June 5, 2008

I often remind newsroom leaders that the very qualities that make journalists effective are what make them a challenge to manage. The best journalists question authority and resist spin, right? And there you are, boss, an authority figure trying to influence their behavior and thinking. How dare they respond to you like… journalists?!

But there’s more to this challenge. Journalists push back at managers who don’t understand the power of a major motivator, one that is especially important in times of change.

Think about this: Journalists are knowledge workers. That is, they are employees whose principal work product comes not from their hands but from their minds. They traffic in the development, organization and delivery of ideas. As such, one of their prime motivators is autonomy. Here’s what one business scholar says in the book “Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performance and Results from Knowledge Workers“:

One important aspect of knowledge workers is they don’t like being told what to do. Thinking for a living engenders thinking for oneself. Knowledge workers are paid for their education, experience, and expertise, so it is not surprising that they often take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory. Of course, knowledge workers don’t like their work to be ignored, and there are some things they like to be told, such as the broader significance and implications of tasks and jobs.

That helps explain the daily tug and pull of managing journalists. How much choice do they need? How much choice can you cede?

  • They’re about freedom and flexibility; you’re about productivity and deadlines.
  • They want assignments that have impact; you need coverage of news of all kinds.
  • They want more time to nurture their stories; you have to feed the beast.
  • They’re told to enterprise and innovate; you can routinely trump their ideas with yours.

I say this not as criticism of managers, but as a reality check about their pressures and pitfalls. When you realize that a craving for autonomy comes naturally to journalists, you’re less likely to incorrectly attribute that yearning to ego, antipathy or anarchy. You’ll understand it and learn to manage it. You may learn to how to entrust more decision-making to staffers while still meeting your goals and responsibilities. That takes the skills of a wise negotiator and an awareness of how much control you covet.

Ask yourself some questions:

  • Do the people I manage feel that I listen to their input?
  • Do I communicate — early and often — the how and why of evolving strategy and goals?
  • Am I seen as someone who strives for buy-in or simply demands compliance?
  • Am I viewed as a coach who improves the work, or a fixer who takes away the journalist’s voice or vision, and not always for the better?
  • Am I known as a roll-up-the-sleeves-and-help-when-needed leader or a chronic micromanager?
  • When ideas are on the table, all of them pretty good, do I pick mine over theirs?
  • Do I explain clearly how employees earn my trust, which in turn can lead to greater autonomy for them?

Having voice and choice in designing one’s work shouldn’t be seen as the impossible dream or a perk for a favored few. The best leaders know that people are more likely to embrace ideas and solutions of their own creation.

If you are re-designing your newsroom structure, processes, workflow and/or job duties, remember this advice from “Thinking for a Living”:

The lesson here is that almost all knowledge workers need to feel that they have participated in the design or redesign of their work if they are going to follow a new process.

I know there are some command-and-control managers who believe that people should just be thankful to have jobs and do what they’re told: I demand, you deliver. But that’s risky. Staffers who are starved for a meaningful say about the work they perform will come to respond to their marching orders with a truly dangerous reply. Click on this SuperVision video to hear it:


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If you’re interested in other tips for motivating employees, a good quick read is “Intrinsic Motivation at Work” which explains four key internal drivers of performance: competence, meaningfulness, progress, and — you guessed it, choice.

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Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist…
Jill Geisler

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