Written by Frederike Schütz and Dr. Antonia Stelzl-Götzl
Do you already feel your stress level rising when turning on your work phone in the morning? Are you frustrated when finishing your working day, because your projects seem to have no tangible progress that you can be satisfied with? Do you think that the increasing demands on today’s leaders require more, than simply leading “agile”, being part of a "Scrum Project” or using “Kanban”? This article will give you a new perspective on today’s leadership challenges which are coming along with agility and provide suggestions on how to tackle them.
Today’s leaders withhold a distinct responsibility in driving change processes within a company: they need to motivate their teams to ensure their commitment, so transformations have a chance to succeed. But this responsibility comes nowadays with new arising challenges, of which most leaders are unaware of.
The overall digitalization of our globalized economy is changing the operational environment for leaders in ways never seen before. Digitalization speeds up our work processes and increases information availability. In other words:
Acceleration brings up various advantages for organizations, such as shorter adaption times towards shifts in customer needs and market trends as well as dissolving information asymmetries within teams and organizations. However, organizations can only benefit from named advantages when having the right organizational structure and necessary skills among their workforce to be able to “surf the wave” instead of being overrun by the flood of information and reaction triggers.
The state in which organizations find themselves overrun by the new speed and volume of information and processes, is known as Acceleration Trap, detailed described by Heike Bruch and Jochen I. Menges in their Harvard Business Review article. Here, they not only present symptoms for identifying an Acceleration Trap, they furthermore give advice on how to break free.
To deal the ways work places and processes have been changed by digitalization, new work designs are being introduced, which implicate an innovative understanding of leadership. We are talking about the concept of agility. Being and leading agile is supposed make teams more flexible, innovative and faster.
But here is the thing: instead of feeling “agile”, leaders and their teams are feeling more and more drained out and frustrated. Even though, their operational environment is picking up speed, they somehow feel thwarted. When talking to our clients we found out, that they find it hard to name and define what is causing that feeling. Due to our analysis of their situations, we decided to call the force, which is putting breaks on our client’s acceleration, the weight of deceleration.
Deceleration arises from an organizations inflexible structure, legal restrictions and a lack of capacity – time as well as workforce wise. But there is another deceleration factor, which is caused by our very own human nature:
No matter how hard a person tries to keep up with acceleration, there are natural limitations to mind. Here are some examples:
So, the situation of today’s leaders is far from ideal. They need to handle the flood of information and experience the force of acceleration on their working environment. On the other hand, they face the deceleration of their organizational structure and their own physical limitations. This is a dangerous position to be in.
Leaders, who find themselves responsible to navigate their teams between the poles of acceleration and deceleration, while not having the right skills and resources at hand to do so, are likely to experience a tremendous amount of stress.
Being exposed to high levels of stress is quite dangerous. We talked to Dr. Heidrun Jahnel, who is specialized in occupational medicine, about the real health risks for leaders in situations like these. She highlighted the fact that human beings are still run by their primary instincts. If a person is facing a major challenge, the body switches into escape or fight mode. By releasing adrenaline, our brain and muscles increase their short-term performance levels.
But if leaders find themselves exposed to major challenges over months and have no time-off to relax and recover, something else happens. Our brain loses its chemical balance and stress-related disorders, such as hearing loss, hypertension, insomnia or even depression and burn out, occur. Even though, short term achievements will release dopamine and therefore a feeling of happiness, keeping the brain exposed to high levels of stress will damage it in the long term.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens when being “always on”: always waiting for the next message that might be important, always facing challenges due to our changing environment, always struggling to keep up with the new speed of information which seem to demand our immediate reaction.
Digitalization is leading to a higher complexity of tasks, which supports the feeling of never being able to finish the flood of new challenges. In addition, many companies introduce agile methods, which should facilitate working under accelerated conditions.
But be careful: working agile will support acceleration factors and will speed up a team’s work but it won’t address its deceleration factors, such as the company structure or our own human nature. Therefore, companies need to develop their leaders and their teams beyond agility, for them to keep operating efficiently and effectively within their new working environment.
To answer this question, we determined four main measures which will help leaders and their team to cope with the polarization of acceleration and deceleration:
Are you interested in the topic and would like to know more about it or discuss your experience with us? Let’s talk! You can send a mail to email@example.com or Frederike.firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition, we developed a training for companies which focuses on strategic work and purpose definition, embodied leadership, neuroscience of trust and conflict management, considering our experience in change management, business psychology and medicine. To learn more about the training, just get in touch with us or contact us directly via mail.
Antonia is an executive coach and management consultant with 15 years of international experience. Among others, Antonia worked as a Senior Consultant at The Boston Consulting Group and as a scientific researcher. She managed projects for the United Nations and the federation of Austrian Industries, mainly in the area of Microfinance and Social Business. Since 2014, she works as independent senior advisor and sparring partner for numerous companies and institutions. Antonia’s main areas of expertise are team-, leadership- and strategy development. She is an experienced change facilitator and negotiator and further capable of motivating and enabling people at all levels of management.
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