From Life-crushing to Life-affirming Work


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.

The Life-crushing Magic of Hierarchy

Humans are inherently messy creatures. We accumulate history and the entanglements of human relationships and emotions. As a manager this human mess can interfere with the joy of the unrelenting execution of your will. A cluttered organisation shows no respect to a manager’s inherent expertise and power. 

My life as a manager was transformed when I discovered the life-crushing magic of hierarchy. Your life and organisation can be neat and orderly, if you follow these simple organisational principles. 

Touch Everything

Firstly you must understand the principle behind all hierarchical organisation. A manager must constantly touch everything. Dump all your expectations about independent action by your team on the floor. Subject everything to your hands-on micromanagement power. 

You must feel free to touch any activity in the organisation at any time, throw it into a disordered pile and then use your superior management skills to put things back into the places that best suit you. Do this until your organisation shines with respect for your management skill. 

Kill Joy

Look at any activity if it sparks joy in your employees, discard it from your organisation. You have the power to exclude these activities that divert from the joy of experiencing unfettered authority. Crush the activities and discard any employees associated with them. The more meaningless the work the better it will demonstrate your management expertise. If too much meaning arises in work, intervene and make changes or better yet reorganise again.

Process not People

When organising your business it is traditional to be concerned with individual business units, alignment to customer or business outcomes and the people involved. Put aside this nostalgia. 

Focus instead on process. Ask yourself only whether the process brings you joy and crushes the freedom of your people. Make sure your processes are inflexible, opaque, compliance-oriented, end-to-end and untouched by nostalgic human considerations. The more abstract the outcomes that your processes create the better. 

Organise your business one process at a time and follow each process to the end before proceeding on to the next until you have completed your arrangements process by process. This may increase the mess and confusion in the meantime but you will find an organisation that is far easier to control and manage in the end.

If at any time you are not getting joy from this process, reorganise your people to make their arrangement more appealing. Over time your people will begin to appreciate the recognition that they get from being dumped into reorganisation. They will shine around you for the fear that next time you may get them. 

Everything in its place

Everything must be in its place before you go to work. Only you will be best able to determine the sweet spot for an employee. Don’t let them create mess by making career choices. Fold them carefully into their small box alongside their peers in the process. Never let your employees feel that they have a place to which they can go home. 

Arrange your remaining employees in tightly segmented silos and narrow process defined roles. It is essential they are visible and accessible to you at all times. You will need the ability to grab them from their important work at a whim and put them back easily at your pleasure. Measure them continuously to keep them aware of their need to maintain your respect and bring you joy.  

When interacting with your employees discard any that show too much spark. Remember to share your unfettered opinion and discard theirs at every opportunity. Finish every interaction with one of your employees by remarking gently ‘Thanks, I’ll take it from here.’

No Stacking

Stacking can crush employees at the bottom and damage their self-respect. This is an activity which should be reserved to bring joy to you. This is why it is so essential that employees are carefully folded into a place in process. Therefore do away with any unnecessary intermediate managers who may have the time to create fiefdoms to challenge your own. Keep the other managers moving quickly to satisfy your directives so that they have no time for their own thoughts, action or joy. Make everyone subject to your direct instruction and make all the decisions with your unique, shifting and often emotional rationales. 

A category of employee that requires particular attention in removing any other forms of leadership are your change agents. They are an unnecessary source of independence and activity. You will find no spark of joy in your dealings with them. Instead they may even challenge your authority or make unnecessary suggestions. Implement an enterprise social network in your organisation. This will enable you to identify those employees who still hold opinions and may act on their own outside of your chosen process. Gather your change agents. Hug them and thank them for their service. Then bundle them out the door

Follow these principles closely and your hierarchy will be neat, tidy and much smaller. Be sure that it will bring you, and you alone, great joy. Other managers will look on your shiny, svelte & compliant organisation with new respect.

Apologies to Marie Kondo. Thank you to those who gave me encouragement, ideas and suggestions for this post. May it spark some much needed joy in your work. If anyone reading is still in any doubt, don’t do this.

Leveraging Accountability in Networks

In networks we are less able to leverage power to enforce accountability. Leveraging accountability requires a different focus as we are challenged to consider how we connect to personal purpose, relationships and reputation. Considering these approaches benefit leaders in each domain.

