Managers have always faced challenges. It is what they are for. But there does seem to be something about the scope, scale, and speed of current challenges that are in a different league from anything that we have experienced in the past. These challenges are mostly due to the accelerating pace of change brought about by technology. And technology is affecting all aspects of our lives from the most intimate and personal, to corporate and global. The lines between our different roles and activities are becoming more and more blurred.
With our always on, always with us, devices we are having to learn new rules about what we do where and why with them. As a result, management is having to adapt too. Whether it is an assumption that people are only really working when you can see them at their desk in the office, or that face to face meetings and written memos are the most effective way to manage communication, we are having to let go of some long and deeply held beliefs about what it means to work.
The internet has been around for more than 30 years, and I am sure many people already take it for granted, but it is the Internet that is enabling paradigm shifting businesses like Uber, or the societal upheaval that will be triggered by automated self-driving cars, or the disruptive impact of Blockchain technologies, or even wildly swinging online political opinion in the form of Brexit or Trump — the list goes on.
What is common to each of these is decentralisation and the disintermediation of all sorts of activities that used to be managed by some form of centralised authority. We are bypassing the gatekeepers and many of the bureaucratic blocks that used to be in the way, often for good reasons. Our expectation nowadays is to be directly involved in all sorts of aspects of our lives that we used to devolve to others. We are only beginning to learn how to do to this.
The combination of these changes is also being seen in the workplace. It used to be that our IT reflected the organisational hierarchy. It was applied centrally and from the top down, controlled by rules and fixed processes. Nowadays everyone carries a smartphone with them, more often than not their own smartphone. These tools are enhancing how we keep up with what is happening around us, connect with each other, and take action. And in a world where many more things are trying to grab our attention, we are becoming more ruthless about what we allow onto those intimate, personal devices.
This is shifting how we perceive hierarchies, it is shifting how we perceive management, it is shifting how we perceive work, and ultimately it is shifting how we perceive society. It is this big deal, and it is this that managers are going to have to anticipate and use to their organisations advantage.
How to keep up with an accelerating world
The first step is to be truly willing to engage with it. Too often when asked to speak to managers about the new technologies affecting us their response is “Oh, I don’t do technology.” This is increasingly becoming a dereliction of professional duty. It is not good enough. To be an effective leader in a modern fast-moving technologically driven environment you have to understand the basics of the technologies affecting your business and why they are having an impact.
This might be as simple as taking a look at the technology pages in the Sunday supplements, but there are more effective and faster ways of keeping up. Thanks to social media it is possible to identify and follow “thought leaders” in any field. The people who are at the cutting edge of new developments, who are thinking hard about the impact of those developments, and who are willing and able to share their ideas with an increasingly attentive audience. Find the group of experts who are shaping your industry, or field of activity, and follow them. See who they talk to, see how they get their ideas, follow the networks and their conversations to get to people grappling with the actual challenges that they are talking about.
And you don’t always have to look to the outside world for your insights. There will almost certainly be people inside your organisation who are grappling with these very challenges, working together in small groups, thinking hard about how to solve them. The problem is that very often you don’t know that they are there or who they are. Find them and listen to them.
How to connect with an accelerating workforce
Listen to your workforce and especially your frontline of customer-facing staff. They almost certainly understand the business and what is called for. They are also talking to themselves more than they’re talking to management, and increasingly those groups are using social media to get connected. In fact, someone recently said that “your staff already have a social media policy, and if you are lucky they have included you in it. “Be brave and reach out both online and off.
But there is a tension here. The modes of communication are unfamiliar, and uncomfortable, to most managers. There is the ever-present risk that an attempt to dip your toe in the water and engage in online banter will render you an object of ridicule like the archetypical dad dancing at a disco.
