Brass colored keys

Twelve Keys to the Workplace of the Future

As companies flatten hierarchy and expand the taxonomy of futurework, it seems clear that organizational effectiveness will ultimately depend on the choices of individuals. Individual effectiveness will dictate organizational results whether the governance system of choice is holacracy, teleocracy, sociocracy, workplace democracy, ROWE, agile management, horizontal management, self-management, wiki management, radical management, lattice management or any other approach.

The workplace of the future will demand many individual competencies (effective communication, for example), but there are other crucial, and often less visible competencies that will impact one’s ability to navigate and perform well in a highly autonomous environment. Here are twelve items for consideration.

1) Initiative. It’s virtually impossible to deliver constructive feedback to colleagues or cause positive change in process or strategy without a willingness to take initiative. Taking initiative includes the ability to speak up when necessary. Self-managing leaders have an affirmative obligation to speak up as needed–for example, when observing situations incongruent with the mission, vision or values of the enterprise. Being a good listener is not enough. The need for initiative also applies to taking action. Alexander Hamilton wrote about the need for “energy in the executive” as a requirement for good government. The same logic applies to highly autonomous individuals in organizations.

2) Tolerance for Ambiguity. Organizational autonomy can be messy as colleagues meet new people and learn new ways of working. Negotiating peer agreements that clearly communicate one’s purpose, values and activities takes time and effort. Individuals must make wise choices when seeking commitments from others, and in determining the timing and scope of requests (responders may not give poorly conceived requests a second chance). Similarly, individuals must be careful when agreeing to requests for commitments. Autonomous self-managers need to maintain the right to decline a request without fear of pressure. It must be okay to say no. Autonomy is never as easy as dumping a complaint on the boss’s desk.

3) Consciousness. It takes real effort to locate the energy needed to pursue one’s purpose at work consistently, every day. It’s akin to the energy that entrepreneurs use to create entirely new enterprises out of ephemeral ideas. Mindful consciousness gives rise to awareness and presence, and is the source of confidence in one’s ability to get things done–even in the face of adversity. It is resilience. It is the ability to focus, to be present in the moment and to execute with clarity and effectiveness. At its best, it is what performers and leaders of all kinds describe as being in the zone–a near-perfect state of focused awareness.

4) Contribution Mindset. Peter Drucker talked about a contribution mindset in his superb little book, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. A half-century later, that mindset applies to everyone who wants to be an effective self-manager in a highly autonomous enterprise. One self-managed enterprise, for example, declares an affirmative obligation for individuals to share relevant information with colleagues as a matter of principle, even when not requested. That’s being proactive.

5) Low Power-Distance Sensitivity. Power-distance refers to the act of deferring to individuals presumed to have more power than oneself. In a self-managed environment there is an unofficial hierarchy of credibility, which springs from experience, trust, communication, and other factors. That is not the same thing as a hierarchy of power based on command authority. Effective self-managers will find ways to express themselves to anyone in the organization, and will listen to anyone and everyone who wishes to speak with them. To avoid communication with a colleague based on presumed status is to cut off the lifeblood of an organization: the flow of information.

6) Natural Leadership. In a highly autonomous environment, relationships, as well as many activities, are purely voluntary. In purely self-managed companies, no one even has the authority to direct the activities of others. Leadership is exercised through communication, respect, influence, persuasion and trust. Natural leadership is earned over time, and is not an artifact of position or title. The evidence of true, natural leadership is the presence of followers.

7) Connectivity. Effective communication will be Always-On/Always-Near. Autonomous leaders and followers will receive and respond to communication requests whenever possible. The presence of Always-On/Always-Near communication is a salient indicator of a robust self-organizing network in action. Ken Thompson, author of Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature’s Most Successful Designs, describes this competency as driving a sense of collective ownership coupled with an effective 24×7 early warning system for teams.

8) Noncognitive Skills. Organizational leaders of the future can learn important lessons from children. In Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, the author persuasively describes the dispositive power of noncognitive skills. Describing what matters most in a child’s development, he refers to evidence of the importance of noncognitive, character-related skills, which include grit and curiosity. There will be off days. Resilience matters.

9) Nurturing Networks. The organization of the future will naturally be a network of networks (in the parlance of Ken Everett, author of Designing the Networked Organization: N2N). Every autonomous leader will nurture and engage with a primary immersive network, nested within or connected with a larger network of networks. Resources and information will flow freely according to demand. Autonomous leaders will operate with agility and fluidity throughout the entire network of networks because they will have no other way to get things done.

10) Nurturing the Learning Organization. Peter Senge pioneered the idea of the learning organization. Highly autonomous leaders will nurture and sustain the concepts and practices of learning organizations for the benefit of stakeholders. In self-managed enterprises, everyone will be free to develop core competencies in strategy, financial literacy, process management, leadership, teamwork, communication, hiring, negotiation or any other management discipline.

11) Capitalizing on the Power of Weak Ties. In the workplace of the future, not everyone will be lucky enough to work in a Dunbar-limited workplace of 150 colleagues or fewer. Even in those workplaces, not everyone will be a friend. Many relationships may be evanescent. But the leaders of the future will need to know the people with whom they work well enough to successfully broadcast clear, well-received low-energy messages that keep initiatives on track without resorting to undue pressure or coercion.

12) Locus of Control. Psychologists refer to an individual’s internal or external locus of control. A person with an internal locus of control takes personal responsibility for his or her own circumstances. An individual with an external locus of control believes that his or her life is buffeted by external forces and blames fate (or other people) for failures large and small. A preponderance of blaming behavior is a serious performance obstacle. Effective self-managers will have an internal locus of control.

If this inventory of items is anywhere close to being on target, then the job of visionary future leaders in a hyperconnected world will be to embed the fundamentals of effective, autonomous self-management into every people process: recruitment, selection, hiring, orientation, onboarding, curriculum design, coaching, performance management, succession planning, career transition, conflict management, leadership development, compensation and all the rest.

Much work lies ahead.

This article originally appeared in Great Work Cultures Blog at The Huffington Post,

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