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InfoQ Homepage Articles The Role and Importance of Communication in Post-Hierarchical Leadership

The Role and Importance of Communication in Post-Hierarchical Leadership

Key Takeaways

  • Businesses today are confronted with an unprecedented level of complexity and unpredictability
  • Massively impacted by the Internet and digitalisation, change has become omnipresent in all aspects of business life
  • A new “age of empathy” is taking over and replacing the established, hierarchy-centric and bureaucratic management practices of old
  • Communication is fundamental to transport the post-hierarchical principles appreciation, empathy and transparency
  • The mere implementation of single actions does not suffice to being modern – post-hierarchical leadership brings a paradigm shift to the way we think about, speak of and handle work today

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

Georg Bernard Shaw - Irish author, poet and playwright, 1856 – 1950

It is undeniable: change is everywhere, penetrating every aspect of our lives, and has always played its own role in evolution. Darwin’s theorem would not have been possible without it. But why exactly is change currently such a widely-discussed topic?

The answer is simple: it has never been this fast! And some even believe it will never be this slow again.

Fuelled mainly by the emergence and development of the Internet and globalisation, change has become omnipresent and much more prominent. As a result, companies nowadays find themselves in a market and a business landscape that is characterised by an unprecedented level of complexity and unpredictability. At the same time, the established, hierarchy-centric and bureaucratic management practices of old do not seem fit in this environment. Top-level executives and leadership teams are therefore highly challenged to stay afloat in such a turbulent and competitive environment.

Given the circumstances and the business environment, it is of vital significance to engage employees and strengthen a company from within. In the course of the past decade, a new framework for leadership and management has therefore emerged and is being heralded in modern day media, from business literature over social media to conference key notes. At the centre of this framework are the core values appreciation, empathy and transparency. In order to transport these within and throughout an organisation there is one very trivial and yet so fundamental tool: communication.

In an ideal case, a company would make use of its corporate communications officer, or even a department dedicated to the matter, in order to establish or maintain a proper communication and leadership culture. Many companies however do not see the need for such a function; others believe they are too small to be able to afford it.

In this article I aim to show you just how important communication is in a modern, post-hierarchical business world by drawing from my experience with my recent master thesis. Through the theoretical and empirical research I analysed the role of internal corporate communications in a post-hierarchic leadership system. Making use of my findings I aim to point out the fundamentals of post-hierarchic management and leadership, and then underline how corporate communications can act as a catalyst to foster and enable such a new paradigm.

But first, let’s take a step back and once more point out ...

Why the world is speaking of a new paradigm of leadership and management in the first place.

As already mentioned, the speed of change is unparalleled. Technologies develop and evolve seemingly with the blink of an eye. Almost overnight, standards that were thought trailblazing are outdated by a newer and better version of themselves. But also beyond the traditional product lifecycles, change has affected many other aspects of the business world. Also “management life cycles” have become shorter: organizational restructuring, optimization and strategic measures for efficient work flows more than often cause teams and departments to witness very high fluctuation rates in management positions. By the time employees have gotten used to the tactics and management style of their leaders, restructuring forces the affected employees to re-calibrate their focus and internalise new methods or practices.

Another differentiating factor to the past is a changed view on values. Anyone who regularly discusses their work life with their parents or even grandparents will quickly notice a significant difference in attitude regarding the job and relationship to one’s superiors. And the greater the age difference is, the greater the delta in views will be. While the generations of the 50s and 60s placed work at the centre of their life without ever questioning the patriarchal management system, the so-called generation y and generation z have completely turned their backs to established and institutionalised professional values.

They seek a new, self-determined meaning in life, and are driven to understand the interconnection between all aspects in life, including work. A typical professional career – in German there is the nice word „Kaminkarriere“ – is now replaced by a desire for self‐determination and the innate longing to live an ideology. One consequence is that recruiting agencies and human resources are often faced with potential employees who are not in the least interested in the company itself but the brand values the company represents, the ideological aspects the company stands for.

