Our Changing, Challenging and Uncertain World of Work

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March 14th, 2016

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This year’s Roffey Park’s Management Agenda provides a snapshot of over 1000 managers views on the world of work, across private, public and not-for-profit sectors. Inevitably change features heavily in this snapshot, with the most common word used to describe culture in today’s organisations as ‘changing’. For many this changing landscape is not one of excitement, engagement and opportunity – the next most commonly used words to describe culture are ‘challenging’, ‘uncertain’ and ‘confused’.

It’s hardly surprising ‘changing’, ‘challenging’ and ‘uncertain’ are such common themes. A quick skim of the headlines on any day generates uncertainty about issues such as Brexit, the refugee crisis, the future of Syria and Iraq, the results of the US presidential elections, the continued drive for austerity in the UK public sector, market volatility in Asia – to name just a few. How managers lead themselves, their teams, and their organisations in responding to such uncertainty is key – between one-third and one-half of respondents list managing change as their top leadership challenge (depending on sector).

The problem is, as one of my colleagues put it so succinctly in a blog last year, “(most) change leadership sucks.”  Or in Management Agenda speak 52% of managers agree lack of inspiring and motivating leadership is a barrier to change – increasing from 34% at board level to 54% of junior managers. Similarly only 20% of directors agree failure to involve key stakeholders (including employees) is a barrier, compared to 46% of junior managers. Can we infer from these findings that when we are leading and managing change we are falling back on command and control / hierarchical leadership, and “sucking responsibility up to ourselves and away from others” (1)?

More than likely – In the fast, uncertain and emotional whirlwind of change it is not surprising that when we are leading and managing we feel so responsible for its success or failure, and that sharing that responsibility feels a step too far. Unfortunately there are no easy answers, but here are some things that may help:

  • Map your stakeholders – and yes I do mean physically draw out your network and then share it with others to find out who you’ve missed – and ‘others’ includes the people you wouldn’t usually go to as well as the people you usually would.
  • ‘Communicate, communicate, and communicate’ with each and every stakeholder group – this is not a one-way download of a ‘burning platform’ but dialogue with and between all stakeholders to shape the need for and direction of change.
  • Be aware you’re likely to “suck responsibility up” – keep challenging yourself to genuinely empower others to work with you in leading the change, especially those who are advocates as their energy will be infectious.
  • As I said in my last blog another thing to do, ironically, is to do less – “perhaps the best advice then is slowing down and stepping back when in the middle of the complexity of change. This will help leaders attend to their own and others’ emotions, to listen to what is being said and not said about the change, and to decide what the best approach then is given that information”.
  • Take a ‘helicopter view’ – in their classic article Heifetz and Laurie (2) remind us that “business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action. Leaders have to see a context for change or create one”

None of these hints and tips are likely to shift our view of culture as ‘changing’, ‘challenging’, ‘uncertain’ and ‘confused’. But they might help when we are required to manage and lead others in such a world.

  • Oshry, B. (2007). Seeing systems: Unlocking the mysteries of organizational life. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  • Heifetz, R. A., & Laurie, D. L. (1997). The work of leadership. Harvard business review, 75, 124-134.