Accountability in Hierarchy is Done to You

In traditional hierarchical management, accountability is the responsibility of those in power. Accountabilities are enforced leveraging the power of leaders to reward, punish and exclude.

As a result accountability can be an imposed experience.  Decisions made remotely have impacts on status, rewards and other benefits. Accountability is a transaction of consequences that may not endure. An individual depends on good leaders to fully understand the process by which they are held to account and the rationale of the consequences.

Accountability in Networks is Personal

Confronted by an absence to enforce consequences with power many traditional leaders assume there is no accountability in networks. Individuals collaborating as peers are coming and going under their own authority. How could anyone hold them to account for their actions or decisions. We are too familiar from discussion of trolls and lurking with the idea that in a network domain there is little accountability.

Accountability in networks has not gone but it must be founded in personal decisions, relationships and reputation. Trust is the fundamental commodity of collaboration in networks and trust is a human process with swift and effective accountability.

For an individual to have any accountability in a network, they must have made a personal decision to engage.  The best of these decisions are founded in and reinforce personal purpose. Individuals rarely walk away from commitments aligned to their personal purpose. One of the reasons, efforts to hold lurkers to account fail is that the individual has usually made no explicit commitment to do anything. 

Communicating the decision to engage to others in a relationship is the the foundation for accountability in that relationship. Once the personal decision is shared it creates expectations in another.  How an individual performs against those expectations has implications for their ongoing relationship, their reputation in the community and the trust that others have in them.  Trolls explicitly avoid this relationship. They leverage anonymity to escape personal consequences and explicitly reject the norms of the communities that they attack. Trolling is a transaction in a community built on relationships. The major enterprise social networks rely on verified identities of employees to draw into the organisations community these relationships and their consequences.

Individuals who fail this relationship based approach to accountability will feel consequences. They may not be excluded or punished but they will find their influence decline as people decline to engage with them. Individuals will lose their authority to act. Having proved themselves untrustworthy the network routes around them like a blockage. The consequences of this for an individual can be harsh, devastating and enduring. Ostracism is a punishment for failing accountability in many ancient communities for this reason.

Leverage Accountability in a Relationship

To leverage accountability in networks, even those woven through our hierarchies, leaders need to follow some key practices:

  • Get personal: The best accountabilities are personal so we need to move from imposing accountability on groups to a focus on the individual and the individual’s actions and decisions.
  • Stand for a purpose: Purpose underpins deep accountability. If you stand for a purpose, you have a better chance of drawing the commitment of others who share that purpose and also of those people holding themselves to account.
  • Discover & share common truths: Shared context strengthens accountability. Focus on discovering and sharing common truths. You will be held to account for spin
  • Ask for explicit public commitments: Public commitments become part of relationships. Be explicit. Encourage people to share theirs and ask others in the community to hold them to account 
  • Lead adaptively: Creating tension that enables individuals and the community to reflect on performance and identify opportunities to improve is a key skill. The network will not always listen to leader’s answers but it is more likely to engage with a great question.
  • Enable in a Responsive Organisation: The focus of a Responsive Organisation on autonomy, transparency and experimentation increases the focus on personal commitment and relationships. A Responsive Organisation reduces the excuses around process and policy and seeks to extend the accountability of relationships to customers and community external to the organisation.

Accountability in hierarchies is based on transactions of power. In networks it demands a much more personal and relationship based approach.

This post is the last in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The other posts deal with:

Accountability and Email

The rise of digital networks is changing accountability in organisations. Hierarchy’s power to dictate is being eroded in favour of the voice and influence of the network.

Push The Story Better?

A common & failing response to the new internal and external accountability is for senior management to decide that we need a better job of getting their story out. This may take the form of a new marketing campaign, PR, letters to shareholders or even all staff emails.

Management choose these means of communication because there is little realistic prospect of a response. Only a tiny percentage of the audience traditionally replies to ads or PR messages. Not many more notice them. However by issuing one-way communications management has satisfied the challenge that something should be done.

While these approaches get a message out, they do not change the dynamic in an engaged network seeking authority and holding each other to account. An ‘official communication’, even that all too rare transparent and authentic communication, will be only one voice in a highly engaged conversation. That official message will have less influence without the support of champions to hold a conversation around its content, to answer queries and discuss objections.