Of course, generation y and z still consider their income an important factor. However, it does not play the pivotal role it has for previous generations. Instead they are preoccupied with such questions as:

  • What values does my company and my work represent?
  • Can I be who I am or do I have to “wear a mask” and hide my real character and my real interests behind it?
  • And most importantly: can I accommodate my work life and private life – is there a healthy work-life balance?

As great the impact of change in these two circumstances has been, it pales in significance to the most pivotal of the three factors: digitalization. First and foremost the Internet has interconnected almost every last corner of the globe and has turned the world upside down.

Especially through the growing popularity of social media, YouTube and countless other platforms, information suddenly travels around the world at an unprecedented speed – the consequence being that the world has never collectively known as much as it does today.

In the economic world this has led to a partial shift of power: from the seller and producer to the consumer. In the working world, employees today can no longer be treated like mindless, Taylorist machines that simply follow orders top-down without questions. They want to know and understand “the why” of their tasks and responsibilities.

Discourse – management vs. leadership

The terms management and leadership are often used synonymously, but are they in fact really the same? This discussion at least dates back to 1977 when Abraham Zaleznik stated his opinion in his Harvard Business Review article ‘Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?‘ His answer: yes they are! The two positions cover completely different elements and are radically different. After all, there are many managers that just cannot lead, and there are many leaders that do so without being in a formal position.

According to my research and the interviews, one can say that management is an established system of processes to reach operational goals – using planning, budgeting, resource planning and the solving of problems. Management is so‐to‐say the tool that is implemented to deliver products and services according to a pre‐defined roadmap – managers are there to uphold a business direction. And it has somewhat of a short‐term focus.

Leadership on the other hand is about defining this direction and as such has more of a long‐term focus – it is about setting a vision, not goals. Questioning the status quo and taking risks is an inherent part of this role. Hierarchical roles and positions don‘t play a primary role; inspirational behaviour as a role model is much more important to lead colleagues and employees, especially in times of change and transformation.

Having said this, many people claim that leadership is better or more important than management – wrongly so! Neither of the two aspects are better or less valuable. As Jurgen Appelo says, “this does not make sense!“ In contrast, the comparison of leadership to management is rather like the comparison of women to men: both entities have an equal right to existence and serve different yet equivalently important causes. They complement each other and in fact must contribute equally to the success of a company.

Away with the old – time for a new leadership and management framework

Bottom line: all these issues have heavily undermined the established and old-fashioned management methods. Instead, a new view on the work world and how it should be run has emerged. In the course of my research I encountered various models and approaches to this new way of leadership and business administration, as illustrated below. I am sure you might have heard of or even know more about one or the other of these approaches: flatarchies, Holacracy, Sociocracy, shared leadership, synergetic leadership, dynamic-situational leadership, transformational leadership ... just to name a few.

I will not outline their methods, strengths or focal points here; I believe you are all very well aware how many of these approaches work and how they are implemented throughout many different companies worldwide. Also, I am sure you will agree that there is not ONE right approach for our modern business world. As Frederic Laloux points out, a healthy economic landscape will accommodate many different approaches – from a relatively unchanged top‐down driven management style to the very opposite which often is described as self management. (Although it is very unlikely that completey partriarchic organisations with an athoritarian leadeship style will survive in the long run.)

What I would like to do however is briefly outline what all modern approaches have in common:

  • they all turn their back on the top‐down driven, patronizing authority of management
  • there is more focus on emotions, not in a sentimental way, but employees are viewed as humans with feelings, moods and a meaningful life outside of the work space
  • there is an increased focus on establishing and maintaining a healthy relationship between a manager or a leader and the team or the individual employees
  • there is a strong shift away from bureaucracy and hierarchy.
  • there is a spread of responsibility as well as accountability across teams or even departments
  • there is a significant decrease in the importance of titles and roles

In a nutshell: we find ourselves in an „age of empathy“, as one of my interview partners said, where appreciation and dialog on eye level are fundamental.

