The Emperor’s New (Work) Clothes


What extraordinarily hard times we live in. Aside from everything else - is it summer or has it been cancelled? Many of us have kids that keep us from losing our grip on normalcy, they are having school holidays and wouldn’t understand why they ought to completely forgo that - they may not expect the lavish vacation but they sure still expect the time and the fun. And we’re sat in our professional adult uniform, unsure we’ve given enough, worked enough, adapted fast enough, captured the opportunity fast enough, done enough, helped enough, uncertain of the future of our jobs and organisations, unclear what we’re heading towards. It’s all heavy and terrifying for most people but there are vacations, BBQs, laughter and sun too. All moments of respite, hope and genuine happiness which are strangely impeding us from wallowing in doom and gloom. Which makes us look “functional” to our employers. 


So our employers see us reasonably engaged and like we can make it through this. When they even care to look. There’s talk in every industry about refocusing on “resilience” and “engagement”. That’s undoubtedly valuable, providing of course, that it’s not just lip service, the eternal caveat. If we remain with nothing else after this nightmare once it’s behind us, but the blueprint for hybrid work where WFH and occasional office times are the norm, as well as an honest exploration of those two topics, then it’s still going to be a net win for people and work. 


Is it going to be enough? Not enough to save some organisations that’s for sure. Make no mistake about it, anyone who keeps this at a superficial “me too” level and does none of the true deep thinking and introspection needed to change their mindset, the way they work and the way they think of work, will make it long term. My bet is that they won’t even make it out of the recession but I don’t know the depth of their coffers - they might- but not survive long after competing against those who applied their every thought and every emotion to fundamentally changing and reducing their “human debt”. 


Those who used this as an impetus to move faster, to get comfortable with volatility, to live inside their authentic human selves and be vulnerable in their leadership, to rethink everything, to conclude and naturally arrive at flexibility and agility. From the heart. To run not crawl and make solid new things as a by-product of this change, not as a goal in itself. Those are the winners. 


I wish there was a way to place bets over the survival of some organisations over and above the stock market. Just between us change warriors -internal or external- who see them from inside warts and all - “Just by what we know about how they treat their people - will this company be around in 5 years? What about 10?” 


I’m willing to bet we all see the same signs. When they favour presenteeism. When they pay Agile lip service. When internal politics is rampant. When our leaders hide, have no real leadership teams and are stuck in command&control. When they ignore employee happiness as they don’t know what to do about it and how to connect it to productivity. When they’re afraid to talk about productivity as it means measuring. When there’s zero trust for the employees and WFH makes it even more obvious. When teams are given no autonomy and nobody really knows about Psychological Safety leave alone do they hone on it. When rewards and performance measurements are broken and reinforcing bad behaviour. When discrimination is inbuilt in the lack of speaking up. When the emotional wellbeing of the team and of the individual is an afterthought and burnout and impression management are escalating. When human debt is still untouched. We see all these. 


Then it becomes a question of what it is we could do to be honest with each other and them. Deeply honest. “Tell a friend over a pint” level of honest. “Off the record” level of honest. Brutal. 100%. Useful. Real. 


The thing is, they see all these signs themselves too. We all know the emperor is naked and without deep change there’s doom to be expected but we all stay silent as he walks past and we compliment him on the invisible technicolour coat. 


We may be entering another period of near-paralysis -one we can ill afford, mind- for so many reasons - because it’s summer; because we don’t know if a second wave isn’t coming; because we all feel a minute away from a Kanye-level-break-down some days; because the recession is about to kick in; because we’re not clear who’s staying and who’s leaving; and ultimately because our stress response may dictate a needed break from thinking, but if we are, perhaps we can use it to think of what we could really cloth the emperor with once we gather the courage to point out he needs some garments? 


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