Email is One-way

We see this experience play out in email. The surest way to avoid a conversation is email. No wonder email is so popular in management.

Email initially looks like a two-way communication choice but in practice emails down the hierarchy, whether to an individual or to all staff, are one-way media. Emails down the hierarchy are an exercise in pulling rank.

Only a brave employee will respond to the display of rank with an exercise in speaking back to power. If there is a response, it will be small scale and private. Nothing that can’t be managed.

An all staff email doesn’t start a conversation. It is usually an effort to end a conversation that is inconvenient. The effort to end the conversation is one reason these days that all staff email will inevitably leak. Frustrated by the message, employees respond externally.

Email appeals to management because it is a great way to push message or task and rely on the privacy and power gap to silence any objection.

Email is an Evasion of Accountability

Email is also commonly used as a way to avoid difficult conversations. Emails are sent to avoid the relationships and engagement that creates accountability or holds people accountable.

‘I sent you an email’ is not an answer. It is an evasion. Any glance at the email servers of a major corporate will see too many emails sent to shift work, responsibility or information to others with the minimum amount of engagement.  Seeking clean industrial conversations, email offer a clean toneless way to avoid emotional human conversations & human relationships. In many cases all email does is move to do lists around the organisation.

Hierarchies seem to think that people can be held accountable by email. An email might allocate a responsibility but it is a slippery way to hold people to account for their actions or decisions. Holding someone to account for decisions requires a conversation built on trust, shared purpose and understanding. Email rarely delivers that much engagement and context.

There is no accountability without clarity of responsibility and consequence. Email does not assure clarity of responsibility. Worse, there is less consequence in an email conversation than a two-way and open conversation. Even the exertion of the power of rank in email is less effective than in a context where the social value of rank matters to the recipient and audience.

The best accountability is personal. Personal accountability arises from engagement in conversations to create shared purpose, trust and enduring relationships.

Email is Toneless 

One reason so much corporate communication and the messages of senior executives are tone deaf is that they are not used to being questioned or listening for a reaction. Tone improves with shared context and accountability. That clanging sound is a failure to understand the context and a failure to acknowledge personal accountability to others in pursuit of one’s own message. Think through how your message will be received and what queries others may have and your tone will be better. You have made yourself a little more accountable to the audience

That lack of tone can be devastating when a network holds the individual or an organisation to account for their emails.  What many organisations miss in creating these bureaucratic emails shifting accountability and avoiding responsibility is that they are also creating the records that will be used later to judge their decisions. Whether those emails become public through a leak or in discovery in court proceedings, the future accountability for decisions in the network will be through a review of the emails, often long out of the context in which they were sent. As a result, the broader networks are often holding people accountable for a poor choice communicated by email.

To improve accountability step out of your email, leave behind the hierarchy and engage others in an authentic two way conversation in the network. There will be benefits in your leadership approach, the relationships created and the performance of the organisation.

This post is the third in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The other posts deal with:

Responsible or Accountable

In a hierarchy, power moves down from their top. The focus of power is the allocation of responsibility to act to individuals and the management of their performance. Holding people accountable is a conversation driven by top down over those responsible. 

Hierarchies retain decision making continues at the top, so in theory that should be where the buck stops. However, the nature of the power relationship internally creates weak accountability for higher level decisions. Traditionally the only accountability for these decisions is through signals from shareholders or some times customers. 

The signals from the stock market and shareholders on management decisions are often weak. We accept high turnover in shareholders, customers and employees and explain away discontent.  Dealing with exit of frustrated shareholders, employees and customers is often as easy as adopting a growth orientation. Management need not consider the voices of those leaving as a source of accountability or a source of performance improvement. 

In an increasingly complex network world, this approach to accountability is no longer sustainable. While you retain a hierarchy for the allocation of responsibility, internally and externally your organisation needs to leverage networks to manage the complex relationships and challenges it faces. Suddenly we need to consider the shifting flow of authority and power in a wirearchy.

Traditional decision making (& the associated accountability) is also backward looking.  We examine history to determine what to do and what should have been done. As Harold Jarche points out we can’t look back to the past to predict the next decision or even who to hold responsible for action. Increasingly the question around accountability is ‘how will this decision be viewed at some point in the future by our stakeholders?’

