“Women in leadership positions show macho posturing for what it really is”

In Flat organisation, Leadership, Meaningful work by Stefan Melbinger

Employees are the most important resource at a company’s disposal – at least, that’s the official line. In reality, organisations are frequently dominated by an arrogance of power that leaves many employees reeling. According to Professor Stephan Laske, board member of German change management firm Transformation Management AG (TMAG), the guiding principle “Rank always wins” leads to a form of intra-organisational autism in which communication is given far too few opportunities to flourish. In an interview with the Mystery Lunch blog editorial team, he explained why this also has negative economic consequences – and how companies can go about establishing a better company culture.

Professor Laske, with the onslaught of digitalisation, everyone is talking about the importance of talent management. How does this fit with the phenomenon that you refer to as an “arrogance of power”?

Stephan Laske

Actually, the two things don’t go together at all – and we see evidence of this every day in companies of all sizes. Management is often not prepared to engage in a genuine conversation with employees unless they are at mid-management level or higher. Because of this, employees of call centres and other such organisations never get an opportunity to present managers with a realistic picture of day-to-day company life– because these managers sit in ivory towers. The problem is that many of them have no desire to become mindful of this reality. Instead of collaboration, they propagate a culture of “Rank always wins”. This begins on the level of the departmental manager and results in a situation in which no-one really talks to one another. At most, they talk past each other and don’t truly listen.

Yet these managers still claim to uphold the principle that employees are an organisation’s most important resources…?

The fairy tale of mutual respect and “cooperation on all levels” is frequently a superficial, non-credible and pseudo-humanistic veneer.

What do you think are the reasons for the predominance of “Rank always wins”?

This arises from multiple factors. For one thing, emperors and kings have always preferred to mingle among their own kind, to avoid becoming embroiled with the “commoners”. As I see it, that is an arrogance of power. It’s to do with having an exaggerated opinion of oneself and with a lack of ability to be self-critical. Many believe that the tighter they hold onto the reins, the less chance they have of being toppled from the saddle. What’s more, many managers believe that they are able to achieve more with pressure from above; to extract more horsepower from their employees.

Is that true?

On a short-term basis, perhaps. Long-term, definitely not. While it’s true that a culture of anxiety might make it easier to prod people into a sprint, in the long term, they’ll simply burn out. They’ll become unimaginative and will no longer feel confident to throw their ideas into the mix. As an educator, I know that anxiety makes people less intellectually capable – and this can be a fatal blow, since a culture of innovation is vital for companies’ survival in the modern age. Because of this, managers won’t get far with arrogance and self-assertion. Instead, they should focus much more on pursuing a dialogue-driven culture of collaboration with employees.

How might such a dialogue-driven culture of collaboration work? Nobody enjoys relinquishing power…

It’s not about giving up power, but about handling it responsibly. In the first instance, this is a matter of having the right values. When power is used to bolster others –where necessary, with a little force – it does not threaten employees, but is conducive to positive change. Finally, managers are able to achieve significantly greater levels of respect and authority when they act in a manner that is authentic and open to dialogue than when they apply pressure from above. And when all is said and done, I’m confident that this reflects positively on the financial situation of the company, too.

What motivates companies in this regard?

The fight for fresh talent is an important source of motivation, since young professionals assign a high level of importance to company culture when evaluating a potential employer. A second critical factor is the question of how a company handles its projects. It has been proven that effective communication and exchange beyond departmental boundaries is a critical factor for development and thus for competitiveness. Of course, the financial factor also comes into play here.

In your experience, how can firms achieve better dialogue?

When it comes to having better dialogue, each organisation must find its own path. As advisors, we assist our clients by evaluating the merits and pitfalls of their existing structures, then work together with them to develop tailored solutions – “Hand-crafted, not off-the-peg”. Of course, there are some common elements. Often, a good start is to pursue a light-hearted approach such a “reverse mentoring”, where employees become the mentors of their bosses. This helps to challenge long-held beliefs and open up new opportunities. It’s also possible to connect employees using resources such as Mystery Lunch. Even the fact that companies are considering implementing it shows that a shift in mentality has begun. The first steps on the path to change have already been taken.

How optimistic are you about the future?

Organisations from a diverse range of sectors have already begun dissolving rigid structures and attempting to shake up time-honoured ways of doing things. What makes me optimistic is that companies are happy to look at each other and adopt the important ideas. This gives rise to a sort of viral effect. On top of that, little by little, we’re seeing more women represented on boards and in management teams. In general, women focus much more on achieving a good dialogue, which means they put macho posturing in its place almost automatically. I consider that to be the best way of changing things.

Prof. Laske, thank you for talking to us.

Prof. Dr. Stephan Laske: Conducting studies about Mystery Lunch
For the reference work PersonalEntwickeln (“Human Resources Development”) (Wolters Kluwer), Professor Stephan Laske teamed up with Martin Sonnert, a colleague from TMAF, to carry out a comprehensive piece of research about Mystery Lunch. Among other things, they interviewed various Mystery Lunch customers. As part of the study, Stephan and Martin evaluated the extent to which companies can benefit from the platform. Their research showed that this benefit is felt on three levels:

  1. Substantive level: Companies are essentially functional networked systems – yet the quality of this networking often leaves something to be desired. This shortcoming has serious effects for a company’s national and international competitive ability, particularly for companies who are active in VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity und Ambiguity) markets. It is precisely these companies who benefit most from developing new approaches. If – as in a game of ping pong – the ball is consistently played back and forth over the net and new actors are constantly brought into the picture, the foundation is laid for innovation and technological reform. In this analogy, Mystery Lunch is a form of “ping pong”.
  2. Social level: Employees have a need for social interaction – yet whether they work in SMEs or large corporations, they often have little or no or opportunity to become properly acquainted with their colleagues. A “proper conversation” forms the foundation for basic mutual emotional understanding and cooperation across organisational boundaries. Mystery Lunch provides a basis for this communication.
  3. Methodological level: The majority of employees are drawn to a combination of variety and easy-to-access opportunities. They are open to new ideas and to conversations with new partners. The element of surprise involved in Mystery Lunch (“Who will I be paired with today?”) and its removal of the need for organisational effort means it typically receives a positive response. On top of this, participants are able to sign up on a completely voluntary basis. Only those those who are actively curious about forming new contacts and broadening their horizons are placed in the “pot”. After all, Mystery Lunch is a form of game – and one that’s extremely well received.

Prof. Stephan Laske is a board member of the German change management firm Transformation Management AG (TMAG) and has served as a professor of business and finance at the University of Innsbruck since 1980. Since 2009, he has been enjoying “active retirement”, and dedicates a good deal of his time and energy to his advisory activities at TMAG.