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The Power of Social Technologies in Business.

This is a blog inspired by the book “Social Technologies in Business” by Isabel De Clercq.
Social Technologies

Two Questions

  1. Imagine an organization where people can say whatever they want, when they want and to whom they want. Freedom of speech put to the extreme. Would you want that?
  2. Imagine an organisation where people share their ideas, know what is expected, think outside of the box, help one another, volunteer, take ownership. Would you want that?

Put like this, too many leaders would say no to the first question, but they would say yes to the second question. Why is that?
The 2nd question focuses on value-creation. It describes an organization that is full of engaged people who are able and willing to do more than the minimum. Everybody would benefit from that: the customers, management, the shareholders, the employees themselves. This would be a healthy, agile and customer-driven organization.
The first question focuses on what is needed to reach that. If people are to behave like in scenario 2, we have to accept that the context is safe enough for them to express their ideas appropriately. This means that leaders of organisation would accept that not all leadership would originate from those who have been designated managerial roles. It also means that there is room for dissent, debate, disagreement, conflict. And it means that people receive sufficient autonomy to act, experiment, decide.
It’s often like this that we are interested to have something (question 2), but that we are reluctant to travel the road to reach it (question 1). And sometimes this is because leaders do not know how.
Social technologies offer ways to organise the debate as described in question 1 to reach the state as described in question 2. To me, social Technologies are a game changer. These technologies offer a (digital) context that shapes behaviour. They can change the social fabric of an organizations and thus also its culture. But like most drastic changes, it does not come easily. It’s not enough to install social technologies (a technological intervention). It takes much more. Introducing social technologies is part of a more general change of cultural, one that is not to be taken too lightly.

What do Social Technologies Do?

In het book Isabel De Clercq says that

1. Digital subverts Hierarchy. Digital is a rebellious act against command-and-control systems.
2. Social Technology accelerates digitalisation

I agree with the second statement. Introducing social technologies makes digital part of the work environment. It’s probably the most effective way to change the way people work together, and by extension work with customers.
Isabel calls digital the Renaissance of Work,  a rebellious act. I would not go that far. We must not forget that social technologies are implemented after a decision of management. Of course people already work with social technologies outside of work. Most people are on one of these social media platforms: Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and these social technologies are invading business life as well. But installing Yammer or Chatter or any other enterprise technology is still a decision.
I have witnessed early versions of social technologies: Lotus Notes, bulletin boards, interactive intranets, … I have witnessed the introduction of Yammer in both a top-down and a bottom-up way. The Bottom-up way  was indeed a rebellious act by someone who saw the potential of Yammer – before is was acquired by Microsoft – and so he just launched it. The uptake was fast. Within a month or two 75% of employees were on Yammer. And then it died. There were hardly discussions, people lost interest. Like is the case with social technologies outside work, most people did not take part. They observed. And when asked why they did not participate and  contribute, they often said they did not have the time or worse, that they did not trust management or were not allowed.
The top-down relaunch a couple of years later was different. Yammer became the official platform for work, in combination with Skype and the O365 Suite. It was a decision by management to do that. Only when management wants social technologies to take foot in an organisation, the introduction will be successful.  So why would management want to do that, when social technologies “undermine” hierarchy?

The Power of Social Technologies

I am a heavy user of social media. People ask me where I find the time to be present on social media. Many people think it’s a waste of time and that it is too time-consuming. Yes, I use social media and have done that for more than 13 years. It has given me insights, information, knowledge, connections. I often meet people on twitter or linked before I meet them in real life.

Social technologies make life easier. They make life more connected. They create opportunities.

And if that’s the case in the outside world, why would it not be the case for the inside world?
Social technologies help an organisation to become more agile, to connect people without hierarchical intervention. They reduce silo thinking. They create opportunities for collaboration, for creative exchange, co-creation.
The condition for this is that organisations go all the way. And that’s a matter of leadership.

