Why better leadership will not save us (yet)

I’m getting deep into “A world without email”, the new book by Cal Newport. Excellent read and in terms of insight eye-opening. If you want science supported insights into what works and does not in the workplace, this should be among the books you read next.

I want to connect what I have read this far with my personal experiences, as a leader and an executive committee member of a knowledge worker organisation. Because this book raises a couple of points which point to a deeper issue which we may be ignoring, to our detriment.

The new leadership fad

The past few years have promoted leadership as the solution to all our corporate woes. If an organisation or a department does not function as it should, change the leadership. Train your members of the executive committee in new leadership approaches. Use collective intelligence. Liberate your organisation.

Now, before you get me wrong, I’m not bashing all leadership evolutions. I’m a firm believer in servant leadership. But the problem is that introspection at the higher level of an organisation is not, ever, going to solve a more fundamental underlying problem in a knowledge worker organisation.

The purpose of an organisation

An organisation, any organisation, is beholden to achieve its purpose. That may be commercial, but it may be not-for-profit either. But there are certain performance metrics which determine whether the organisation achieves its purpose or not. And the essence of the organisation achieving its purpose is the performance of its collaborators, its knowledge workers. They “do” the work. They know best what to do.

The more time the knowledge workers can spend doing their knowledge work, the “deeper” the work (referencing Cal Newport again), the better the results of the organisation as a whole.

What influences performance?

Performance is influenced by a number of factors. Let’s take output as a measurable performance indicator for the organisation, making abstraction whether output leads to the correct outcome and a relevant impact.

The quality of the people doing the work is important. What attracts quality people is – among others – the connection they can make with their beliefs and their purpose. Read any work by Daniel Pink to know more about that.

But forgotten is the workflow supporting these knowledge management activities. It is not only the activities executed by the knowledge workers that influence performance, it is the context, the conditions in which these knowledge workers need to execute these activities that makes all the difference. They certainly know what work to do. But they do not necessarily know the best workflow go optimize that work.

Paraphrasing Cal Newport here, they autonomously determine what to do, but leadership and management needs to support them by optimizing the workflow.

From higher motivation to no motivation at all

Forgetting to take all these dimensions into account creates a huge risk for all well-meaning new leadership initiatives. It goes like this.

  • Phase 1 – People join an organisation because the leadership (style) has them convinced the organisation will allow them to connect to their purpose, to what drives and motivates them. In this phase they have not yet encountered the organisation but they want to believe … and they want to believe that this organisation, because of its inspired leadership they connect to, is better than the one they came from;
  • Phase 2 – These collaborators actively engage with the organisation, and are able to ignore the underlying process issues because they initially self-motivate and power through the first obstacles. This is a strong driver because it powers these collaborators through their first years. The attitude is “whatever it is, we will fix it, we are close to” a solution, a breakthrough … In this phase, the leadership is able to motivate them. When leadership initiates a new approach, they will follow;
  • Phase 3 – Doubt starts to set in, often after 3 to 5 years of employment. The reality of the broken process trumps any motivational push the leadership can bring. You see this regularly when you look at engagement statistics. These have a tendency to nosedive for the cohort between 4 and 10 years of employment. This is where the collaborators realise that the reality is not that different here than it was where they came from, and they try to rebel. They challenge management, their N 1’s, and they comment loudly on what a broken place they work in. They will either leave (and this starts after 2 years and continues to slowly petter out at around 10-12 years of employment) or stay, demotivated.
  • Phase 4 – After 10 to 12 years, engagement statistics tend to go up again. They seldom attain the levels of the first and second phases, but they improve. Among the reasons is often the realisation that the organisation, with all its faults, is not that bad, and other places are not better.

Yes, it is not the place that is broken, it is the underlying process. But what is sad is that this evolution appears to be either accepted or not fully understood by the collaborators themselves and their management.

Cal Newport shows in his book that the fix is not simple, but it exists. And this fix is a fix of the process.

