Simon Terry

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From Life-crushing to Life-affirming Work

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My parody post on the Life-crushing Magic of Hierarchy, rightly prompted the reaction: “Yes, but what do you recommend we do about it?”. This entire blog is an extended essay on what to do to help make work more human. I believe the critical challenge for organisations as we move into the future of work is how to use learning, leadership and collaboration to create more life-affirming workplaces and work. For those who are looking for quick clarity, I thought I would distill a few basic responses to the challenge.

Call The Life-crushing Management & Discuss it

Frighteningly several people have taken the post at face value as a recommendation of management practices. This highlights our need to discuss the excesses and abuses of management practices more widely. Transparency & debate is a first step, because many of the practices will be stopped or adapted when challenged or discussed openly. Importantly, transparency alone is not enough.  We need people to act on change too.

Calling hierarchical leaders to explain their actions is not a step taken lightly. Like it or not, the call will challenge some leaders and not all challenges are welcome. Simple steps can be taken to make it easier to call bad practice and start a discussion:

  • Don’t do it alone: Build a coalition or at least check your perspectives with others before you call a bad practice. Ensure that there is a crowd of supporters for your view point.
  • Seek to understand: Begin by seeking to understand the management perspective. Don’t presume malevolence or incompetence. Most bad decisions come from a lack of shared context.
  • Based your questions in higher purpose, values or strategy: Appealing to and clarifying the higher order can give you more basis for a challenge.
  • Add external perspectives: Closed systems atrophy. Some times lack of diversity can be the problem. Add external ideas, data and perspectives to add weight to your call.
  • Offer help: If you call something, be prepared to work to create a better way. There’s a lot of critics. There are fewer collaborators.

Discuss People, Outcomes & Purpose

The practices “recommended” share a common goal of valuing management power over the effects of work. Creating a vibrant discussion of purpose, the importance of meeting people’s needs and the impacts of work beyond the organisation is critical to moving to more meaningful work. Starting with a strong sense of why work is to be done and the goals it is to achieve for the organisation, the individual and other stakeholders is a key part of a better more engaging work environment.

Importantly, this begins to foster and “outside-in” perspective that pushes hierarchical managers to look to new data and perspectives in their decision making.  Being clearer on goals and purpose is also a fundamental underpinning to allowing new forms of autonomy for employees to react and make change.

Grow Accountability, Autonomy and Change

As we add human accountability to the networks in our organisations, we enable people to begin to grow trust and influence. Think of the definition of wirearchy and focus on increasing ‘the dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results”. Many simple issues in our organisations can be addressed by allowing people to share more information and begin to exercise autonomy to make decisions that need to be made beyond roles, mere compliance and process constraints. The exercise of that autonomy rises as accountability & trust rises. At the same time, we start to accelerate the pace of change in our organisations enabled by the distributed talents of our people. Increased accountability is one of the goals of traditional management, but common practices tend to disempower. We need instead to increase accountability and empowerment at the same time.

Build Capability

The appeal of traditional management practice is that managers need not be very effective at coordinating people and the employee’s roles are kept rote and simple. Working in more human ways will require organisations to build new capability to lead and to influence and also to make more complex decisions in every role in the organisation. We can’t manage and work in different ways if we have not helped people to develop the required capabilities. Enabling people throughout the organisation to gather information, to learn, to make change and to influence others becomes very important.

Continue the Collaboration & Change

There are no quick fixes, no gurus and no systems to buy to make a more life-affirming workplace. The steps above need to be led by management and by the entire team in the organisation over an extended period of change.  We don’t necessarily need to start by throwing out hierarchy or managers.  In most cases, they come back in another form anyway. What we need to do is to learn to work in new and much more effective ways that value human potential inside and outside the organisation.

Capabilities aren’t learned overnight and new ways of working take time to embed and be secure from the next round of management changes and new hires. The best way to carry this journey forward is to embed it in a collaborative change program that the entire team embraces.  Making life-affirming work part of the cultural fabric of the organisation must be the ultimate goal.  After all, there is no destination, just an endless journey of improvement and change.


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