A Matter of Leadership

In the past (and for some still today), organisations and their leaders did not trust social media. They closed down the digital gates and did not allow employees to go on social media. People who needed access (recruiters, marketers, …) had to ask permission. And they were monitored. This shows the distorted view organisations and leaders have/had about the utility of social technology. But it also shows the distorted views they have of their employees. If the basic attitude towards people working in the organisation is one of distrust, social technologies are bound to fail.
The introduction of social technologies is a leap of faith. Even when you are convinced that social technologies add value, you never know in advance how and if it will work. It requires an unconditional trust in people that they will do the right thing. And we know that there will be people who will abuse the possibilities of social technology. But the 2% untrustworthy people should not influence a decision of which the 98% and the organisation as a whole could benefit.
The introduction of social technologies is a mater of leadership. It both requires leadership to do so and it will influence the very nature of leadership. Social technologies will help to “reduce” leadership to its right proportions. It will help leaders to focus on essentials: not on control, but on enabling people to excel. Not on coördination, but on organization and even exploiting the wisdom of the internal crowds. It will help leaders to focus on results, and not on repetitive, administrative tasks. It will leverage leadership within organisations.
But it requires leadership to change leadership. As it requires leadership to give people the autonomy they need and deserve.

Social technologies do not replace the need for leadership. They change the nature of leadership.

About the Book

The book social technologies in business can help you to decide how you want to use these technologies in organizations. Like Isabel I believe very much in the power of social technologies to change and improve organizations, enhance collaboration, improve agility. I also believe that using social technologies is beneficiary for the person, the employer and the corporate brand of organisations.

Social Technologies

Isabel De Clercq, 2017
Social Technologies in Business
Brugge, Die Keure
EAN: 9782874034534

# Metoo and Leadership

# Metoo

In the past weeks there has been a tidal wave of disclosure about people abusing their power. The # metoo movement has helped people, men and women alike, to come forward and share their experiences with the world. It’s a widespread problem in the political, cultural and business world. In short, everywhere there is power the risk of abuse exists.
Langer Research conducted a survey in the USA to assess the dimension of the problem. They concluded that 33 million American women feel harassed and 14 million have experiences of abuse. These figures are shocking. And before we say that this is about America and not about us, I think we should stop this reflexion. 95% of women report that nothing happened to stop that behaviour. And that’s because it’s also about power.

How Does Power Work?

Power is always unevenly distributed. If everybody would have the same power, it would not be an issue. John Rawls discussed in his “Theory of Justice” about the hypothetical situation that all “resources” are equally distributed and that people do not know about possible differences. He also argues that a difference or inequality is only acceptable as when it is beneficiary to those who have less.
We can apply this to the topic of power.

As power is unevenly distributed, it should only be used when those who have less power can benefit from it.

In the sexual harassment cases, this is clearly not the case. People with power uses it to impose their sexual drive upon others who find themselves in an extremely difficult situation. It’s difficult because this use of power functions through fear.
People who find themselves in such a situation feel that they cannot do anything against it, out of fear of losing something. The person in power controls access to many other things: access to resources, access to career opportunities, access to an income, access to violence … So people tend to choose between the benefit of going against the unacceptable behaviour and the cost of doing so.

No heroes

The benefits of resisting or exposing such behaviour are clear: dignity, self-esteem, protection of others, justice, … These are all long-term and high-level principles. The costs are usually direct and of a short-term nature: no job, damaged reputation, no income, becoming an outcast, violence. And that’s why many people do not come out. The cost is too high. They do not want to be a hero (as they know where most heroes end).
A very peculiar aspect of such a situation is that people tend to believe the ones in power more easily. People who claim justice are often blamed and shamed. Did they say no? Were they clear enough? Did they provoke the behaviour? What were they wearing? What were they doing there in the first place? Are they not exaggerating? Was it that bad? This adds to the feeling of loss.
In the end people who would like to expose an abuse of power, know where they are today: in a bad situation. But they do not know what their fate will be once they come out. So they decide to move on and do nothing. So this psychological mechanism helps people to stay in power and continue their behaviour. And people in power who abuse their power know that it works this way.

Power is needed (?)

Power is in itself not a bad thing. Leaders need it to survive, to progress, to open doors. It’s not the power itself that is a problem, it’s how people use it.
In Schindler’s list there is a scene which stuck with me. When the cruel camp director Amon got drunk, Schindler tried to implant another idea about power in his head. True power is about not using it. Of course you can argue on how Schindler phrases it – power is not killing when you have every justification to kill – but I think it’s true: not using power is powerful.

