The Transformation of Work Requires Dialogic Leadership

The transformation of work has changed leadership. Instead of leading organizations, leadership is now about managing people – or emotions. According to Dr. Pia Lappalainen, who has researched work productivity, a focus on emotions makes business sense: “When people feel well, productivity takes care of itself.”

Reetta Räty, 08.05.2019

Lue suomeksi.

Discussing leadership means discussing emotions. Why? Not because people would be particularly sensitive these days, but for a much more practical reason: in order to gain results, it is worth thinking about emotions.

The fourth industrial revolution is often described as a change in the interdependencies between work and time, work and place, and work and employment relationships. D.Sc. (Technology) Pia Lappalainen, a researcher of e.g. performance leadership and productivity and an experienced executive coach, says that the psychological context of work has changed. She explains that today, the needs of employees fall in the emotional sphere. Many people work for several different organizations and teams and belong to a number of short-term groups. “When employees switch between different forums, the supervisor’s task is to bring a sense of stability and safety and make them feel important and a significant part of the community and joint activities.”

Acknowledging emotions doesn’t have to mean showing them

Pia Lappalainen is a senior advisor for Aalto University Executive Education (Aalto EE). Her background is a combination of so-called hard and soft values: performance and productivity assessment coupled with occupational welfare and psychology.

“There’s no real conflict there. We’ve been trying to find competitive edge in structures and processes for decades. By now, they’ve often become finetuned to perfection, and it is time to divert the gaze to resources we all have. The aim is to take a productivity leap and boost operations by paying attention to emotions. When people feel well and get to be whole at work, different from each other, productivity gets taken care of at the same time.”

Acknowledging emotions doesn’t mean they need to be continuously put on display at work. Instead, emotional intelligence, being considerate, and reading emotions are called for. Leaders need to be able to manage diversity, i.e. recognize different personalities and spur them in different ways. Also mastering one’s mind is an important emotional skill. “Good supervisors recognize their weaknesses, know how to say sorry, admit their mistakes, are humble, take feedback onboard, and give praise for work well done.”

In many workplaces, digitalization can cause fear, reorganization, uncertainty, and a reshuffle of functions that are seen as important. Leaders need to be able to manage related emotions; especially managing uncertainty plays a vital role.

Reliability is valued the most in leaders; doing what they promise, saying what they think, being clear and fair."

According to research, Finns do not particularly value leaders who show their feelings. “Studies across the board show that reliability is valued the most in leaders; doing what they promise, saying what they think, being clear and fair. It is valued more than, say, mathematical skills or administrative expertise.”

When a supervisor manages to create psychological safety in a team, employees are able to admit when they don’t know something and dare to ask for help. And when employees feel the supervisor has good intentions towards them, they are able to grow in their work.

Asked to mention a behavior leaders should avoid, Lappalainen says:

“Impulsively blowing up is extremely damaging.”

Workplace conflicts are made up of small issues and big feelings

Pia Lappalainen is also a trained workplace mediator, which means she is called in when a conflict arises in a work community. Often the situation has escalated from some minor, insignificant issue – always with big emotions at play. Solving a conflict usually goes hand in hand with an aha-moment when the mediator sees the root cause. Problems also among adults can be as follows: I thought X didn’t like me. Y doesn’t ask me to comment on her texts. Z has an aggressive attitude towards us and doesn’t come along when we go bowling…

When issues are brought to the table, tangles begin to unravel. I thought you didn’t like me, I imagined you didn’t have the time, I was sure you didn’t want to have lunch with me…

A good supervisor addresses conflicts and searches for the root of the problem with or without external help."

“A good supervisor addresses conflicts and instead of giving up, searches for the root of the problem with or without external help. Supervisors need to reflect on their own behavior as well: how can my employees feel so bad, why don’t they dare come and talk to me. A leader’s job is to get involved, which results in maintaining harmony.”

Finland is often described as a country impinged by engineer leadership. Yet compared to for instance Germany, where Lappalainen has also worked, Finland is a humane, people-centered culture low in hierarchy.

“Here, managers are approachable, and anyone can make suggestions. In Germany, I was told off for approaching my supervisor with my development ideas just after starting work… apparently I shouldn’t have!”

“In fact, we are quite good with this emotional side”, Lappalainen praises. It is easy to build more dialogue between management and employees on our cultural foundation.

Ask your employee: do you dare give honest feedback?

The transformation of work has not made leadership easier by any means. Lappalainen is in agreement with many other leadership coaches when she says that what works best in a situation of continual change is dialogic leadership – a type of antithesis to dictation. How could leaders develop themselves in this area, starting today?

“I would turn up at work and verbalize the fact that I want to change my leadership style to become more dialogic”, says Lappalainen. “I’d say, believe and trust in me enough to tell me what my leadership looks like at the moment. I’d ask questions like: Do you dare give me feedback? What has happened if you’ve plucked up the courage to tell me something negative – how did you feel about my reaction? What would you like to discuss with me? Do I understand your work and needs well enough? What do you hope from me?”

Humility of this kind is a sign of being on the right track. “An important part of leadership is making sure your ego doesn’t override other matters”, Lappalainen adds.

Pia Lappalainen, Doctor of Science (Tech), M.A. (English, French, Communication, Pedagogics) is a Senior Advisor at Aalto EE, a Lecturer at Aalto University, and a Docent at National Defense University. The Transformation of Work is also a subject of AaltoJOKO® program that celebrates its 50th anniversairy next year. Read more about the program and JOKO Study Tour.

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