When the process is broken, you need to fix it first

I will not explain the entire premise behind “A world without email”. You should go and read it, it is a great book, and I’m not Blinkist. Do purchase it and read the entire thing. Cal Newport sometimes can be long-winded but he builds his case on solid foundations.

He questions not the work we do, but the workflow which we use to do it. He posits that the way in which we interact and communicate is not at all conductive to good performance but hinders us from achieving top performance within our teams. He is a strong believer in re-establishing synchronous rather than a-synchronous communications between people working together and to limit the asynchronous communication to those contexts where it can add value.

While I understand his book was not aimed at addressing the COVID-19 context we live in, his findings resonate even more in these times. The strang thing is, we have the tools available to us to work in a more performance optimised manner. We don’t use them enough.

A case in point

To illustrate the point, I had an interesting situation on my hands last week. An urgent project which had been coordinated based on asynchronous communications hit a serious snag because the underlying assumptions and their consequences turned out to not be fully understood by every collaborator involved. This in turn jeopardised the complete and timely delivery of an important part of the project.

The initial communication about this problem was asynchronous and consisted of me asking everyone how it was possible we found out about the misunderstanding this far into the project.

Then came the Teams call. It started off difficult, because everyone was looking at everyone else while the proverbial smoke was coming out of my ears because this was not going in the right direction … and then, after about 30 minutes, we started to have a synchronous discussion. I stated the objective and the consequences of failing to meet this objective.

Then the team got to talking the fundamentals of the problem. People in the call called other people to join the call to get their opinion, the scope was clarified and the big bad thundercloud in the sky was quickly shown to be less of a challenge than it first appeared to be.

The entire call lasted about 90 minutes. During the call we talked shop, we talked issues, we established mutual understanding, and we worked the solution. My role, as a leader, was to ensure that if the team was blocked, I would know I had to solve that. We came out on the other side with a clear way forward which respected the timelines we needed to respect.

And that was a win. Now, what is the lesson here? First, we need to work like this all the time instead of only in crisis mode. Second, our asynchronous communication, via email and chat, works for each of us individually. We throw the issue or the answer over a wall and know that it will be picked up later. What we do not know, what asynchronous communication does not allow, is to validate proper understanding. While asynchronous communication may work for you and me individually, it is not the best way to talk within a team on a mission.

A call for more breakthrough workflow innovation

Where does that leave organisations? It is clear from Cal Newport’s book that most organisations have issues that mere leadership cannot solve. Leadership may even make those situations worse if it creates a purpose which the underlying organisational processes, the workflow as Cal Newport calls it, do not support but detract from. It becomes problematic if that purpose is driven by engaged leadership. That is a problem, because as a motivated collaborator you want to go where your leadership is pointing you … but the processes will not allow you to get there. These situations have no happy ending and the collaborator will blame leadership for not addressing the underlying problem.

The solution?

Dare to look at the workflows themselves while working on leadership. Do not shy away from reducing the asynchronous communications such as emails and chats to move towards a more coordinated, face-to-face, synchronous way of interacting, leaving the collaborators the time to focus on doing what they do best, delivering content, for the rest of the time. Regularly recalibrate, regularly make sure that everyone is aligned, knows and understands what is going on in the project or the day-to-day work, using tools that are available and allow for this type of synchronous communication to function even in these times of confinement.

Incrementalism is not the solution

Let’s not try to be incremental about this either. As Cal Newport points out, regulatory initiatives such as the French initiative to limit the time during which an employer can ask a collaborator to monitor and react to email does not address the underlying issue, which is simple: asynchronous communication is not the solution to our current challenges, it is part of the problem, the biggest part.

If we want to keep our collaborators motivated, we need to have them talk to each other and talk to them on a regular basis. Yes, we need to support them where we can, as members of leadership. But we need to let them do the work for the remainder of the time.

Solving these challenges will take more than better leadership. It will take courage. After that, I am sure that leadership initiatives such as collective intelligence can make a real difference. But first we need to get the workflow optimised.