The topic of ‘new world of work’, in conjunction with collegial and servant leadership as well as self-organization, is currently a major talking point all over the place, and almost every manager wants to be part of this movement. Well, first of all, this is an encouraging development in my view. Because empathy and interacting with each other on equal terms work as an ointment for our organizations. However, what I observe is a great deal of uncertainty as regards the change in leadership principles on the part of employees as well as on the part of managers. From time to time, I see that managers – with the good intent of granting the team autonomy, establishing a level playing field with their employees and being empathetic – communicate rather vaguely and provide too few guidelines. The outcome I identify in such a case is that employees cannot clearly define their goals and feel disoriented.
Based on these observations, I have been asking myself what elements the role of a modern manager should actually have in the ‘new’ world of work. Here are my thoughts:
Most notably, in my view, there is the responsibility to make sure that everyone knows and can clearly state the goal(s). There are multiple ways to define such goals. They can be developed in a joint effort involving the entire team or can be determined and communicated by company management or the manager. However, failing to ensure that everyone has as common an understanding of the goals as possible is definitely not an option. In this context, it is important to make the purpose – i.e. the overarching goal – visible to everyone involved.
I am convinced, it is also an important task for the manager to create clarity with regard to roles and responsibilities – this applies to both the team and each individual employee. This means that the manager has to conduct regular accountability dialogues to minimize uncertainty among the workforce (what they are allowed to do and what they must do). At the same time, it is the manager's duty to listen carefully to what the employees really want, so that they can be deployed according to their aptitudes, strengths and skills. If they have to and want to do something for which they have not yet been trained, it is the manager's responsibility to provide support in order to create or find a suitable learning environment for the employee.
With clear roles and responsibilities come obligations. If an employee does not fulfill their obligations, the manager must draw tangible consequences. In doing so, the manager establishes a sense of fairness, protects their own integrity, and increases satisfaction within the team.
In a previous newsletter, I already highlighted the fact that for me, leadership above all means communication. In my view, the manager is responsible for maintaining a sound communication. Sound communication in this case especially refers to clarity and adequacy (i.e. suitable for the situation and coherent within facial expressions, tone of voice and words).
- In a business context, we often tend to gloss over the facts (especially those with negative consequences for employees or the company itself). We may recognize this in key words such as irreconcilable differences, difficult times, major challenges, unused potential, etc. Admittedly, these euphemisms are nice buzzwords, but they prevent any form of honest communication to build trust. (see also the article “Da gibt es nichts zu beschönigen” (There is nothing to gloss over) by Taraneh Taheri, published in German magazine Neue Narrative #17). So managers had better speak plainly, such as: “Our company is facing a liquidity crunch right now, and insolvency might be the result.” By using direct communication along those lines, company management conveys the notion that it appreciates its target audience because it is not taking them for fools.
- Another situation where we struggle in using constructive and plain language is feedback. Our motivation for providing vague feedback is not to hurt the other person. Instead of communicating clearly, we either don't give feedback at all or give it in a very coded and obscured way, using only positive adjectives that are no true reflection of what we really want to say. “Ruinous empathy” is the term given to this phenomenon by Kim Scott (see also her book “Radical Candor”). This means that our empathy is on such a high level that we do not dare to tell the plain truth. In doing so, however, we disempower our counterpart and deprive them of their chance to improve. Instead, the goal should be to communicate with empathy and directly, or with open responsiveness and radical candor, such that the feedback recipient can understand the criticism and digest it. This principle can also be applied to the situation where employees have not fulfilled their obligations. The leader might initially respond with feedback based on radical candor. Any further steps depend on the relevant situation.
Managers are obliged to cater for the further development of their employees. This is achieved on the one hand through regular and honest feedback and on the other hand by not touching on any technical issues. As simple as it may sound: it is not that simple for most managers. Because in a first step, it’s faster for the manager to do things themselves or provide quick advice. In the long run, however, it is more beneficial for all involved (employee, organization and manager) if the manager responds to questions about how he or she would solve this or that problem by asking counter-questions. For example: “What ideas do you already have?”; “What approach do you have in mind?”; “How would you proceed now?”, etc. This triggers a thought process in the employee, and gives them autonomy and, in the medium to long term, sufficient self-confidence to solve problems independently.
If the organization intends to work with self-organized teams, then it is the task of the manager to enable the teams to self-organize and to closely accompany them on their way there. Classic management tasks such as prioritizing tasks, delegation of work, decision-making in connection with technical and organizational issues, and resolving conflicts can only be delegated to the team carefully and gradually. In a transition to self-organization, managers have much more work to do than before as they act as a change management coach.
In a nutshell: The modern new world of work requires managers to continue to communicate very clearly with regard to goals, roles and responsibilities, and to conduct accountability dialogues, give feedback correctly, and develop employees – but on an equal footing and rather in the role of a coach. In my view, the challenges for managers have increased significantly as a result of the special features of leadership in the ‘new’ world of work.
This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here