New Network Accountability

With the increasingly networked world comes new sources of accountability. Employees, customers, shareholders and the community now have voice and the ability to organise.  They can leverage their relationships with the organisation and others to express their concerns. Organisations must increasingly enable all their employees to respond to these situations when and where they arise. That demands a more responsive organisation. 

These new internal and external accountabilities can’t be ignored or managed away without jeopardising business relationships. A decision not to participate in social interactions or the network won’t stop the conversation. It simply means your voice goes unheard In the conversation and might harm your business. Those who better respond to the needs and concerns of your employees, customers and community in the network will see their influence grow as those who ignore the accountability to the network will see influence fade.

The opportunity for responsive organisations is to embrace the new accountabilities in the pursuit of more effective performance.  With these accountabilities comes:

  • new information on the performance of your products, services, opportunities with your customers and your impact in the community
  • new relationships with influencers in the networks within and around your organisation
  • opportunities to leverage the talent and potential of people internally and externally who may not be within the consideration of the current hierarchy.

You may not change your strategy, your products and services or your organisation as a result of this additional network insight.  However, if you will have done much to better understand the true performance opportunities in your business and to remove risks that the weak accountability and weak information flows of a hierarchical approach may miss.

We encourage accountability in business as a driver of performance and an opportunity to improve.  Shift your accountability from the hierarchy to the network. You will discover new opportunities for your organisation.

This post is the first in a five part series on managing accountability in the network era. The posts deal with:

Orderly Processions are Over

Hierarchy likes order. Networks manage complexity.
Hierarchy walks in an orderly procession. Networks hustle.
Hierarchy wants projects to go from a through to z. Networks experiment across the alphabet.
Hierarchy wants a clean status. Networks solve for problems & mess.
Hierarchy reinforces status. Networks value results
Hierarchy manages stocks. Networks manage flows.
Hierarchy likes secrets. Networks share.
Hierarchy approves, authorises and allocates. Networks learn, enable and do
You can wait for your spot in the orderly procession. However the orderly procession might never reach you or might pass you by blind to your talents to walk in lockstep.

Join the network of doers instead.

Shapes, Guides, Decides: on Structure

In leadership we are starting to see the need to pull apart our obsession with jobs. We are realising that what matters more than a job is the roles that leaders play and their authority to play them.

A similar need exists in the structures we form from those jobs. In organisational design, we have a tendency to focus overly on structure as if it is the determinant of how the organisation functions.
The structure of an organisation is important. However, we know that all structures perform in different ways because of the networks of relationships that weave through them and the resulting culture that is created.
A focus on structure can be of little value to a manager looking to respond practically to the challenges of a networked economy. That manager often well knows that while changing structure can require as little as a new powerpoint slide, but the way things get done changes far less frequently and with a great deal more difficulty
  • Structure: A collection of status relationships between individuals. Shapes
  • Decision Process: The commonly accepted series of stages by which decisions are made in the organisation, including what information is expected, who is aware, who participates and who is consulted. Guides
  • Decision Rights: Who & how the final call gets made on any decision. Decides 

Structure influences decision processes and decision rights. However structure does not determine them and at times can work at cross purposes to the intended goals of the organisation. You can have a hierarchy where decision rights are delegated and there is a high level of autonomy. You can have a network that is paralysed by an insistence on consensus before anyone acts on a decision. 

The process used for decisions and what exercise of decision rights are accepted in an organisation is a function of the network of relationships more than the structure. Control by structure is often an illusion.

We need to spend less time focused on our structures and spend more time on how our relationships work and how we make choices.

Networks Demand Leadership. Make Your Choice. Act.


Leadership in networks is less about the position you are assigned. The opportunity is the role you choose and the challenge is building authority. The job might be assigned, but the role is chosen and your authority is earned. The networks in and around your organisation are waiting for you to act. If you don’t act, they will move on without you.

Networks solve obstructions

Networks route around obstructions. One potential source of obstruction is the formal roles in an organisation, the hierarchy and the resulting silos.  What results is a wirearchy which Jon Husband has described as

a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology

Think about your organisation. There is a formal process to get a decision made, but everyone knows that the real decisions don’t follow the process. There is informal lobbying. Often someone who is not the decision maker is hugely influential. People chat casually testing positions. Additional information is shared. Deals are done. Trust and credibility play a key role in influencing the ultimate decision, often more than the facts on the table.