Power as Source for Leadership

Power is never a sustainable source of leadership. To keep power, you have to do everything to avoid others from developing their own power. If power is based on access to information, the one in power needs to withhold information from others. And, if competence is the source of power, the one with power needs to stop people from developing themselves. If fear is the basis of power, the powerful need to make sure that people are scared. None of these outcomes and levers are future-oriented or sustainable.
When leaders use power with the sole purpose of maintaining it, power becomes a threat to the well-being, the prosperity and the future of people. This kind of power abuse leads to all sorts of obnoxious behaviours. And the thing is that people in power feel they are entitled to these behaviours. They think it’s normal to do indecent proposals, to use the company’s or country’s assets for their own purposes. And they think it’s normal to eliminate competition on the power field.
Let’s not be naïve, people have always used power both for positive and negative purposes. There are a lot of power games going on in organizations. Sometimes the use of power is beneficial, very often it’s not. But we agree that when leaders use their power to (sexually) harass others, it is surely not acceptable.

Harassment destroys one’s identity. People feel dehumanized. Treated unfairly. Damaged.


And here comes leadership. When a leader knows or notices that someone in power abuses their power, they should step in. The first directive is to always protect the ones who have less power. In that way leaders can use their power to the benefit of someone in particular and to the benefit of the experience of many others. Abuse of power should always be stopped. Leaders who tolerate such behaviours lose their own credibility and make it difficult for people to continue working. Tolerating such behaviour destroys trust. It creates an unsafe environment.
But you might think that a leader will always do that. But leaders also work in a context. They are just as sensitive to power arguments as any other person. Maybe the abusing person has more power? Maybe the leader has power struggles and cannot handle yet another problem. Maybe the abusing person is an excellent professional with a track record? Maybe … As you see, these are all excuses. But these are around. And when leaders are in doubt to act, they should think of this: if there is one time a leader should intervene, it’s on that moment when someone is in trouble because of someone abusing power.

House of Cards

Leaders are as good as the worst behaviour they tolerate.

And of course there’s a lot of manipulation. We all know of cases where someone who does not perform well, uses the (legal) protection of the harassment complaint to save themselves. But then we should have faith in the outcome of the inquiry. This is what I propose as procedure when there is one case.

  1. Protect the weaker person.
  2. Freeze the situation. Make sure nothing can happen that aggravates the situation.
  3. Conduct a thorough inquiry, done by a neutral professional. Give everybody the chance to a fair chance to give their sides.
  4. Share the outcome of the inquiry with both parties
  5. Come to a conclusion and take action.

Of course, step 5 is the most difficult. As there are always two sides to a story, leaders must come to a conclusion. This is what has recently happened with the actor Kevin Spacey. After people came forward, Netflix has stopped all collaboration with him. Not an easy decision. The same has happened in Belgium with Bart De Pauw. Another example are the recent resignations from the British government. Organizations cannot afford to work with people who exhibit that kind of behaviour. And as it often happens, these public figures have less chances for a fair trial because the stakes are high. Of course these decisions are also and maybe even primarily about reputation.


But think of this. How many people in the world suffer every day because people abuse their power? And how many people have to suffer because their leaders do not wish to intervene in such cases and become accomplice to the situation. People deserve a leadership that is courageous enough to serve and protect. And that’s what power should be used for in the first place. Only then people will have a full trust in their leadership.
There will be always behaviour like this. It’s part of humanity. But fighting against it is a sign of civilisation and culture. So it’s not because we have predatory behaviour in our genes, that we need not deal with it.

Alternative for Leadership

The # metoo wave shows also that social technologies have the potential to become a source of power as counterweight for traditional sources of power. Like this they are an alternative to leadership. Collective action shows that personal power can be outweighed. But we know that these sources of power are very fragile, they don’t last too long. However, the # metoo hashtag has given many people the courage to step forward and do something about this situation. And somehow this is remarkable.
People who still use their power in inappropriate ways and leaders who tolerate or endorse this behaviour, should take this as a sign. It’s time to clean up and truly adhere to the often espoused values of trust, respect and fairness. If not, leadership and culture are like of a house of cards. They will blown away by one single example of bad behaviour followed by popular outcry. The discrepancy between words and actions is no longer acceptable.

