Balancing individual and organisational power

Employers are now far more likely to respect their staff as whole human beings, but who really has the power in the workplace? Mike Thackray reports

Credit: Jonathan Kitchen/Getty Images

A more individual-centric approach to how, when and where employees work is something to which most forward-thinking organisations aspire. Indeed, a failure to adapt to these employee ideals may have had a hand in the rise of what has been described the ‘Great Resignation’ and, more recently, the ‘anti-work’ and ‘quiet quitting’ movements, whose subscribers are wondering whether they have been striking the right balance between work and other worthwhile activities.

We have certainly seen much progress in the number of employers making headway in the journey towards respecting people as whole human beings with complex lives and unique needs. In some organisations, the opportunity to ‘be who you really are’ is actually promised as an employee offering. So, are we living in a time when the individual has the power?

This is by no means a unified picture that permeates across all sectors and organisations, however. For some, work is still very much 9-5, managers still act in ways that grant staff little autonomy, and everyone is expected to be present in the workplace unless there’s an exceptional justification for working from home. As we move into a time of recession and a cost of living crisis, we may see more leaders and managers revert to even tighter ‘command and control’ as they seek to cut costs. And, in this scenario, will the employee, fearful of job loss, acquiesce power to the organisation?

There is clearly a varied picture in where the power lies at present.

Part of the challenge in this age of polarised debate is a reluctance to acknowledge that there can be equal merit in two apparently competing arguments. It is perfectly possible to value a power shift towards the individual, in understanding the importance of work-life balance, and all the positive outcomes that come with it, while at the same time acknowledging that in some situations it has become counterproductive for the organisation as a whole.

None of us who work for an organisation of any size work in isolation. So how do we reap the benefits of an individualistic approach while balancing the needs of the business so it can function effectively? And what ensues when this alignment is less than perfect?

Hallelujah! We’ve solved work

Aspiring to create the optimum organisational conditions in which employees can apply their skills and attributes in a truly authentic manner, and have it work for the organisation at the same time, is a worthy goal. If we achieve perfect alignment between who someone is, what they are competent at and what the organisation needs, then Hallelujah! we’ve solved ‘work.’

The potential misalignment between organisational and individual needs has perhaps become more obvious (or acute?) post pandemic, with a widespread shift in working locations. If your authentic self wishes to join important meetings via Zoom from a beach in the north-west Highlands wearing a Hawaiian shirt and drinking a can of Tennent’s Super, then at what point, and how, should the business articulate its right to reject that version of authenticity?

The problem with authenticity

The goal of authenticity leads to some major challenges that organisations need to address:

  1. Practising ‘constructive authenticity’. Let’s start with an idea that builds on the idea of authenticity in the workplace. The word ‘constructive’ is a useful addition that makes it clear that there is a limit to the expression of individual wants, needs and preferences. We want people to behave in a consciously authentic way. Finding ‘enough’ congruence with who they are and who they need to be to make it work, but keeping certain aspects in check for the good of the whole.

  1. Recruiting the right people. It sounds obvious, but how much thought do we actually give to ensuring we recruit people whose authentic selves are likely to be a good fit for the role and the organisation? When offset against the challenges that ensue when recruitment goes wrong, are you really putting enough time and effort into finding people that fit?

  1. Articulating the acceptable and unacceptable. Part of the challenge in a company of any size is the felt pressure to place hard and fast rules on what is and isn’t considered acceptable. Leaders need to be better at articulating the boundaries between self and organisation through stories and principles rather than rules or absolutes.

  1. Holding difficult conversations. A logical next step is the ability to engage in a conversation that addresses these shortfalls. If the goal is authenticity at work, then leaders need to be more emotionally intelligent and tuned in to individual needs, but also capable of having adult conversations that balance individual needs with the needs of the team and/or organisation, as and when the need arises. This is the cornerstone of most managerial roles, but also the one we struggle with the most. Building awareness of when, and the skills of how, to deal with these types of conversation is becoming increasingly critical when blanket rules no longer apply.

Navigating the balance

Perhaps the key leadership challenge is navigating a balance between focusing on individual autonomy and preference, and organisational rules and expectations. What rights should the organisation retain and what can realistically be left to the individual to decide?

Organisations will constantly strive to find that point between control and autonomy that hits the sweet spot – and it’s those that do that will have the true power.

Mike Thackray is a principal consultant at OE Cam