Many of the aspects and elements mentioned here are not necessarily new – horizontal team structures, shared leadership, employee focus etc. They have existed for a long while already, at least in their own rights, and have complimented existing business practices and often played a minor role. What has changed in the recent past is that their core principles have gained a lot more attention and have in the meantime become a „new normal“.

Steve Denning goes even further by adopting the term of the „paradigm shift“, coined by Thomas Kuhn, to describe the change that has taken place in the course of the past five to ten years. Through it, he wants to point out that the actual implementation does not play the major role, it represents a complete change in the way we think, speak about and handle work today. It is about a transformation from old-fashioned principles to new intellectual and ideological approaches: away from a patriarchal management approach with top‐down character and efficiency‐focus over to a more employee‐focused company culture, where the employees are treated with an equal priority as customers.

In order to capture this paradigm in a few words and give all approaches to modern management methods one frame, I chose the term “post-hierarchical leadership” – stealing with pride from both Dark Horse Innovation and Jacob Morgan. Taking into account what I had read about in topical literature and captured through my interviews, I thereafter extracted three main pillars within this overarching umbrella-model: appreciation, empathy and transparency. But how does one make sure these values are properly and authentically transported, or better, injected into the DNA of a company to give it the “strength for battle” in such a competitive business environment?

Communication as a catalyst for post-hierarchical leadership

The answer is simple: through a healthy and properly implemented communication culture. In fact, one of my interview partners claimed that 90% of leadership is made up of communication – face-to-face communication in particular. And this is exactly why it is not as easy as it sounds. The problem is that many executives and CEOs still believe communication is an inherent skill most of us carry in ourselves, especially if you have “climbed the ladder” and reached a top-level position. If you have gotten this far – they believe – you surely must just have such a skill. WRONG! Many employees are first experts in their technical or specialised field and then advance in their careers to eventually become managers or leaders. But this does not necessarily mean they can naturally communicate. Therefore a lot more effort needs to be put on proper training, on teaching and establishing more communicatively adapt leaders and employees.

Communication, however, is more than the spoken interaction between managers or leaders and their team members. It can also take place through other media or channels. Apart from face-to-face communication, the most established of these are digital media and printed media.

Discourse – the most important communication channels

Print was very instrumental in the past and is most typically represented by employee magazines and newspapers, but can also entail posters, and other modern printing methods (e.g. adhesive foils). Make no mistake, it still plays a role today and should not be underestimated, especially not in the knowledge sector. For several years now, the Deutsche Telecom for example keeps getting one award after the other for their magnificent employee magazine.

Digital is what is being invested in the most in the present – it is represented by such tools as social media and all other Web 2.0 applications (e.g. Wikis), as well as the intranet and Email; in recent years instant messaging is becoming a trend. In some cases it is even coming very close to face‐to‐face communication as one can deliver a good representation of emotions through a chat.

Facetoface is all form of communication that happens, as the name suggests, person-to-person, ranging from one-on-ones over team meetings to bigger meetings such as All Employee Meetings or Townhall Meetings, as they are sometimes called.

All three of these channels play a role in post‐hierarchical leadership – they all can deliver information and transport messages in order to offer a platform for transparency and knowledge sharing. As hinted at beforehand, face-to-face communication plays a very prominent role with regards to leadership as it is the most effective method to connect to ones employees and foster a relationship in a way that facilitates respect and appreciation between colleagues – regardless of the hierarchical level.

As for digital media, it also plays a very significant role as the tools that are used in this channel – digital collaborative tools such as Wikis or online discussion boards – offer employees freedom in sharing their knowledge and voicing their opinion. Thereby it offers employees a democratization of their own communication.

A further communication channel that I personally feel needs more or better attention is workplace design. When I speak of this topic I do not mean to allude to the highly elaborate and creative spaces Google offers its staff. Instead, I believe companies do need to think about establishing different working areas for different modes of working and need to create good social spaces for a better work-rest balance. AND what is most important, there needs to be more dialogue with the people affected by the workplace: the employees themselves. In far too many cases, the working environment is conceptualised without consulting those colleagues who will be working inside them – often resulting in frustration when placed inside the space to work.

