the team members and really incorporating their suggestions. This shows that the manager is sincere.
  • Not Micro managing all the times. But enforcing standards and reviews rigorously. Especially the manager has to show sincerity in doing reviews and follow them
  • Giving the team members their personal space to think, make mistakes, learn
  • Coffee break meetings, free pizzas

If you really look at it, most of them are a form of informal enforcement of things. I have seen a fair success with this method, in making people own up tasks.

Even money sometimes cannot buy these. :)


Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose. These things have been shown to be the most critical drivers in motivation. Sounds like the employees of your organization have none of these. Learn really what these are and how to build a culture that nurtures them.


I can see there is a lack of empowerment of the employees in your organization that's pretty much inherited from its own nature (governmental).

Decision making in this kind of organizations tends to fall into a bureaucratic hole that usually ends up in the hands of the same people (Senior Managers, Directors, dominant shareholders...) with a rigid mindsets towards any change that could derived into an unpredicted effect.

It's very difficult (don't want to say impossible) to change this structure and allow non-managerial staff to make autonomous decisions without consulting a manager. However, if you are the manager within an organization of this nature you can approach the level of involvement of your team via the following two strategies;

  1. Employee Empowerment - giving your employees the means for making important decisions, and making those decisions the right ones.
  2. Employee Ownership & Accountability - this is more related to the support you provide your team to improve their performance by making them accountable for several decisions/actions.

    Have a look at this link for some additional tips on this last topic: http://www.halogensoftware.com/resources/reference-library/improving-employee-accountability-for-goals.php

I always encourage managers to promote the level of involvement of their teams. This usually brings to their groups new points of view or ideas that can help to run the team and/or a project. Depending on the level of agreement you can get from your management you'll be able to define which can of strategy suits your team best.

Notwithstanding, please bear in mind that regardless of the level of decision making your team members have you are the ultimate responsible for their actions so please plan what you really want to achieve with them before empowering them (just in case anything goes against the company's policies or principles).


Often this can be very hard when you are the "manager" of the teams, especially because of the past hierarchy. As hard as you might try, they will continue to act in the same way because of the assignment and nature of manager and subordinate.

  1. BRING IN HELP: In these cases, I have often seen bringing in an outside coach/peer that they can feel comfortable telling the real "story" to can often break down these barriers.

  2. SHOW, DON'T JUST TELL: But, actions will also work on breaking down these barriers over time as well.

  3. MANAGEMENT 3.0: One great resource for you may be "Management 3.0" by Jurgen Appelo. He explains a tool he calls "delegation poker" to help create some visibility and discussion around roles and responsibilities between managers and knowledge workers.


From what you write I guess that this strict hierarchical origination made it very formal environment. In that case I would make "Project Team Responsibilities" document and (after receiving all needed approvals) present it to Project Team.

I would start with small steps so I wouldn't overwhelm the Team, starting with 5 minor points such as "Presenting all problems (to me) with grading impact on 1-5 scale" or "Resolving problems which can be solved within 45 minutes time-frame".

After a while, when team got used to grading problems/raising incentives I would add point like "Resolving problems within 4 hours with impact below 3" and (once again after receiving all approvals) inform the Team about the change.

In non-formal environment I would make Team to trust me, and then ask them to "Act as they think they should act" while showing them my full trust and support.

I believe that such problem is difficult to tackle and is very time consuming but can be very rewarding. Also - I would like to note, that I haven't ever resolved such problem and I cannot guarantee the outcome.


When faced with this problem you have to realize that the task of breaking down the barriers might be impossible. If the corporate culture is very hierarchical , and they believe that their next project will be back to the status quo, they will never adjust to the way you want.

I worked with a team that was supposed to use agile, but would only remember they were supposed to complete a task when the meeting minutes went through several cycles of revisions. Every 1 hour meeting needed a 4 hour pre-meeting...

There was no effort by management to put together a team that was prepared to breakout of the corporate culture, therefore they never did. One thing that did work was to bring the team together to a sort of hack camp. The close quarters while working, and driving to achieve something by the end of the day, started to break some people out of their hierarchical mindset.


I'm in exactly the same position. With regards to the personnel that are full time, (i.e. the government employees) it comes down to incentives. At my organization, there are no bonuses or paid overtime. What there is, could be recognition and or the opportunity to take the skills and leverage them somewhere else.

Unfortuntately, it's a very tough place to be in.


When people don't make decisions, it is often because they have a fear of making mistakes, which may reflect the culture of the organisation. You have an uphill battle if this is indeed the case.

Encourage people in the team to try new ways of working, where they can use their imagination to solve real problems, without the fear of criticism if they "fail". You may have to work hard to break down big problems into smaller ones that your team feel comfortable solving, but as they gain confidence and experience they should be able to take on bigger ones in time.

Encourage innovation - even in small areas of work - and never shoot down any well-intentioned ideas. It's not easy - I know that from experience - but it is very rewarding when it all comes good.

And after everything else, you have to make sure that you don't reinforce their old habits by praising people who always keep their heads down and continue to follow the organisation's old culture. Instead, praise innovation, welcome mistakes as long as there are learning opportunities from them, and try to introduce a bit of fun into the team. It's amazing what that can do!


There is many different theories of leadership. I do not mention any because anybody can find great resume of them in most management books. But usually they go on a spectrum from giving almost complete autonomy to your employees to a very authoritarian and controlling management.

The biggest mistake I witnessed in my career was managers giving a very high level of autonomy to their team members, thinking they will be more productive. But I witness than, in fact, it had the opposite effect. Most of the time there is a feud to "elect" a new informal leader in the team in a conflictual way. Many manager undermine the fact that taking initiative is not a natural process for many employees. They have to be coach by their boss to do so. But that way the manager get implicated in the process and if something goes wrong, he or she can be blamed for it.

We also undermind the importance of the manager personality on the way it manage a team and inspire trust and initiative. An autoritarian person can difficulty implant a participative management; and a consultative person may not be the right manager in a crisis situation either. I stongly believe thas having clear, basic and fair rules helps employees feel secure and learn how to grow and take initiative.

I am disapointed that the best type of leadership to my point of view : managing as a family father (we could say as a good family mother), is so much undermined nowadays. A good manager (a mentor) can help you grow and help you achieve your own potential by taking more and more initiatives.

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