Make sure there is no real reason for someone to use the # metoo hashtag.

And here’s the thing. If you only intervene after a # metoo action has occurred, you are too late. So, Reputation is the shadow of character. Work on the latter and you will not need to work on the former. And this is a plea for better leadership, as alternative to weak leadership.

Potential Needs a Push


Human Potential

What is human potential? We don’t know. You could say that potential is that what is possible. Or that what is not impossible. But with that not much has been said. We like to see potential as an innate quality. And like every quality, potential is limited. It’s hardly ever zero, meaning that all people have the potential to be someone, to create something, to relate to something.
Should we give a more concrete definition? Let’s try. Potential is the maximum level of functioning someone theoretically could reach based on their physical and mental qualities. In my definition, it’s a theoretical level of functioning.

A Push

Do you know people who were so promising but never got anywhere? We all do. They seem to have squandered their potential. And some do that out of personal choice, whilst others seem to have missed the opportunities needed to develop their potential.
But potential requires energy to develop. A rock on the top of a mountain has the potential to develop kinetic energy. It’s the gravity that causes it. But as long as nobody gives the rock a push, the potential is not utilised.
Unlike a rock, people can push themselves and exploit their own potential. People can stretch their potential by going beyond what other people believe they are capable of. But it requires discipline and effort. Nobody will excel in sports without discipline.
A coach once said that discipline is good for us, effort is not. Discipline reduces the need to put effort in something. If you exercise regularly (discipline), you wil not have to put extra effort in losing weight later. The effort compensates the lack of discipline. Of course discipline requires some effort too, mostly in the form of sacrifice. You invest time in one challenging thing (running a marathon), which means you cannot spend time on something easier (hanging out with friends).

Not alone

We like to think that we are responsible for our own destiny and so too many people think they are responsible for their own development. But even with the willpower to invest time and effort in exploiting one’s potential, most people cannot do it alone. The social (or motivational) context will shape the motivation. An athlete has parents, friends, peers, coaches to help. In an organization, the motivational context is shaped by the leader, the peers and the team members.
To develop this motivational context, leaders need to understand what people need. We all have this need to feel competent, to have autonomy and to feel a sense of purpose or belonging. In a safe and trusting context like this, people will be able to learn, experiment, make mistakes. They do not have to fear punishment when making a mistake. As they develop their competence, they will also be able to take on more responsibilities. A lack of autonomy would kill this drive. People who grow, outgrow limited spaces. The space they have must grow together with them. If not, they will find other spaces that fit.
A sense of belonging and purpose seems to be vital to developing potential. Children learn to walk and ride their bike because there’s a purpose. That purpose might be to be able to pick up things, carry toys, move faster, open doors. Or the purpose might be the parental satisfaction. If you have children, you might remember what you did when the child took its first step. You applauded, you cheered, you cried. Imagine that a leader would do that every time a member of the team would achieve a next level of competence and performance, thus developing potential further?

What you can do.

This is what you can do as a leader:

  • Build knowledge about basic psychological needs of people and how you can influence motivation.
  • Create a context that is safe enough for people to experiment.
  • Scan continuously for (hidden) potential. People will sculpt their job to the potential they have.
  • Challenge people by giving them difficult assignments too early, and be available to help. Explore the limits. Check people’s resilience.
  • Hire people because of their (suspected) future potential. And start developing as of day 1.
  • Don’t mind if someone with potential is hard to handle. Engage in debate and discussions.
  • Applaud achievement and progress. Praise people when they go beyond what they were able to do yesterday.
  • Be available to discuss progress (give feedback), values, purpose and to offer help during difficult moments.
  • Make sure people learn things they want to learn or because it’s meaningful, not because you ask them to.
  • Never put a lid on potential development. You harm the person and you harm your organization.
  • Encourage people to leave your organization if and when the context you can offer does no longer offer opportunities for growth.

Potential needs a push to develop. And that push comes from within but most certainly also comes from others.