Considering the three fundamental principles of post-hierarchic leadership, communication therefore is an essential and indispensible catalyst thereof. For this reason, any company that would like to claim itself remotely modern and post-hierarchic should have a dedicated person or team that focuses its attention to and carries all responsibility for communication, in particular internal corporate communication. Taking this a step further, such a role should even be anchored within the organisational structure. This does not only inform all colleagues who to go to in case of questions on this matter, it also underlines the importance of the function.

Many small companies will argue that their size and income does not allow them to employ such a person. My spontaneous and outright honest answer would be “think again!” In my interviews, I often asked whether there would be a specific size at which communication within a company becomes a critical function to consider. In two cases I got the statement that five employees would be enough to start thinking about common communicative practices and processes, and even give one person the central responsibility for all such matters. In many of the other interviews I did not get a concrete number but most pointed out an alternative: a company who does not want to employ their own responsible for such a task should definitely contact a communications agency to give appropriate consultation.

Real world examples

In the mostly theoretic layout of the topic so far you will of course also find the one or the other example of how to approach modern leadership and management. In the following, I would like to point out some more concrete examples from the live interviews I conducted on how the theory can be put into practice.

Taking the three post-hierarchic values into consideration, treat your employees like grown-ups and give them a deeper understanding of why they are doing the job they have been entrusted with. According to a leadership consultant, questions about the strategy or certain decisions are more than often simply answered by: “we need to earn money and make a profit!” While this might be true, it is not enough anymore to motivate your employees. Give them a deeper and more idealistic vision to work with. Give them a good reason to come to work every day.

Along the same lines, have your employees participate in the happenings at work, from small things to significant decisions. While at one company I interviewed, the employees were able to decide which drinks should be featured in the food order every week, the other gave its employees a fundamental say in the hiring process. A third company asked employees of all levels to join the strategic and economic board and involved them in the respective decisions.

Speaking of participation and inclusion: in the case of workplace (re-)design, always include the affected employees in the process. This will not only establish an early “buy-in” but you will easily recruit ambassadors for the purpose and create higher employee engagement. The same architectural company that spoke a lot about how they involve their customer’s employees in the building planning also suggested to always place management and leaders teams close to their actual teams. Instead of having them placed “in an ivory tower” or special corridor where they are isolated from the everyday work, they should connect to their employees.

In this context, the open-door-policy is also often mentioned as a well-established phenomenon in many companies. However, it is apparently still widely misunderstood. Many leaders and managers emphasize and proclaim to have an open door, open for anyone to come by and voice their opinion or concerns or ask questions. In principle this practice is a good thing. But according to a leadership consultant I spoke to there are several problems associated with such a policy:

  • leaders and managers should also be able to have a closed door more often to focus on their issues.
  • they often only offer their open door to their team to come TO. Instead, managers and leaders should frequently make use of the open doors in the other way: namely by making use of the open doors of their team members. In doing so, they go out of their way and show interest in the workings of their team members. After all, modern leadership should be bilateral and bi-directional, mutual interest expressed from both parties.
  • In many cases, managers and leader do not in fact show their visitors the level of attention the way they should when in their offices. As soon as an email comes in or the phone rings they are more than often distracted and prioritise these calls and emails. Instead they should show full attention to the employees visiting their office with an issue at hand.

With respect to the dialogue between leaders and their employees, as well as amongst employees, a lot of focus should be put on giving feedback. Through constructive criticism and praise, employees are on the one hand given the chance to grow and develop; on the other – in case of praise – they are motivated through appreciation. What is important in this matter is that communication does not always need to be harmonic! A software company’s head of corporate development which I visited fosters respectful conflict with her colleagues. In showing the employees how to be honest but respectful, an open dialogue enables the employees to open their minds to many different perspectives.

