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The End of Controlling Management

We are seeing a true re-shaping of the world of work, not only in the work-from-home and digitisation revolutions – surely an ultra-fast shift in what we saw coming over the next decade anyway – but in what leadership looks like. Where companies and gurus have long spoken of the fundamental shift to emotional intelligence in leadership, we are only just beginning to see how the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have hastened that change, making any other style of leadership suddenly ineffectual and increasingly redundant.

The reality now dawning for the government has been recognised by canny business leaders for some time: That there will be no mass return to the office or city centres; that unlike schools, many jobs (particularly in the knowledge economy) can be done just as well from home; in fact, that many managers are finding that home-working is actually increasing their teams’ productivity.

We work with clients who have traditionally been based in large financial centres – the City and Canary Wharf, Manchester and Edinburgh, Singapore, Accra, New York and Dubai to take some examples. Supporting leaders through the crisis, what we’ve seen has been profound: After a period of rapid adjustment in the spring focussed on practical and operational concerns, successful managers have had to settle into a pivot away from directing and control, and a deep dive into listening, nuance and emotional intelligence.

For some leaders this is a big shift. In the mass movement to working-from-home, suddenly employees’ home lives and individual circumstances have come front and centre. Clearly, in every team there has been variation - some people have loved working from home and are truly excelling; some hate it and can’t wait to return to the office (many in this group are younger people crammed into small or shared housing and who enjoy the social aspects of life in an office.) Most people are somewhere between the two and form the majority for whom a preferred ‘new normal’ would be a mixture of home-working and trips into the office.

Good leadership during the pandemic has required managers to listen and know their team in new ways, and for many we have been supporting and talking to this has been hugely challenging. Because listening well is hard, and managing others’ stresses when going through your own is, likewise, very difficult. Each of us has had unique personal situations to navigate during the pandemic, whether juggling children, dog and a partner, moving around flatmates and working from the same room in which you sleep, or spending many hours and days alone in an urban flat. Managers have been working hard to accommodate these needs and help their teams meet their objectives while also, of course, having their own situations play out in the background, often just as stressful.

Leaders who have, in the office, functioned by control and micro-management, have often struggled intensely during the lockdown period. While ‘dropping by’ someone’s desk enabled this style in the old days, Zoom and email check-ins put a natural barrier between the controller and their team. Moreover, controlling managers are typically less flexible and dynamic, appearing strong but lacking the resilience beneath the surface that will allow them to provide the support and containment their teams will have needed in these difficult months.

So what do the leaders who have excelled during the crisis look like? Here are the telltale signs of a future-proof manager:

- A good listener: Leaders who take the time to listen and reflect on each person in their team are able to respond in nuanced and empathetic ways, taking into account each person’s personality, strengths, goals and circumstances.

- Strong communicator: As well as listening well, leaders who can reflect and think about how best to reach different members of their teams have been able to build trust and cooperative relationships – despite the reliance on digital means.

- Flexible: In times of crisis, resilient teams are backed by flexible managers who are able to think on their feet, trust their people to do the best they can, and respond quickly. Rigid perfectionists often struggle with this, letting their own insecurities shape their responses and what they ask of others.

- Brave: We don’t often talk about courage in the business context – or if we do, it is in the sales call or on the market floor. But good leaders have to be courageous. It takes courage to trust yourself, your team and your organisation through vast uncertainty, and to do it with honesty and openness. It is bravery which will allow managers to move out of controlling patterns and into more reflective ways of being, and it is the core trait that will enable the others in this list.

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