When Governance Becomes Terror: the Chief Discipline Officer

chief discipline officer

Chief Discipline Officer

A friend of mine works in an organization that went through a merger. Or was it an acquisition? Anyway, the new organization brought also a new function: the chief discipline officer. I had never heard of that function or job title before.
So I had to look it up. And this is what I found. Most of the times the title is Chief Discipline and Conduct Officer. And many of these jobs are in emerging countries as part of a UN peacekeeping missions. As I understand it, the Chief Discipline Officer must detect and react to behaviour that does not comply to values and rules. There is always a trio of prevention, enforcement and remedial.
Indeed, there are awful incidents with soldiers abroad: bullying, rape, torture, … And it’s clear that misconduct can undermine the very credibility of a mission. In such an environment exemplary behaviour is of the essence.


So let’s we zap back to corporate life. What does a Chief Discipline Officer do? And why does that role even exist?
The Chief Discipline Officer that I heard about seemed to only look for error, deviation, non-compliance. He seemed to focus on punishment as way of remedial, and not on prevention or correction. It became a blaming game.
Like with the soldiers abroad, people who misbehave within an organization pose a problem. But should it be left to a separate function to keep up good behaviour? Or should it not be the leader who makes sure that people behave according to the defined framework? And if we have audit, compliance officers, why would we need chief conduct officers?


So governance becomes terror when people abuse the power that  is inherent to the function. And the problem of power is that it can only be maintained by either keeping the other weak, or by increasing its intensity. If information is the basis of power, it can only be maintained by not sharing information. When knowledge is the basis, people can only keep it when they withhold knowledge from others. And by keeping people less competent. If it’s about pressure, people need to exert pressure on others and probably increase it over time. And what if the power comes from terrorising people, scaring them and threatening them with disciplinary action, dismissal? Would that work? Would it create enough fear to sustainably steer behaviour in the desired direction?
The abuse of power by a chief discipline officer is in itself a problem. What do people do when controls are such that people experience them as terror?

  • they can leave;
  • they can adapt;
  • they can develop strategies to mislead governance;
  • they can laugh at the absurdity of the role. Fear evaporates through humour. So does power.

Power is something strange. It’s valuable when it is not used. And it’s not because the incumbent has the power attached to the role, that he will get the authority needed to properly execute the role. On the contrary, When governance becomes terror, it loses its value.


The only way to make governance, including a role like the chief discipline officer, work is through trust. If people can trust those who govern, they will respect them. More, at that point governance gets the authority it deserves and needs. But trust is not gained by imposing, blaming and punishing. It is gained by explaining, respecting, helping. And whenever disciplinary action is appropriate, it requires an execution that is as much as possible respectful.
And maybe we should not imitate what’s needed in a sensitive and often hazardous peace keeping mission to corporate life. Come on.

Leadership Evolution: Act Like a Leader

Leadership Evolution

Leadership Evolution based on Action

A long time ago I read the book “Working Identity” by Hermina Ibarra. The basic idea of the book is that you could evolve from one career phase to another by doing things outside of the current role, as a preparation to a next role. The focus of career transition is not deep analysis and planning, but rather action.
The book “Act like a Leader” applies a similar thought to leadership and leadership evolution. The idea is that it isn’t through introspection that leaders can evolve in their role. It’s not about insight, but about outsight.
And so you can develop by changing the content of the job, changing the network and changing how you see yourself.

Are we confined to a Job?

But let’s ask ourselves. How difficult is it to redefine your job, your network, your self? Let’s start with a Job. Some people still think a function exists. The reification of the job description itself is a problem. Job descriptions are thoughts about how a job should or could be conceived. Even when it’s based on experience, the description itself becomes obsolete the moment its author hits the save button.
Nevertheless, some people still think we should confine someone to a job. This functional incarceration is unproductive and kills development. Leadership Development often fails because it does not take into account the levers and limitations the context in which leaders work offers. In restrictive environments doing what Ibarra suggests is revolutionary.
Leaving the premises of the job as designed, is an act of resistance, defiance. It shakes up the organization. Because reinventing the job can only mean two things. Either the leader takes existing territory and meddles with the responsibilities of others, or the leader enters unchartered territory and does new stuff.
We all know that an organization does not consist of mutually independent parts. There are always overlaps and grey zones. And what makes an organization tick is the willingness to collaborate to achieve a common target. Changing your job for the benefit of the organisation should receive applause, not criticism.

