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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