On the Brink of Extinction by Susan Mazza
In his 1994 book Job Shift, William Bridges refers to the “job” as “an artifact of the industrial revolution”. The traditional organization is designed to function like a machine. It is a hierarchy with jobs as the building blocks. In this model people are essentially cogs in the wheel of production. This model, and the leadership style of command and control it refined and has historically rewarded, is no longer sufficient for today’s organizations to thrive. We know this intuitively.
Many of us have had to invent ways to work that are often unsupported or even thwarted by the confines of the structure we are in and the remnants of command and control leadership style and practices it encourages.
Yet for better or for worse, this model is not going away anytime soon.
The hierarchy continues to represent what organizations looks like. From an individual perspective the construct of a “job” also continues to be very important. It tells us how we fit and helps to clarify what is expected of us in exchange for a paycheck. As we move up the boxes on the hierarchy it represents power, authority, achievement, and the promise of increased financial reward.
There is a significant flaw in this model that provides a clue to what is needed from leaders now and into the future.
The traditional model of organizations, including the thinking and assumptions that underlie it, ignores the extent of our interdependence. Leaders now and into the future can no longer afford to ignore this reality in style or practice.
Most work in today’s world gets done through a multitude of transactions conducted between individuals and rarely follows the neat path of organizational lines. Even the notion of organizational lines is blurring as collaboration across businesses, becomes more prevalent and the rapidly growing ranks of the self-employed create a kind of free agency workforce.
The command and control style of leadership may have ensured the order and efficiency essential to success in the industrial age. Yet in today’s world it all too easily causes the hierarchical model to devolve into the kind of bureaucracy we can no longer afford and are less and less willing to tolerate.
The world of work is far too complex and rapidly changing to continue to relate to the definition of our jobs in the simplistic terms of what we do. And the construct of setting individual objectives that are expected to somehow “roll up” into organizational objectives is no longer sufficient to ensure we succeed together.
We must all begin to think about our jobs in terms of what we promise, not just in terms of the things we must do, but also in terms of the promises we must make to others to produce results.
It is that network of promises, both in terms of organizational goals as well as the everyday fabric of our promises to each other, which interconnect our actions and ensures our shared goals are ultimately achieved.
A job description will never be able to capture everything we need to do to get the job done. And an org chart is not designed to reflect our interdependence. We don’t need to ditch the org chart. But positional leaders do need to make an essential shift from focusing on the relationship between jobs to fortifying the relationships between people.
Because the foundational building block of organizations of the future is no longer the job. It is relationships.
The hierarchical model inherently keeps our focus on people as the boxes in an org chart and keeps our attention on what separates us. This undermines our relationships, unwittingly keeping the destructive dynamic of “us” vs. “them” intact. It is far too easy to retreat into our “box” when something isn’t working, justifying ourselves with “It’s not my job” or “I did my part, but someone else didn’t do theirs” so it’s not my responsibility.
To be effective now and in the future leaders must instead foster a culture of accountability, shifting everyone’s focus to clarifying and fortifying their interdependencies in terms of their commitments to each other.
The job may or may not become an artifact as Bridges predicted, but those organizations whose leaders fail to change the way they relate to them may find themselves on the brink of extinction.
About Susan Mazza: With her unique understanding of human systems and an unquenchable thirst to unlock the potential of the human spirit, she has worked successfully with many types and sizes of organizations and with people around the world including: Fortune 500, small and medium sized businesses, non-profits as well as educational institutions. Susan’s blog is www.randomactsofleadership.com
Photo courtesy of Christian Ose