Leadership Evolution = Organizational Evolution

So if leadership evolution is about changing the way a leader acts (job, network, self), then it is also about changing the way an organization functions. And the question is if this should be a deliberate initiative or a process that should run its own course.
We know that job crafting just happens. People take a new role and the role changes. Two persons will never execute the same role in exactly the same way. They will always put their personality, insights, preferences, experiences into the role. And that’s a good thing. And this is also valid for leadership roles.
Job crafting is a spontaneous process. So I organisational evolution. If you want to change jobs and organisations deliberately than we could talk about job or organization design. In the latter leadership development as a deliberate act plays a crucial role. But leadership evolution is not (always) deliberate. It sometime happens. And when people change their roles, their networks and themselves by looking outside, then the organisation changes too.

Character-based Leadership

In my book on sustainable leadership I describe how leaders should use their character as basis for their leadership. Because it’s the only aspect that provides stability. If leaders base their leadership on position, power, popularity or pressure, it’s not sustainable.
But that does not mean that there is no evolution. Leaders need to adapt to the circumstances. When Ibarra writes about using the principle of outsight on the self, I can only agree. Leaders work with who they are. And that’s why I don’t like the concept of authentic leadership. Authenticity suggests stability. But people change and so do leaders. The challenge is that they should change for the better. Dan Cable from London Business school talks about using your best self. The idea behind this is that you can strive to be(come) a better person. And that means using the best qualities you have, and maybe suppressing the less positive qualities.

Aaah… Authenticity

Ibarra talks about the authenticity trap in her book. If you want to be authentic, you might feel a fake when you step up to (a higher level of) leadership. The challenge is to use your character as basis, but to decide how. And people should think about themselves in a future perspective. If being your stable self, means that you miss out on opportunities, then maybe you might consider evolving towards another self. But that does not mean you have to betray yourself. I believe if we have the courage to stick to our values and trying to be more effective at the same time leaders will still be seen as trustworthy.
Evolution is gradual, not radical. You cannot shed your job, your network and your self overnight. And that’s why leaders should experiment. Ibarra’s book gives some insights on how to handle this. Acting like a (better) leader, might help you to become a better leader. The same tactic might also help you to become a better person, a better parent, a better friend.

Protected Values: Context or Character

protected values

Protected Values

Meet Alexander Wagner. He studies human ethical behaviour. In his tedtalk he wonders why people behave in a trustworthy way, even when they cannot get caught cheating. So there are values that resist trade-offs with other values, particularly economic values. These are protected values (Baron & Spranca, 1997).

But these protected values are not always strong. Despite the many initiatives to avoid or prevent derailed behaviour, fraudulent behaviour never fully disappears. There is always a risk that even good people behave badly.
Wagner argues there are two ways to avoid fraud. You can hire people who have protected values. Or you can build incentives or policies to inspire honest behaviour. Guess which of both is more sustainable.
Trustworthiness has to do with loyalty and integrity and with competence. If the lack of trustworthiness is a result of low competence, it’s easy to handle. If it is a result of lack of loyalty or integrity, it’s difficult.

Control is not the Answer

We cannot build full-proof control systems. We cannot check every moment on every person. This would paralyse an organization (where’s the agility?). It’s also humiliating to those who do have protected values and are honest.
The issue of trust and trustworthiness within an organization is extremely important. Smug bastards might say that it is important not to get caught. And so we have a tendency to put elaborate control systems in place. Because we want to eliminate risks.
There is a long list of corporate scandals. There is a long list of people who have acted in ways that were illegal, dishonest, unethical. Companies have gone bankrupt because of this. Environment has suffered because of this. People suffer because of this. And we see this happening in both regulated and less regulated environments.