If you already have an internal social network, you are ahead of many of your competitors. Use it, watch it, learn from it. If you don’t have one, get one. If you can’t get one get better at listening to the conversations your staff is having around the water cooler or in the canteen. Be more open to their challenges and pressures and use these as triggers for change and improvement. Find the ones who are pushing the limits of what’s possible, by them a coffee, sit down and get to understand their perspective on your organisation. It may be similar to your own, or it may be radically different.
This is also true of the different generations. It is all too easy to get stuck in the comfort zone of people of our age and who share a similar perspective. Even worse is the tendency to introduce token millennials to staff events as if they were part of some anthropological exercise. They are not strange beings from another planet; they are people trying to make their world of work work. Their insights are invaluable. All that is called for is a genuine intention to sit down and pass the time with them, to understand them, and learn from their perspectives on the world. Sadly it is all too rare.
How to encourage staff to actively engage in your vision for the business
More than once I have been accused of being unreasonable expecting people to think for themselves, especially at work. Sadly, we have trained people from school onwards to see independent thinking as hard work and risky. We perpetrate these attitudes at work. The two biggest hurdles to active engagement of staff are their lack of self-confidence and self-belief and the attitudes of those immediately above them who tend to assume the worst. If, as suggested above, they are genuinely listened to, and encouraged to input to business solutions, their sense of ownership of problems will inevitably increase. This has to be done authentically, and “employee engagement” programs don’t always meet the need.
In terms of active online engagement, there are two motivators that help staff engage with social business systems. Being given something really practical and useful that they couldn’t do otherwise on a company mobile device helps. I heard a great example where the logistics company that managed the drivers delivering in and out of Hong Kong airport gave them a very effective app that helps them to manage their shifts and the time sheets better. This drew them into the company space so that they were there when conversations about work were instigated, and they were more inclined to pay attention.
The other thing that draws people in is, frankly, gossip. So many internal social networks fail because they are too “business-like.” But sociability has always oiled the wheels in business. It is what we do when we arrive at meetings, so why shouldn’t it be what we do online? You want the energy of “bloody good conversations” and need to do whatever it takes to get those started.
Once networks become lively and active enough, managers can’t help themselves lurking! For many, this is the first time they have actually had the opportunity to see what is going on inside their organisation. Once they get more confidence about how the network works, more and more of them find the confidence to start to engage.
How to move from engagement to empowerment
I often think that genuine empowerment is more about getting out of the way of something that is trying to happen rather than trying to force it to happen. You can’t make people want to engage, and you can’t make them take the initiative. If passivity and compliance pervade your corporate culture, you have greater problems than social business systems can solve. But even in the most passive, compliant, organisation, there will always be people who are standing out from the norm, who are more animated, engaged, better listeners. Watch them, copy them, begin to celebrate them. When you see someone killing a conversation with hierarchical or power game behaviours, call them on it. Start to surface the issues. This takes effort and courage. Frankly, not many organisations are up for this.
Getting ready for the future
At a conference in Australia recently I asked the audience if they would rather be managed on a day-to-day basis by a chat bot rather than their current line manager. 60% of the audience raised their hands. The prospect of your frontline workforce being enabled by removing some of the dysfunctional management above it is in enticing prospect. Most of the time, most of us, just need little bits of information and context setting from our managers. This could quite effectively be provided by automated systems. How many of us have ever really felt the need of a boss to make sure we do what we do? Way too many interactions with bosses are overloaded with baggage, both theirs and ours, that we could well do without.
But is that really the sort of techno future we want to work in? When the routine jobs are taken by automated systems and AI, what are your clever people going to do? How are you going to attract them? The future is all about improving the quality and frequency of our conversations that get our jobs done. Raising the bar, thinking harder and sharing better. It is more about culture than it is about technology. It is culture, as ever, that will be a key differentiator.
About the author
Euan Semple is the Director at euansemple.com, public speaker, writer and consultant — helping organizations, and more importantly the people in them, getting their heads around social media, social business, and the social web. Connect with him at euan[at]euansemple.com, LinkedIn and Twitter