The Struggle of Work

In ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned by Hades to the eternal task of rolling a boulder to the top of a hill each day for it to roll down each time it neared the top. Oddly, the boulder is often represented in art as round. If you were a god assigning this daily struggle, wouldn’t you make the boulder misshapen? Work is a greater struggle when it is precarious, volatile and uncertain.

The Struggle

Yesterday, I discussed that uncertainty is the work. Today, let’s look at what that means for the worker.

Many of us have had Gianpiero Petriglieri’s experience in recent months. Work can feel like it is disappearing due to our crisis and expanding at the same time. We have been exposed to the struggle of precarious, uncertain and volatile work. There has been lots of change, much ambiguity, and a need for continuing adaptation to cope with the evolving situation. We are faced with constant effort to understand, to learn, to change and to adapt. The unthinking rote activities of work have been replaced with reflection and mental effort.

This experience scales as organisations understand that uncertainty is the work. As our organisations grapple with greater uncertainty that flows onto individual work. The precarity, volatility and uncertainty that is often reserved for freelance workers, partners and contractors becomes a more common part of our experience. In addition to doing the flow of mechanical work, we become increasingly enagaged in the complex struggle of managing work: understanding context, creating demand, managing changing, resolving issues and all the related interpersonal relationships. Stable predictable process work requires effort but less of this demanding struggle.

As we have this new volatility in our work, we experience more time on ‘balcony and dance floor’ to borrow from Heifetz and Linsky’s work on adaptive leadership. We are taken out of our normal busy lives and asked to reflect on the overall system, relationships and circumstances of our work. This is new work for some and demanding work for all.

Why should I do it if it ain’t easy?

One challenge future of work advocates have faced in recommending new work practices to manage uncertainty, learning and adaptation to the managers in organisations is that the managers understand these struggles. They know that there is comfort and security in stable, predictable processes with clearly defined goals. Anything precarious, uncertain and volatile is a struggle to be avoided, allocated to others or assumed away. Constantly changing, learning and adapting is a struggle as a leader and a challenge to lead in a team.

Sir Richard Hicks said ‘the best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life’. Organisations have taken this to heart allowing teams monopoly power over processes to their own comfort and weakening adaptation externally. Struggle was outsourced to the edges of the organisation where sales teams and customer contact teams managed adaptation as best they can and experienced higher performance expectations and turnover.

The expansion of global demand in the 19th and 20th Centuries lulled us into the security of stability. For a traditional organisation focused on uncertain demand, the global growth in markets made demand a forecasting challenge. We can no longer separate stable processes for making products from the customer engagement, marketing, distribution and servicing. We need change, learning and adaptation along the entire value chain. We need to bring struggle into the heart of all our work.

Leading organisations are building the leadership capabilities, the skills and the cultures that enable their people to adapt to this new struggle. They are addressing the real anxieties of middle managers and employees about these new ways of working. The outcome is to build the resilence and the capability of both the organisation and its people. Traditional organisations are stable until they are not and the consequence for employees was usually that they would be ejected from comfortable stability to new precarity through layoffs, restructures or other changes.

You may not make this struggle go away, but we can be explicit that the struggle is part of work and skill people to succeed in managing work in new adaptive ways. Leaders will need to embrace different approaches and model the new practices. You can help people to smooth the edges of the boulder with new work practices and approaches. Until we do so, the legitimate resistance to additional struggle will remain a barrier to adoption in organisations.

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