And the question is why that happens. It happens because people face temptations that make them behave in a way they might not want to.
What happens when we install exuberant bonus systems to motivate people to meet the targets? We inspire them to take risks and commit fraud.
What happens when we exert disproportionate pressure on people to perform? They might take shortcuts.
What happens when the culture is such that integrity is defines as “doing the right thing for the company”. We weaken moral awareness.
What happens when all that counts is money and shareholder value, instead of including other outcomes and stakeholders in the equation. We reduce ethical behaviour.
So not only do we need to hire people with high moral standards, we have to create a context in which the erosion of morality has little or no chance to occur. That means we have to design that context according to morals too.
Hiring people with character is one thing, designing a moral context is another. The context helps to protect values. And the basic principle of context design is easiness. Don’t make it difficult to commit fraud, make it easy to display trustful behaviour.


It all starts with leadership. In my Book on Sustainable Leadership I talk a lot about Trust and Trustworthiness. To me it’s the fuel of leadership. But we know that leadership both builds contexts and is a product of the context. That’s why we should base leadership on character and not on power, position or popularity. These are not sustainable sources and lead to erosive behaviour. Character is the only aspect of leadership that provides stability and trustworthiness.

My Book on Sustainable Leadership

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Organizational Innovation. Why is it so Difficult?

Organizational Innovation is difficult. We think too much in terms of the past, projects and structures. And very often time is not on our side.
Organizational Innovation
There has been a lot of discussion about new ways of working. Very often the topic gets reduced to telework or arty-farty office design. But it should be about organizational innovation. Organisational Innovation is a form of organizational design with a focus on stretching organizations to not only superficially alter the  way they work. It’s mostly aimed at developing new capabilities that help organizations to thrive and survive in a VUCA-world. So its final purpose is to create a sustainable advantage.
But organizations have a hard time changing. And organizational innovation seems to be difficult to implement and even more difficult to maintain. And here is why.

Thinking about the Past is Easier

It’s simply difficult to imagine a future identity. It’s hard for people, and it’s even harder for a collective like an organization. The future is difficult to grasp because it does not exist. The past is documented, but can make us complacent or conservative. “We have always done it like this” or “There is no alternative” are expressions that show the difficulty we all have to imagine ourselves in a future state. Thinking about the future might even induce fear.
We can look at tendencies to try to make the future more tangible. In fact we should scan the environment for disruptions, because it helps to integrate a vision on the future in our current organizational decisions. Having a bright and fluid vision about the future helps to become agile and fearless. Here’s an example: R/GA has developed future vision to gather and share new ideas on the future. Go and take a look.

Instead of thinking about the past, we should think about the future. A bright and fluid vision about our future helps to become agile and fearless.

Thinking in Projects is Easier

Organizational Innovation can never stop, because the context changes continuously. That’s why organisational innovation should never be a project with a defined end. It’s a process of continuous adaptation. Organizations are like living entities that go through rapid evolution. It’s difficult to put a start date and certainly impossible to put an end date on it. So why bother?
But we live in a world where timings and deliverables are important. So I suggest to monitor organizational change by looking at incrementality. The idea behind this is that small steps create value. We can measure small steps and their impact. And we can also correct small steps. So organizational innovation is not about creating a big bang. It’s about taking two steps forward, and sometimes one step back.
The thing is that thinking in incrementals forces you to think about creating value instead of about being in time, budget, or scope. It also enables us not to fix targets that are too far away, not to fix directions we are not sure of and not to fixate a future vision that should change anyway.

Instead of thinking in projects, we need to think in incrementality. It helps to focus on value and to get rid of fixed ideas.

Thinking in Structures is Easier

When people think of organizations, they see boxes and lines. They think of structure. But Organisational Innovation is not (only) about structure. Structure is the last thing to consider in Organisational Innovation. Organisational Innovation is about creating context. Organizational Innovators think of organizations in terms of the external and internal context. The external context is that busy, bad world that threatens and invites at the same time. The internal context is the context an organisation can influence:

  1. its relationships with partners, employees, customers, governments and other stakeholders, … Ecosystems are not structures.
  2. its choices of technology, territory, talent, operation model, value chain, processes, … the tangible hardware of the organization.
  3. its culture, purpose, leadership, … the software of the organization.

