Purpose and Trust in Crisis

Remote work and leadership at a distance is based on purpose and trust. Where these are missing, the corona crisis becomes a crisis of purpose and trust. One can learn from this—or reboot the previous operating system of the organization as quickly as possible.

The Coro­na pan­dem­ic has made remote work the New Nor­mal for many employ­ees and orga­ni­za­tions. Remote work rais­es the ques­tion of trust to an unimag­ined extent and this often leads direct­ly into a cri­sis of trust. Where pre­vi­ous­ly lead­er­ship was already built on the mot­to pur­pose and trust over com­mand and con­trol, lead­er­ship at a dis­tance is now no big deal. Where this was not the case, many man­agers revealed their anti­quat­ed con­cept of human nature by try­ing to some­how con­trol the work of employ­ees in the home office. And there­fore those man­agers are now hap­py about the ramp-up to the pre­vi­ous cult(ure) of pres­ence.

The second thesis of the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership: Purpose and trust over command and control.
The sec­ond the­sis of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship.

The months of forced remote work could have been a chance to switch from input to impact. Pres­ence in the office has always had lit­tle cor­re­la­tion with per­for­mance. In knowl­edge work, results count. When, how and where they are pro­duced, must be irrel­e­vant. This insight has long exist­ed in com­pa­nies such as Base­camp or Red Hat, which are pri­mar­i­ly dis­trib­uted and orga­nized accord­ing to the prin­ci­ple of mer­i­toc­ra­cy. And in some oth­ers, such as Twit­ter, where employ­ees now have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work from their home office for­ev­er, it has matured in recent months. But in most com­pa­nies this oppor­tu­ni­ty has been mis­er­ably missed. That’s why in many places the return to the open-plan office is now being cel­e­brat­ed under all kinds of pro­tec­tive measures.

To put it blunt­ly, the most impor­tant task for any man­ag­er today is to cre­ate a work envi­ron­ment that inspires excep­tion­al con­tri­bu­tion and that mer­its an out­pour­ing of pas­sion, imag­i­na­tion and initiative.

Gary Hamel, 2012. The Prob­lem with Man­age­ment.

This peri­od also shows where the lead­er­ship cul­ture is posi­tioned in terms of the ten­sion between “con­tri­bu­tions to net­works over posi­tions in hier­ar­chies” from the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship. Where hier­ar­chy pre­dom­i­nates as the oper­at­ing sys­tem of the orga­ni­za­tion, pres­ence is required. A cap­tain needs his crew. In orga­ni­za­tions that see them­selves pri­mar­i­ly as a liv­ing net­work and where the hier­ar­chy is not very dom­i­nant, the con­tri­bu­tion and per­for­mance in terms of mer­i­toc­ra­cy counts more than pres­ence and visibility.

The fourth thesis of the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership: contributions to networks over positions in hierarchies
The fourth the­sis of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship.

What and part­ly also where the indi­vid­ual in such orga­ni­za­tions makes his con­tri­bu­tion can and should be sur­pris­ing. Of course, there is dai­ly busi­ness that has to be done there as well, but beyond that, qual­i­fied involve­ment is desir­able in prin­ci­ple. The pre­req­ui­site for a fruit­ful dis­course in such a net­work orga­ni­za­tion is on the one hand a cul­ture that val­ues diver­si­ty and dis­sent more than con­for­mi­ty and con­sen­sus.

Pur­pose is often mis­un­der­stood. It’s not what a group does but why it does what it does. It’s not a goal but a rea­son — the rea­son it exists, the need it ful­fills, and the assis­tance it bestows. It is the answer to the ques­tion every group should ask itself: if we dis­ap­peared today, how would the world be dif­fer­ent tomorrow?

Lin­da Hill, Greg Bran­deau, Emi­ly Tru­elove, and Kent Line­back, 2014. Col­lec­tive Genius. (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link)

On the oth­er hand, it needs a very strong pur­pose. If it is miss­ing — or where prof­it has been ele­vat­ed to an end in itself—the yard­stick for con­tri­bu­tions and per­for­mance is miss­ing. So instead pres­ence is mea­sured. And for many orga­ni­za­tions, the coro­na cri­sis is not only a cri­sis of trust but also a cri­sis of pur­pose. There­fore this cri­sis is also the chance to work on pur­pose and trust. This chance can be seized — or you can try to reboot the orga­ni­za­tion’s pre­vi­ous oper­at­ing sys­tem as quick­ly as possible.

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