Corporate culture could learn a lot from space exploration

Mark Lewis
September 28, 2017
min read
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Corporate norms that are set in stone are likely shaping our everyday behaviours for the worse without us even realising.

The concept of an organisational hierarchy was widely adopted during the industrial revolution. Factory workers at the bottom of the tree held aspirations of promotion through the ranks into managerial positions. Managers would view workers as resources and workers respected managers based on their title and position.

In today’s workplace, when you consider the notion of success or importance being measured by your position in the hierarchy, it’s a fairly crazy concept! A leader is not better than a front-line team member just because of their position, the leader is simply doing a different job in the overall picture.

In high performing teams I’d expect to see front-line team members producing better results than their manager could in those roles. This is where the problem arises with a clash of old school norms vs modern reality. Managers often think they should be more qualified than their team (because that’s what they’ve grown up believing) and so they put on an act to fulfil their beliefs. They might steal credit from their team members achievements to prop up the act with their bosses.

This is further compounded if the manager leverages their position in the hierarchy to suppress ideas or dialogue that threatens their perceived stature of an all-knowing manager. As the manager flounders around trying to be someone they are not, the front-line team can see straight through the act, levels of respect plummet, the front-line don’t feel valued and the gap between the manager and the team becomes a chasm of disengagement.

“If the manager could make one tweak to their mindset, it would be to view their team as Astronauts executing important missions while their own role is Launch Director and the rest of the management team perform Mission Control."

When you think of an Astronaut, we don’t consider the role as a ‘bottom of the tree worker’, we hold significant respect for these dedicated and elite professionals. The cultural norm (in the space industry) is that everyone in Mission Control is there to ensure the Astronaut’s mission goes as smoothly as possible. They will move heaven and earth (excuse the pun) to ensure problems, hurdles and any other obstructions are cleared out of the way so the Astronaut can focus solely on their mission.

Can you imagine if Mission Control didn’t really listen to problems being articulated by the Astronauts because corporate norms say management is too important for these issues and it should be a one way monologue down the tree?

In the corporate environment, a leader will achieve far greater respect (and results) through an approach of humility and respect for others, no matter where they reside in the org chart. It’s expected by a skilled team that a manager will not know as much as they do about their job — it’s also expected the manager will support them to achieve their mission by removing obstacles that get in their way.

The space industry had it right from the beginning, the front-line are as important as anyone else on the team, and each person:

  • Has an individually essential role to play
  • Needs to be able to focus on their area of responsibility
  • Must embrace accountability for delivering their part to the overall team
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