The future of work is emerging as more leaders than ever are exploring the shift towards more human and self-directed ways of organising.

In part 1 of this blog series, we explored the concept of emergence and how it might provide a signpost to the future. Emergence provides us with inspiration and a metaphor for a working future where everyone is leading. A future with opportunities for everyone to apply their strengths, as needed at different times and in different ways.

We also explored how our primitive survival mechanism as humans, interferes with our ability to unify and align ourselves with a greater vision for the future.

Moving out of survival is the greatest opportunity of our time. It starts with each and every one of us becoming more self-aware.

This willingness to look at ourselves and recognise our blind spots, is essential if we are to stop perpetuating outdated, fear-based thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and how we work.

Here in part 2, we explore the role of leadership.

Organisations built on fear

Over the years traditional leadership has unconsciously been built on fear to move people. Fear is a useful emotion to call people to action. However, it causes people to work in a state of survival.

From a scientific standpoint working in survival essentially means working in a state of stress. This is because the same biological response is turned on whether we’re running from a predator or we’re fearful of our job security. As we explored in our previous blog, we’re not designed to live in a state of stress for long periods of time.

We can see the consequences of what happens when we do, as the levels of physical, mental and emotional illness increase in our workplaces.

Working with in this state impacts performance in other ways too. For example, it causes people to doubt themselves and heightens insecurities. Thus, creating an over-dependence on authoritative figures to lead from the top down. People rely on being given permission and instruction to carry out tasks. One reason for this is it’s difficult to think creatively and collaboratively when our stress response is turned on. So instead, we seek the guidance of others to direct us so that we feel safe.

Learned helplessness

In many hierarchical organisations where people are led from the top down, leaders unwittingly create learned helplessness by unintentionally undermining personal autonomy. Humans have an innate desire for autonomy. We don’t like being told what to do! When autonomy is lacking, we experience it as stress. When a person experiences this repeatedly, they come to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation. They stop trying, even when opportunities are available.

Stuck in the past

For change to occur, people need to feel calm and relaxed in order to create a vision for the future. However, for many, their focus and attention are placed on their own survival, simply proving to themselves, and others, that their role, salary and very existence in the organisation are justified. To feel safe people cling to the known and familiar, unable to imagine a new vision for the future for themselves, let alone take action.

This is why organisations find it so hard to change and become stuck in their past.

The role of human leaders

Human leaders support people to move out of this dominant state of survival.

In doing so, they create the conditions for people to be creative and thrive.

They are able to inspire people to move away from their existing reality and towards a clear vision of the future. They show people that there are alternative ways of getting things done.

Great leaders still move people emotionally, however instead of fear, they move them through a sense of belonging and purpose. When people are motivated in this way they begin to align with a vision for the future.

Human leaders change their people’s state of being and when enough people are moved emotionally you get an emergence in awareness of new possibilities and a new future. The side effect… the innate desire to create and be autonomous is awakened in people.

A new culture starts to emerge.

Leadership development

The role of developing autonomy in teams requires a considerable shift away from traditional ways of thinking about leadership. It requires leaders to be self-aware and adopt a more facilitative, coaching approach to the way they engage people. In so doing they create psychological safety and support people to think well for themselves. This approach deepens trust and taps into people’s innate desire for autonomy. To explore their own ideas and find their own solutions to problems.

A coaching approach requires leaders to listen and pay attention so that people find their own answers. It’s not to say advice shouldn’t be given, but leaders who take this approach don’t rush in to give it. We might imagine that adopting a coaching approach takes more time than we perceive we have. However, when we’re more patient than we’re inclined to be, we often find others get to their own solutions. Because they own them, they’re more likely to follow through and deliver.

Coaching provides sustainable support and starts to develop others in the direction of self-leadership. This style recognises that coaching to help people gain insight is more powerful than giving people advice. It creates the conditions for people to grow in self-awareness and self-reliance. To recognise how their own interference might be affecting their performance, decision making and their ability to interact with their team.

Be the change

This isn’t an easy change to make for those, like me, who were educated in the traditional “tell and do” style of leadership. This is often the prevailing experience and people are unaware of how things could be usefully different. Processes are geared towards, and reinforce, management from the top down.

A move towards adaptable and human ways of working requires awareness and a shift in mindset. We cannot expect people to do their best work and to think well for themselves under leadership that implicitly assumes stupidity, laziness or untrustworthiness. These assumptions keep people in the state of survival we spoke of earlier.

As human leaders, we must adopt the approach that the highest ideal for people is for them to think well for themselves. We must learn to trust one another and value our differences. We realise that there isn’t one right way to get things done and when people are given space to think, solutions emerge. Solutions they own. We no longer need to monitor and predict every outcome or control things being done our way. We encourage people to be creative and engage their brains. This doesn’t mean anarchy, processes are still required to create a shared understanding of how we do things and share information. However, there is much more freedom for people to create and express themselves without fear.

The emerging role for leaders then, is to lead in ways that inspire people, motivate through a shared sense of purpose and nurture the need for autonomy, innate in each individual.

When leaders do this well, they create psychological safety for people to bring their whole selves to work. This is a sign of a healthy system that embraces diversity and taps into collective wisdom.

The result?

Ultimately, work now begins to feel more human…

Click here to read the concluding Part 3 of this blog.

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