Whose “normal” is next?

The ideologues of unthinking management practice and archaic leadership have been crowing over the past 12 months about the “Next Normal” that we are supposedly able to create for ourselves and our companies. In the face of the uncertainty and unknowability that is now apparent from our experiences over that period, such assertions seem hubristic. But McKinsey is no stranger to hubris, of course. There is some delight to be derived from watching that company wobble a little at the top in light of recent crises.

That said, they seem untouchable, despite these missteps and the sight of their 650 senior partners gathering in a conclave to elect their new pope, so as to generate the illusion of contrition and a commitment to start over. We should not write them off yet, though. We now find that the technocrats running the Italian polity have opted to outsource their economic policy to the company, notwithstanding the convulsions within that influential corporation.

As McKinsey busy themselves with helping executives around the globe to repair the rupture that has occurred in organisational life and our routinized patterns of working, those of us who have valued some of the flexibility that has derived in the course of recent events need to prepare ourselves to defend those precious attainments – and push out to explore other ways in which to make working life more bearable for us all.

The current nature of the Restoration

The Restoration is already underway. And, it seems clear now that, when there is talk about a Great Reset, for many people, this means a return pretty much to where we were. Hence, the CEO of Goldman Sachs is already on record as saying that remote working was ‘…an aberration that we’re going to correct as quickly as possible.’ When leaders at this sort of level feel impotent in the face of complex circumstances, the weak ones amongst them opt to assert themselves in simple contexts where their crude demands can be made to have an impact: demanding the workforce returns to the office is one such example of a senior leader justifying themselves to themself. Solomon will probably opt to have a bit of a fiddle with the corporate values while he’s at it, another instance of seemingly achieving impact when the idea of leadership to which you – and those around you – cleave shatters under the pressure of the chaos and complexity of so much of real life.

And so, for every flow – in this case, towards ways of working that might better suit many people, weary of the daily commute and struggling to find the flexibility that they need in order to balance what they need to do for work and their responsibilities and desires outwith that commitment – we perceive an ebb, as the tide goes back.

In the midst of this, we can find leaders – who for reasons of insecurity, anxiety, or quite possibly something approaching psychopathy, where we are compelled to concede that there exists a dark side to the leadership that we experience in the work place – who are managing a dissonance between what they believe their values to be – personally and professionally – and the experience of their leadership by others. Hence, we see the recent resignation from Deloitte of its Deputy Chief Executive and managing partner of its People and Purpose group – a champion of diversity and inclusion in the firm, by all accounts – in light of allegations of bullying, including aggressive communication and demanding that people attend extremely early meetings.

Moreover, it is possible to discern an extension of managerial control through the supposedly benign presence of corporate activity in the area of “health and well-being”. Stories from the frontline remind us that managers are unqualified to reach unbidden into our heads and waggle ideas derived from cod psychology around when they’re in there – and yet they are being encouraged so to do. And this seems to be giving them the sense that they are now empowered to engage in the management of affect in the workplace, rather than what the contract of employment places within their legitimate purview, viz what we do and how we do at work.

The reflexive leader at work

At this juncture, every senior leader reading this – and I doubt there will be any such people on this page, accepting the challenge that this sort of thinking lays down in front of them, so this is merely then a rhetorical device – should be holding a mirror up to themselves…or, better still, engaging in honest dialogue with those who they are supposed to be leading. In the course of that exploration, one might usefully engage these two questions:

  • Is there a dissonance between what I say – and what I convince the organisation to say – and how I actually behave, which adversely impacts of the workforce and offers a poor model of behaviour for those around me?
  • Is my personal insecurity and anxiety creating an abyss – apparent to all around me but not presently to me – between how I like to think of myself and how other human beings experience me? And, if so, to whom can I turn to start to narrow that gap?

Hence, your organisational presence may be facilitating the ebb, despite your public pronouncements suggesting that you want to preserve the best of the flow – and to work beyond where we are to where we could be. And that could mean that the normal that you’re working towards is not the one that many who work for you have in their minds.

The challenge is to bridge the gap between values and practice – and ensure that it is an ethical self that is being brought to work.

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