Fear and Foreboding

Is that a dark cloud on the horizon? Is that even the horizon? Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com

Why never a warning, either by speech or look,
That love you cruelly gave me could not last?
Already it was too late: the bait swallowed,
The hook fast.

Robert Graves, The Foreboding

We have been through fatigue. We have faced languishing. After all that we feel unsettled and unsure. Now our hybrid lives have left us with fear and foreboding. The challenge now is not the threat of death from a pandemic. The challenge is that our work systems have not adapted to flexibility, adaptation and distributed work. We are in fear of the systems that have us in their thrall because we know the system limitations bring forebodings.

Those system limitations are the legacy of hundreds of years of management, particularly that with a machine metaphor and a narrow focus on atomising and individualising performance. Moving beyond the fear and foreboding in the future evolution of digital work will demand greater change in the ways we work, not just the communications technology that connects us.

Narrow Ruts of Autonomy

I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,   
an unseen nest
where a mountain   
would be.

Tess Gallager, Choices

Work is defined by roles. Those roles are attached to process steps in processes. The roles are wrapped in hierarchy and limited decision-making. We can increase the autonomy of people in their limited roles and processes but it is rare that an organisation gives every employee the capacity to stop and change the whole production system.

Transformational change in work demands more than delivering a better outcome in a narrow rut of autonomy. We feel fear and foreboding because we can see what needs to change around us in the system and we aren’t able to make that change happen.

Just Out of Time

The pandemic has shown the limitations of our global just-in-time logistic systems. We have ruthlessly squeezed the waste from our organisational systems too. This means employees are doing more with less and that means that the pressure increasingly falls on the isolated individual to bridge the gaps.

Capacity is essential for adaptation. Without capacity in our system we face challenges in adapting and resilience to shocks breaks down. Employees have no time to flex and adapt. Running from meeting to meeting, coping with messaging overload they focus instead on following the rut and avoiding the scythe of fear as best they can.

Fear as an Organizing System

So many of our organisational systems are founded in fear. We elaborately prepare to manage risks and their consequences. We drown organisations in policies and procedures against the fear of isolated incidents of malpractice or the rare errors.

We manage performance with consequences that range from exile (loss of employment) through to penalty (loss of income). Many employees spend much of their working life in the thrall of targets that are externally imposed, arbitrary and often even meaningless. The only meaning that achieving that target offers is an end to the fear of missing them.

When beating your head against the wall, it can feel good to stop. Why do we need to create a culture of fear and support it with so many systems?

You can call
It a fear of heights, a horror of the deep;
But it isn’t the unfathomable fall
That makes me giddy, makes my stomach lurch,
It’s that the ledge itself invents the leap.

A E Stallings, Fear of Happiness

Flexibly Inflexible Systems

I began the pandemic talking about Monsters at the Gates, big systemic changes that surround our organisations and demand us to consider how we will contribute our agency to change. Now we can see that the flexible work systems of our organisations are inflexible. Moving back to back meetings to back to back videoconference calls does nothing to improve the flexibility of the system. Allowing narrow autonomy can even create a dynamic where less change is possible given the interconnectedness of work and modern systems. We are better at flexibility of where we do what we do but most importantly we have not allowed for the flexibility of what we do, how we do it and with whom we do it.

Importantly, we do not allow the flexibility to avoid an ever present experience of fear and foreboding. If we have work to do in 2022 to repair and prepare for what comes next, it is applying our agency to these challenges which stretch far beyond releasing people from isolation and providing psychological safety. Ultimately, the roadmap we need leads to scaling systemic change, accelerating shared learning and realising the potential of growing individual agency.

Without drama,
what is ritual? I look for omens everywhere, because they are everywhere
to be found. They come to me like strays, like the damaged,
something that could know better, and should, therefore—but does not:
a form of faith, you’ve said

Carl Phillips, Custom

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