If you want your employees to work more independently and be self-driven, give them the space to do so. Do not over-control their work, and do not hinder their creativity with inflexible and bureaucratic work processes. However most importantly, give them room to fail and learn from their mistakes – as confirmed by one of my interviewees from an innovation consultancy from Berlin who said: “failing is a natural part of an innovative culture.”

Similarly, knowledge sharing is very fundamental. Throughout the companies I interview there were various initiatives through which they individually gave their employees a platform to share their knowledge. In one company the so-called p-days (p as in presentation) featured several demonstration or seminars by colleagues who presented current issues they were working with. In a similar way, another company had a bi-monthly market place of knowledge. Through a rotating program, all employees could visit a selection of presentations throughout the day to view and contribute to current issues being worked on. At the end of the day, yet other employees would provide food and drinks and invite for an informal mingling to network and discuss.

Furthermore, companies should put a lot of emphasis on work-life balance and give employees the chance to accommodate their private and professional interests, beliefs and opinions (as long as they are not radical and illegal of course). In this sense there are a lot of initiatives a company can take: offer flexible work hours and home office regulations – at my job for example one day home office per week is common. Another great example is offering massage therapy at work where only half the costs need to be paid for – the other half is covered by the company.

At another company, baskets are placed in central places with fruit from regional farmers – this does not only support the local economy but also fosters a healthy diet. Yet another company offers employees great deals for sports activities. A paramount example here is that of an architectural consultancy that organises a social day with all its employees once a year – the example given was that of a visit to a local orphanage where the facilities were repaired and enhanced, and marketing help was given to the management of the orphanage.

One aspect of work life balance is also how tasks are taken care of, or better WHEN. The 9-to-5 job is increasingly disappearing. As strange as it may sound, but due to the rise of a work life balance as well as an increased wish for self-determination and fulfilment, outstanding tasks are dealt with at any time of the day. Employees wish to work whenever and wherever they want. And employers are realizing that such a work model is more beneficial than subscribing to a fixed working time. The 40-hour week model is losing ground. Instead of putting the focus on the working time or its inherent mandatory hours, the actual delivery of results at a given due date is moving to centre stage. One of my interviewees for example stated that he regularly goes home early, shortly after noon, to take a long run, have a shower and then dine with his family. Any outstanding tasks are then taken care of later in the evening, most often with a lot less effort and time as his mind is completely fresh and revitalised.

Make it the new normal

All the examples mentioned here are very good and in some cases even inspirational. But do not forget that a few activities and actions in the right direction do not suffice to make you a modern company in a post-hierarchical sense. As Steve Denning states: it is about an attitude and a mindset. You have to believe in such an approach and live it from “head to toe”. What I mean to say is that the top level executives need to lead by example and motivate every last employee to follow suit as good as they can. If this is not the case then all efforts and aspirations by middle management and employees will be all for naught.

Looking at these examples however and reflecting on the harsh reality of today’s business landscape, it is obvious that the complexity, the dynamics and the speed of change all call for a new leadership approach: one that can dynamically react to the quickly changing demands on business in a much better way than the old, archaic and slow-moving bureaucratic mammoths of old. Given these circumstances, it is essential to engage ones employees and colleagues.

Communication is the catalyst to convey appreciation, transparency and empathy within the workforce, for with its inherent strengths and its instruments, it offers a highly effective platform to transport messages and offer simplicity and orientation amidst the dynaxity of our business environment.

Therefore, I would like to finish with a very fitting and fundamental statement that once more nails down the significant relationship between communication and leadership:

The art of communication is the language of leadership

James Humes, Author and presidential speechwriter, 1934*

About the Author

Tyrone Castelanelli (M.A. Communications & Marketing) is a creative communication professional, with nine years of experience in internal corporate communications within a global company in the ICT sector. Since March, he has taken on the role as a marketing and communications manager at a medium-sized German company that is the leading German manufacturer of networking technology in the field of LAN, WAN and WLAN. In parallel to his interest in modern leadership, he loves spending time with his “girls” –  his wife and their three-year-old daughter – and follows his creative passion through photography, drawing and illustration.

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