David Walker considers whether people’s organisational status should influence the way modern organisations achieve their goals….


In the olden days our working lives were different. Working hours tended to be shorter, sticking pretty much to 9am-5pm for office-based work. Everyone took an hour for lunch, possibly went to the pub for that, people smoked wherever and whenever they liked. The “management” were a separate class, and individuals were revered and referred to as Mr (or less-commonly Miss/Mrs!), usually not because of any particular qualities, just because they were the manager. Notice I don’t say leader….

Depending upon your point of view, there are downsides from modern business operations. For instance, nobody 50 years ago would have thought that we will expect and require an instant response to a request – we would have sent a letter, filled in a form, waited a few weeks, resolved issues over the next few weeks and so on. Now we expect everything to happen within minutes, hours or failing that days. As customers we are much more demanding and critical.

Times have changed. We now have the gig economy, people are on the whole much better-educated, communications and technology are transformed, and everyone is much more aware of their environment. Everything is substantially more complex, and a range of skills are needed to get pretty much anything done. On the whole people are more cognisant of subjects such as mental health, personal wellbeing, diversity and equality. People now (mostly) use their managers forenames, and those managers are just as likely to be women as men. Along the way, formerly acceptable bad behaviours have been consigned to the scrapheap.

In the past we didn’t talk about leadership in the way we do now. Many managers in the decades to the 1970s had military officer backgrounds stemming from the 1930’s to 1950’s, and the culture tended to be one of command and control. If Mr Smith ordered something to be done, then that was good enough, as the perception was that Mr Smith knew best. Status was based on rank, and status got things done. Responsibility was less likely to be delegated, and certain authorities were confined to managers because they were explicitly trusted and needed to maintain control. In the past it was common for people to say that their manager had told them to do something, so they were doing it even if they thought it was wrong. You might hear ‘I can’t give you a refund because my manager has to approve it?’ or ‘I can’t sign that cheque because I don’t have a mandate, and I haven’t got the mandate because I am a low grade’ (and implicitly less-trusted).

For reasons of internal control some of this still goes on of course, but on the whole we talk less about management and more about leadership. There is a long list of the traits of good leaders, which is the subject of a different article, but the key is they are focussed on getting the best from their teams rather than solely the “task”. The task will get done, not because the leader has ordered it to be done, but because the people involved understand what is required and why, and they all bring their skills and experience to bear. They work collaboratively, taking general or specific direction from their leaders and each other, and don’t need continual monitoring and control. Teams are more often rewarded than individuals, as the expectation is that it is the team that allows an individual to perform, and the individual allows the team to perform. Trust is also massively important of course – responsibility and authorities tend to be delegated further, as long as a person has the training and awareness to execute on the authority. Cultures tend to be more about collaboration and teamwork – people and customer-centric – rather than about task execution, and quality and innovation is improved as a consequence. Organisational culture – visions, missions, behaviours, beliefs etc tend to be more pervasive, well-understood by all, and people-focussed.

Modern leaders have to earn their respect, in the same way everyone else does. It is in response to the challenges of modern working that leadership approaches have evolved, and people-centricity is critical. Teams generally collaborate and manage themselves, but they still need leading – but our leaders have to lead themselves, their teams and the individuals within them, and be resilient in a complex world. Colleagues will know more about a subject than you, and you have to get the right skills and people to work together to deliver the value-creating outcome. In doing this, leaders have to comply with the cultural requirements of the organisation, and make sure that it is a “good place to work”. Indeed, whilst in the past many people principally turned up to the workplace to do a good job and earn an income, Millennials in particular are as interested in the collaborative corporate culture and work environment as their salary. Importantly they now make up over 50% of the workforce, and with the influence of Gen Z’ers increasing, modern leaders spend much of their time making sure that the work environment enables people to do their jobs.

Leadership is tough. It isn’t getting easier. Whilst most would not mourn the passing of inhibiting status-based organisations, I am sure there are days when some people might disagree. They may wish that someone would just make a decision and bark an order, but that behaviour from a leader is unlikely to be successful.

Contact David at [email protected]

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