· 4 min read · Features

Staff will put up with a lot at work - if they know why


We have been talking about work-life balance and building business cases for organisations to embrace it against a backdrop of economic, technological and social/ demographic change for well over a decade in the UK now. The intransigence of organisations to adapt to this new imperative however has been remarkable. Rather like the foretelling of the paperless office and forecasting that print is dead, most working lives have not been transformed in the past 10 years. We all still largely troop into our workplaces for our full-time jobs, the commitment of those working flexibly goes largely unrecognised as does the talent wastage inherent in the traditional career structures that are still pretty much intact.

We all know that the next few years are going to be extremely difficult for people in organisations. We will need to ask extraordinary things of ordinary people. As leaders we will be required to deliver results against the odds and our organisation's resilience to be able to do this.

This means building our people's resilience and commitment to doing that day in and day out, when progress will feel slow and laborious. So we need leaders who can build purpose.

One of the keys to individual resilience comes from knowing why we are doing things. People will put up with a lot of ‘what' if they know ‘why'. Creating a sense of mission over the next few years will be a critical role for leaders yet this can often feel counter-intuitive in tough times. The greater the responsibility we feel for our organisation the more focused we are on survival, and the bigger-picture purpose can often get brushed aside or seem like a frivolous use of time and bandwidth. It's not.

Understanding what our purpose is as leaders is also critical to our own resilience. Do we know why we are doing this and why is it important? Do we have the courage to ensure it adds up to more than a hill of beans at the end of the day and, equally importantly, do our people believe it?

A sense of purpose can also mitigate risk in our organisations, as it becomes a super-ordinate principle overriding personal greed and individual reward, something we needed to be paying more attention to over the past decade.

Just as purpose supports resilience it also enables change.

To compete effectively in our new world we have to change the way we do things and we will need our people to lead and support that change. And they will only do that if they care enough. Often our response as leaders in difficult times is to focus on the numbers, to become granular in our control of resources and deeply analytical as we try to assess our changing marketplace. And of course this is exactly what we need to do but it can't be at the expense of building a community that cares about why that is so imperative. As leaders we need to understand and be able to articulate ‘what counts' for our organisation in every dimension.

While there will be a good deal about modern management that will be pilloried on the back of this economic meltdown, much of it will probably focus on the ‘technology' of management and its inadequacy to equip us to manage organisations in an increasingly ambiguous and connected world. From dealmaking to financial instruments, from net present values to business modelling, the classic MBA curriculum will likely be the heartland we go to when trying to answer the question: ‘how did we get here?' Yet the standard toolkit for managers and leaders of organisations might not be as rich a source of understanding as an investigation into our maturity as leaders. This is likely to yield greater insight into what we might need to do differently, or more of, moving forward.

Over the past 10 to 20 years a leadership model that is trans- formational and more coaching-oriented than command and control has been taking root. But they are fairly young roots and it will be interesting to see, as times get tougher whether they survive, because they need to. This model of leadership hasn't sprung out of a touchy-feely movement, neither is it a by-product of ‘good times'. As we have needed to respond to a service economy where people really were our greatest asset we needed to engage with them in a different way. The focus on emotional intelligence as well as IQ has begun to be buried in leadership and management development programmes and discussion around issues like integrity and character are now quite the norm.

The opportunity now is for us to insist on these attributes in our leaders and to flex our organisations to the extreme. We have been busy teaching managers skills such as listening, coaching, facilitating, creativity, team building - about taking responsibility for building capability in their people.

These aren't just leadership attributes for good times, they are leadership attributes for times where one person can't have all the answers any more, where ambiguity is the over-arching feature of the landscape we are trying to navigate.

As leaders in this difficult environment we need to appreciate and learn to revel in the jazz of organisations more, which will be the sign of our leadership maturity.

The difference between the organisations of yesterday and today is similar to the difference between classical music and jazz. One is structured and able to be appreciated and dissected intellectually; the other is spontaneous, often appears discordant and chaotic but is in itself profoundly sophisticated and complex.

The two kinds of music are created very differently; with jazz there is rarely a conductor. Jazz players are the ultimate self-managing team, they improvise, they support each other's solos, they innovate as they go along with no single rendition being quite the same as the other. The notes they don't play are as important as those they do. The music itself is very fluid, free-form, not always planned. The surprises and the innovation is what amazes and delights -the chaos is terrifying.

The technical expertise is simply a given; it is the interpretation that is critical. As leaders in these uncharted waters where there is no score, we need to hone our jazz appreciation skills and not be tempted to go back to the managerial models of yesterday that have proved to have served us poorly. If we do that, the attitude and infrastructure shifts required to make work-life balance real will inevitably take root as we loosen up our organisations and reward leaders who can make that happen.

Penny de Valk is CEO, Institute of Leadership and Management

This essay is part of Tomorrow's world - perspectives on work and family life in the future a collection of essays published by Working Families