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Managing people in a complex and disruptive world of work

​Twenty years ago it was relatively easy to manage people in business. There was little to no diversity or change present and employees understood that obedience, diligence, expertise gained from tertiary education and steady progress up the corporate ladder were valued and rewarded. Such a career was rewarded with security of a retirement at the age of 60 or 65.The psychological contract was all about loyalty and a job for life.

Today, the world of work is characterised by continuous disruptive change. According to Bob Johansen, we are living in a VUCA world, which is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This new world requires new skills, thinking and behaviour, not only from leaders and managers, but also from employees and stakeholders.

Given the progress of technology, the presence of “digital natives” and “screen-agers”, the role of leaders and managers has to change fundamentally to become that of Connectors, which means engaging with employees through social media with messages that contain information on  thoughts, ideas , vision and progress towards specific goals. This will hugely benefit leadership in that it will humanise the workplace, increase engagement, and create an environment of innovation, independence and passion. 

The current reality of people management paints a different picture. While most organisations have a vision that represents a noble goal and the intent is to view people as their greatest resource, there is a huge divide between intent and practice. CEO’s and executives are confronted with huge financial and stakeholder challenges, they work 18-hour days and rely heavily on managers to translate the strategic goals into operational plans, align employees to deliver results and ensure that employees are stretched, challenged, relatively happy and fulfilled in their respective roles. 

The worker community of organisations is extremely diverse. Today, a team is represented by all generations, cultures, various levels of expertise, educational levels and knowledge and within certain instances being managed by a manager who is in his/her late 20’s or early 30’s. These young managers are confronted with complex people related challenges that are often beyond their grasp, there is seldom enough support through mentoring and coaching initiatives and therefore they have no choice but to follow the existing management behaviour and practices to model their decisions and behaviour on. This often leads to entrenching the control and fear practices deeper into the culture. 

Human Resource Practitioners have to deal with layers of complexity in an organisation. The Ulrich Model of HR Practitioners is based on the assumption that HR has credibility, ‘a place at the Executive table’ and that executives and senior managers rely on HR to provide guidance and state of the art HR practices, procedures and consulting service. Unfortunately HR is not always given the space to act as the “‘’conscience”” of the organisation, a strategic partner in the business and an employee champion.

The question then is “what should be done to ensure that all employees bring their gifts to work?”

A leadership language of possibility
Leaders should articulate their dreams again and again. Martin Luther King did not say “” I have a vision statement””. With this dream there should be a crystal clear strategy that is flexible to meet the demands of the volatile world. The values and principles of the organisation drive the desired behaviour and leaders and employees hold each other accountable for delivering results and shaping a culture of contribution. Leaders lead innovation, inspiring the imagination of individuals through a leadership language of possibility and unleashing creative energy. In addition, leaders promote an ethos of community and belonging and should work relentlessly with HR leadership to align the people management practices with this changing work environment.

Managing an environment of trust
Managers should create an environment where trust is a given and independence is nurtured. When individuals can practice self-determination, they will bring their personal best to work. A powerful tool and vehicle to change a culture from control to engagement is a results-based performance management system. The intent of this system is to align the organisation, to create the opportunity for managers and employees to talk about business and future trends, to agree on results that have to be achieved, to have mutual clarity on the level of excellence to be achieved, the “stretch” required to achieve the results, the skills necessary to deliver and the values that will drive behaviour. Managers will need to become more comfortable to move from a ‘tell’ mindset to a role of facilitator and coach.

Co-creating a flexible organisation
Employees should be prepared to co-create a flexible organisation, take accountability for agreed results, own their roles and craft performance agreements that are reflective of their competence, interests, talents and career aspiration. Employees should passionately pursue a process of building deep self-awareness and a portfolio of skill and knowledge. Employees who view their work as a platform for development and growth are more focussed, happier and will share ideas and information.

Radical thoughts for learning 
At the 2013 Swiss Economic Forum (SEF) Kevin Roberts, Global CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi, started his talk by the statement that we live in the age of the idea. He interpreted the VUCA world as Vibrant, Unreal, Crazy and Astounding. Organisations have to therefore become places that are alive with possibilities, practice radical optimism, a place where people can achieve the extraordinary and a touch of madness is encouraged.

Taking Robert’s views on board, the role of HR will have to be counter-culture, developing right-brain thinking and decision-making, exploring new tools for interpreting current and future trends. They need to work on the periphery of the organisation, helping leadership to interpret the signals from the future, handle complex people challenges with firmness, fairness and empathy. The assumptions about learning initiatives needs to be turned on its head---more time for reflection, debates and sense-making. Learning cannot be about catching up. This poses the challenge of offering learning that is novel, different, has never been done so that Baby Boomers and Generation Y learn together, are uncomfortable together and therefore raise the relationship to a relationship of equals.

This is a debate that needs to continue, maybe the Pipeline needs to join the baby and the bathwater?

Jackie Erasmus is a faculty member at USB-ED. Her knowledge areas of expertise include organisation development, leadership development and Executive Coaching. She has worked extensively in the Sub-Sahara Region and ran the first Leadership Programmes in Arusha,(Tanzania) which was recognised by the ASTD.

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