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The Shift: A Force of Change in the New World of Work

By Seth Mattison

Convention SpeakerBRAt FutureSight Labs we spend a lot of time thinking about the future of work and relationships. The people stuff that keeps leaders awake at night. One of the ways we keep a close pulse on these fronts is by talking to those in the trenches.
Each year we conduct 250+ one on one interviews with leaders from various verticals and industries to get their take on the biggest shifts impacting the world of work.

For the past few years, technology has dominated the conversation.

Whether it’s big data, the cloud, the Internet of things, robots, automation, video, collaboration platforms, supply chains analytics, etc., each interview tends to lead us down the path of how technology is driving transformational change in organizations.

What’s interesting though is that despite the fact that every day we’re exposed to more information talking about our networked world of work, what’s often not talked about in the media and rarely brought up in interviews is the fact that the structures and more importantly the culture of the hierarchy still exist in our organizations today. And the truth is, these two worlds, “the hierarchy” and what I’ll call “the network”, are at a battle with each other and most of us are completely unaware of it.

We’re living in a half changed world.

The modern workplace, as progressive as it thinks it is, still holds tight to a laundry list of unwritten rules of the hierarchy; rules around communication and etiquette, policies and procedures, and of course paying your dues.

Think about some of the unwritten rules you learned early on in your own career.
Whether it was rules around respecting the chain of command or never questioning authority, knowing where to park and which elevators were reserved for the “higher-ups”, a whole generation of leaders came of age in their careers learning to navigate the most important rules of the hierarchy.

One of the most well-known and universally understood unwritten rules: Don’t go above your boss’s head!

However, as the workforce of the future continues to flood organizations ranks, it’s becoming clear they do not see the world through the same lens. In fact, they’re unaware of most of the unwritten rules that are so innately understood by more experienced generations. In some cases they’re unaware of the hierarchy all together!

It’s almost as if they’ve grown up in a different world and the truth is, they have.

Where earlier generations came of age in the hierarchy, today’s youth are coming of age in the network. Influenced by collaborative parents and the emerging power of social media, they’ve grown up with the innate feeling of empowerment and connection. They know they have a voice and they know they can influence change.

Watching their fellow twenty-something’s and teenagers launch YouTube channels with millions of followers and billion dollar companies, they’ve grown up learning a new unwritten rule, today you don’t have to spend 30 years working your way up the hierarchy in order to make an impact in the world. Or at least to make your first million!

Today we can see the dynamics of these two worlds playing out inside every single organization in every single industry.

We have a group within the workforce that came of age knowing that you start at the bottom, pay your dues, work your tail off, and eventually ascend into roles of impact and power. Today the workforce of the future shows up with a mindset of disruption and empowerment from day one. They expect to have a seat at THE table and are often shocked when they find themselves sitting at the kid’s table.

Established leaders often see this ethos as entitlement and a lack of work ethic. “Who do these kids think they are?!” Young talent finds antiquated systems and the politics of the hierarchy as archaic and slow. “Why is my manager so closed off to change!?”

The fact is neither side really understands the other and the rules they’re playing by. As a result we’re unknowingly creating subtle barriers to making meaningful connections making it virtually impossible to have a cohesive culture.

If we want to build companies that are fit for the future then I believe it’s time to have an honest conversation about the dynamic between the hierarchy and the network and what it means for our cultures and the way we lead our organizations.

What’s important to remember about this dynamic though is that it’s NOT about out with the old and in with the new. While the network offers many new advantages to thriving in the white water world of change we operate in today, the hierarchy holds many important pillars of execution and order.

To win in the new world of work today we’ll need to pull forward the best of both of these worlds.

To do this future focused leaders are implementing two specific strategies.
Mattison Network1. Shine a Light on the Unwritten Rules of the Hierarchy

Progressive leaders know that in order to adapt and move as fast as the world is changing, they must let go of some of the rigid structures that prevent them from evolving.

At the same time we can’t throw the baby out with bathwater. The trick is not to blow up the rules of the hierarchy but to simply start to shine a light on those that hold us back and those that are still important to our culture.

Are there policies you have in place from the 1970’s that really don’t serve you today? Are you doing things a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been done? If they no longer serve you, let them go. However, if they still hold true and serve a purpose for your culture, elevate them, explain them, and own them. And most importantly, hold your people accountable to them.

A key question to contemplate: What’s one unwritten rule in your culture you’d like to let go of?

2. Evangelize Expectations

While this might seem like a no brainer it’s probably the most overlooked leadership elements in organizations today.

Failure to not only set proper expectations BUT to LIVE AND BREATHE THEM EVERY SINGLE DAY IN SUCH A WAY THAT THEY EVOKE MAXIMUM PERFORMANCE will make this shift between the hierarchy and the network impossible.

While setting proper expectations has always been important, it’s more critical today.

If you think about traditional life in the hierarchy, work was a physical location you went to in order to perform your duties. Work and personal life were separate. This demand for physical presence made it easier for managers to perform their duties. If talent was in their seat – they must be working.

In the networked world however, work and life are all one thing. From the moment we wake up, we’re plugged in. We’re always connected. This has created a new expectation of being able to work whenever and from where ever one chooses.

While that might not be possible for some positions and verticals that require talent to be physically present, it doesn’t mean that some flexibility can’t be implemented.

However, with that flexibility comes the need for really clear expectations around behaviors, communication, results, and career paths. Managing performance and holding people accountable is more critical than ever. With so many different options and opportunities in the network, on all fronts, we can’t assume people know what you want or what you’re thinking. Today we’re not all playing by the same rules.

Regardless of which side of this equation you find yourself on today, whether you grew up in the hierarchy or in the network, everyone has a responsibility to understand the other. At the end of the day we’ll need to work together to pull the best practices and principals of both worlds forward as we march head long into this new world of work.