These actions are all examples of a network working around the potential obstruction of a hierarchical role or process. These conversations are all examples of how ‘two-way flow of power and authority’ is shaped by people’s actions to demonstrate ‘knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results’.

You are a potential obstruction

If you aren’t results focused, aren’t performing the roles required or the network doesn’t have confidence in your actions, a network of people working together will start to route around you.  Your failure to lead others becomes an obstruction. No matter how fancy your title or your place in the hierarchy the network will start solving for the obstruction that you represent. The network in and around every hierarchy is what makes the hierarchy functional.

To avoid being an obstruction, you need to focus on your authority and fulfilling the roles that advance the needs of the organisation and its networks. Your job won’t save you.

Authority takes Action

Leadership in networks is not an abstract and exalted status. Every person in a network is connected. Leadership is demonstrated when people take on needed roles and others move to action.

Leadership is the technology of realising human potential. Leadership is the technology that inspires and enables others to action. That takes a decision to embrace a role, action, influence and authority.  In networks, including the networks wrapped around your hierarchy, that authority comes from action, not position.

The differences in influence and ability to create value come through action.  Action is what builds authority.  The best way for someone to assess your ‘knowledge, trust, credibility and focus on results is to experience it’.  Authority grows influence with other people in the network and that accelerates further action. 

Networks and Network Leadership is not Bounded

If a network needs to go around or outside the hierarchy to solve a problem it does. All it takes is a connection for your network to extend further. Network leaders need to ensure that their leadership goes outside their hierarchies as well.

Customers, community, other stakeholders all influence your knowledge, credibility, trust and focus on results. Sharing the voice of the customer or the community can be a significant part of influencing change. Try to have influence internally without influence externally and you will find over time that your credibility erodes. Celine Schillinger has described how change agents can find that they need to build credibility externally to be more influential in their internal networks.

Leadership is a Choice. A Choice to Act.

Taking on a leadership role is a choice. It is a choice to help others make something happen and enable them to realise their potential. Whether you are in a hierarchy or a network matters little. The same rules apply. The choices that you make, the knowledge that you gather, the influence you build through credibility and trust determine your authority as a leader and whether others will follow.

Nobody has to follow you. Our hierarchies are a fiction that supports our need for status, order and clarity. The networks in and around your organisation know that and work around the hierarchy every day.  

That same network is waiting for your choices and the actions that follow.

Leadership is changing. Leadership in networks is the future of work.

A 1 minute video to provoke some thought on how we best use leadership to realise human potential in the network era.


Leadership used to look like this: powerful grey haired men, standing atop a pyramid.
Now our pyramids look like this.
Leadership in networks is the future of work
And we are slowly realising that anyone can lead, anyone can help make their work better, do more for their customers or their communities
Leadership is how we turn community into opportunity, the opportunity to enable others to create exponential value in networks of human relationships 
Leadership is the art of realising human potential. 
It is time to leave pyramids to the pharaohs and make work more human. 

Distrust in Hierarchies: A Barrier to Trust in Networks

In the future of work, we are going to talk a lot about trust.

We will need to consider trust deeply because it is a critical underpinning to success in our new ways of working. We need to recognise the trust that we choose to grant is a design choice. We are likely to need a new precision in our understanding of trust.

Most of all we need to ensure that the distrust that pervades our hierarchies is not a barrier to building new trust in networks.

Our hierarchical organisations often hide an assumption of deep distrust. Organisational structure, role design, silos assume people must be separated to generate clear performance measures. Performance management and reward schemes assumes people will not perform without extrinsic motivations. Management, monitoring and compliance are often set to treat 100% of employees poorly against a tiny risk of failure. People are assumed incompetent unless proven otherwise. If your processes allow no variations, discretion or exception handling, then there is likely little trust in your organisation. If messages are consistently spun and the real news is on the grapevine, not the intranet, then there is no trust in communication.

Trust will emerge in effective networks. However, trust is reciprocal. If your hierarchy is telling people that they can’t be trusted, then it is getting in the way of the emergence of trust in the networks in and around the organisation.

Remember how you treat your people plays a large part in how they will treat each other and their networks, including your customers and communities.

Don’t expect your people to give and build trust over your distrust in them.