There is much talk in the boardrooms these days of the long-awaited and safe return to a rather changed workplace. And, as most organizations are going through extensive preparations, the pandemic is shaping the future of work.
It is forcing us to re-think the basic assumptions we’ve held about human nature at work since the time of the Industrial Age. Strict adherence to rules on where, when, and how you must work has long been a hallmark of work life.
The pandemic is forcing us to rethink how we lead and organize work
Commonly accepted management tools and organizational practices assume that people dislike work and must be motivated, directed, forced, even coerced, in how they carry it out.
Such management tools and organizational practices are rooted in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) – sometimes known as Taylorism after its pioneer, Frederick Winslow Taylor – that separated the thinkers (or managers) from the doers (or workers) in the quest to improve industrial efficiency.
Originally designed for mass production, to exert full control over the process of inputs and outputs – just like a machine – such an approach to management eventually found its way to knowledge work as well.
However, this approach to management has its downside, which is particularly acute in today’s Information Age.
It discourages collaboration and teamwork, free thought, creativity, and innovation – precisely what is needed now more than ever. It has created competitive rather than collaborative work environments that can be profoundly demotivating.
In the extreme, it can lead to a toxic work environment where politicking, personal battles and infighting are common-place, and “gaming the system” often harms productivity and performance. Any performance improvements that do result from such a management approach are usually short-lived, and not sustainable long-term.
Hierarchical command-and-control systems are not sustainable nor compatible with a world characterized by an accelerating pace of change, hyper connectivity, readily accessible information, and increasing complexity.
Implications for Leadership in the Information Age
To thrive in this context, we must build complexity-robust organizations, ones that are more agile and adaptable, that focus on outcomes as opposed to inputs and outputs. Such organizations must be truly engaging to tap into their full human potential.
To build such an organization requires us to adopt a more enlightened view of human nature at work – one that is based on trust and accepts that people are inherently intrinsically motivated. That people will take an interest in meaningful work and will seek and accept responsibility for their performance.
Accepting this view has some very significant, and at the same time, liberating implications for leadership:
- Leaders cannot motivate employees. Any attempt to do so will only lead to short-lived performance improvements and employee demotivation
- Leaders can only provide context for improved performance. Facilitating connection between employees through a shared purpose and meaningful work becomes evermore important
- Performance lies with teams in pursuit of a common goal. Individual performance within an organizational setting does not exist
- Leaders must take on the role of a team coach rather than that of a manager
- Organizations must become decentralized networks of value-creating teams rather than a hierarchical structure
Seen in this way, the pandemic presents us with a truly unique opportunity – an inflection point – to re-architect our organizations to not only be fit-for-purpose, but also make work more meaningful in the 21st century.
Such organizations need to be purpose driven, people oriented, and planet conscious in order for all to prosper.