“The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future.” Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman, World Economic Forum.

Control or team effort?

We have lived more than a year with the uninvited guest, Covid-19. The virus forced all of us to change the way we live and the way we work. Saying this feels like repeating the obvious. Yet uncertainty about our future is something that we need to deal with. For how long? Long enough to start conscious capability building to become more adaptable and resilient? The fact is that incidents that are not under our control will continue to emerge. Whether we like it or not.

While the race with the virus is still on the “life after” planning has already started. Pandemic accelerated transition to remote work, boosted e-commerce, and automation and destroyed some of the jobs completely forcing people to re-skill. Some industries have challenges to fulfil the demand for goods that people buy when spending more time at home or outdoors. Some of us have experienced a mild Covid-19 flue and some have lost their closest ones. Nobody remains un-touched. The year has been good for some and worse for others.

What is the hardest part? Rationally, we can follow the situation and try to understand the official information, guidance and policies. Use our common sense. Explain the known facts to ourselves and justify the actions for the relevant people. The task most of the knowledge workers are used to. Emotionally, the conflicting guidance makes us feel vulnerable and unsafe. Unclear “pecking order” has caused unnecessary hassle and even power play in decision making. “Pecking order” within the authorities and between authorities and private organizations and public has increased the confusion and unclarity.  Is this a completely new situation?

The scale caused by the pandemic is huge and unique, yet similar situations related to uncertainty caused by conflicting messages  emerge every day.

Smaller scale surprises like market disruptions, changes in leadership, mergers and acquisitions, change in constitution and more, can also shake the balance. Both in public and private. However with good intention and preparation,  the leaders and their teams  can be better prepared, or in other words more resilient. Leaders are traditionally educated with the focus on the effectiveness of the outcomes and results. However, the challenge in today’s operating environment is the diversity of people who are lead and complexity of the issues that the changes bring. It takes more than a leader to cope with the change.

As the “command-and-control” culture is no more the most effective way of leading teams, understanding the people and harnessing their superpowers  is essential.

Collective wisdom

Covid-19 did not ask for permission. It just happened, and took us by surprise. But not asking permission can be a good thing as well. Hence the question: “How could organizations find the brave ones who have the courage to similarly challenge the status quo?” In the global dataset of our Caring Organizational Culture research, 38% of interviewees felt confident in expressing their opinions and feelings openly in their organizations. But 62% did not. While, geographical cultural factors can influence the outcome to some extent, comments suggest organizational culture and differences in personalities as key reasons for holding us and the organizations that we work for back. In organizations strict “pecking orders” might prevent the free flow of ideas and innovation. In the team level diverse personal characters have not found the ways of creating flourishing environment for all. Hence, the questions “What can we do to change this for better?” and even more importantly “How can we help in making that change?”.

As early as 1954 Peter Drucker urged executives to push decision-making and accountability all the way down through the organization. Today the “wicked problems” or needed change require deep expertise from various fields. No one person or even organization can do it alone. That’s why we need to focus on the essential:

Creating psychologically safe environment to learn and ask bold questions can help accept the ideas and innovations supporting resilience and helping with transformational changes – either by choice or when forced to do so.

It’s always contextual

“Trying to apply management practices uniformly across geographies is a fool’s errand, much as we’d like to think otherwise.” Tarun Khanna, Harward Business School.

Contextual understanding is beyond the national and organizational cultures. Individuals behave differently depending on the situation. Some organizations and professions have the “codes” for people to dress up, talk and behave. Lack of contextual understanding can be challenging for a successful leader when realizing that, what worked earlier don’t bring expected results in different situation. In new situations, some people are shaken by the foreseen risks while others visualize the opportunities.

The difference comes from the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge in one hand and in the other to adapt the knowledge to a new and different environment from the one in which it was developed. Context matters so does the ability to adapt.

Building on purpose

Many organizations spend time and resources on honing their mission and vision statements. Communications with employees follow after the work has been stamped by the leaders. According to our research most of that effort might be wasted investments. Mission and vision statements are often hard to remember. In our global dataset only 21% knew the mission and 2% the vision. Mostly people mix the two and give their own interpretation instead. We cannot help but wonder, that if people cannot relate to their organizations’ mission and vision, the work falls short in energizing and mobilizing people.

In today’s workspaces, often four different generations work side by side with completely different backgrounds and lenses through which they look at the world.

Engaging purpose which feeds both rational and emotional sides of diverse individuals can act as a vehicle aligning the variety and multi-skilled cohorts towards the same direction. Even in the times of turmoil.

Discovering virtues to bring purpose to “live”

In addition to the traditional mission and vision statements, most organizations have defined organizational values expecting employees’ actions and behaviors to be aligned with them. Recent research show limitations in the value systems as methods of bringing better productivity or smoother change of the organizations. The power of organizational values can fall short for example in the following ways:

Firstly, values might not resonate with the employees so that they would even remember them. In our research nearly half of the interviewees did not talk about the official values when they explained their organizations’ values. While every third feels the “perceived” values are aligned with their personal values, the gap in consistency within the organizations is wider.

Secondly, the gap between desired and realized values dilutes the ability to maintain or alter the behavioral patterns of the organization. The value systems of most people vary. They are shaped by the virtues and vices and experience of the individuals. The mixture of “perceived” organizational values and the personal values shapes the overall impact of the organizational values.

Thirdly, the conscious ignorance of the values to achieve personal objectives. Oftentimes organizations accept the fouls in the case of high performers. In such situations the personal value systems can break the organizational values because of different interpretations. When one person considers the behavior as unethical the other can see it a “bit bullish” behavior when compromising the values for results.

When asking for the qualities of caring leader in our research, the listed qualities have strong connotations to descriptions to a good person or a virtuous person.

Values and virtues

The perceived organizational values and desired qualities of a leader have a lot common.

To make the life a bit simpler and changes easier, we would like to challenge the status quo in terms of the traditional mission, vision, and organizational value statements. Finding the commonly share purpose and jointly shared organizational virtues with the agreed ways of daily practices would be a implementable starting point. Starting point to a revised ways of working and making most out of the “time after”.

As Mr. Schwab suggests, the window of opportunity is open for short. It’s time to define the organization’s purpose, the core reason to exist and its impact on the world.

About the author: Ulla Koivukoski is passionate about turning around organisational cultures through people. If you want to learn how, please get in touch through LinkedIn.

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