But the structural thinking is strong. And in itself it’s not wrong to think in structures when thinking about organizations. But, we need to realise that a structure does not solve much. If anything, it gives people a sense of orientation within an organization. It might nudge people towards desired behaviour. But alas, very often the lines and the boxes are limiting the minds of people.
I have always wondered why people get so boxed in and say things like “it’s not in my job description“, or “I’m not responsible“, or “I am not allowed to work on that“. People adapt to structures and structures are as effective as the people working in them. So instead of working on structures it’s beter to think about capabilities like collaboration, leadership, time-to-market. Organizational Innovation is about building capabilities. And collaboration is probably one of the most important capabilities for the future. Structures are too often a matter of coerced collaboration.

Instead of thinking in terms of Structures, we need to think of fluid capabilities, collaboration being one of the most important ones.

Organizational Innovation needs a Mindset.

When organizations get praise for their innovative approach, we should be sceptic about the sustainability of the innovation. Like every change, innovation requires attention, energy. There is no such thing as a stable design. Organizational Innovation requires constant attention. So one of the reasons why it fails, apart from the difficulties to think about the futures, incremental value and capabilities, is that we fail to invest enough time. Every system that is not supported and provided with energy, falls apart, derails or yields undesired results.
Therefore organizational innovation should be a habit. Like dental Hygiene. And it’s a matter of more people than we can imagine. And when we drown in daily problems, the shit of yesterday and the operational concerns, we cannot find the time to innovate.

Organizational Innovation is a matter of mindset, it’s more a habit than a task.


Thank you for reading this article. Please don’t hesitate to comment on it. If you like it, thanks for sharing it with your network.
Here are some other blogs on organizational innovation and design.

Rest and the Art of Getting Work Out of Your System.

This blog is about rest. And about why it is important.

A Eulogy for Rest

This summer I read an incredibly important book by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. The book is about rest. And how rest can help you to work better. The book is full of examples of people who have done remarkable stuff, but gave enough time to resting. Or even better, they did remarkable stuff because they gave time to the activity of resting. It’s almost a eulogy for resting which can take many forms.
Let’s look at the basic idea. We work so hard that we have no time to rest, or better we don’t take the time to rest. Rest does not have to be passive. It can be sports, reading, writing, etc. But it’s something else than work.
IBeing busy ishas become the mode of life too many people find themselves in. Being busy is the new normal. Resting is suspicious.


Let me take one example of productive rest: the sabbatical. Sabbatical are used to do something else. In Academia it means that you are “released” from some duties, mostly teaching duties. You can visit other universities, spend some time reading the stuff you should have read all along. The idea is that you come up with creative ideas for new research. Some people in academia say that they do more (important) work during a sabbatical than in the 5 years before.

Thinking Week

Another example of the sabbatical is the thinking week. Bill Gates withdrew twice a year in a remote place to think. He came up with new insights and strategies during intense weeks. Is this resting. Yes it is. Because you can focus on other things than work. You can take a broader view. You protect yourself from interferences. You have no operational duties, no meetings. You focus only on yourself and your thoughts. In the meantime you can take walks to think about what you’ve read, heard, thought of.
I love the idea of a thinking week. It’s a great alternative for an expensive sabbatical. It’s a part of a learning strategy that can keep you employable, more productive, more creative and more savvy.

Ask yourself: are you able to rest?

There are many more examples of resting in the book. But here are some questions to make you think

  1. Are you able to do nothing from time to time?
  2. Are you able to rest? Taking holidays, lunch breaks, evening pauses, weekends?
  3. Can you really get work out of your system?
  4. Do you have enough rich activities outside of work, like meeting friends, doing exercises, getting inspiration?

If you answer no to all or some of these questions, you might want to read this book:
Actually, I think everybody should read it. And maybe we need to train (young) people in the art of rest, because many people seem to have lost it. It’s a matter of hygiene. And if we talk about sustainable employability, rest might be the key to combine health and competence development.
Read the book.

The One Thing to Boost Employee Engagement

This blog site is also linked to the discussion group on Employee Engagement on LinkedIn. It started more than 8 years ago and has about 36,000 members. But like many groups on LinkedIn it had become a bulletin board for news and posts. The discussion element had disappeared gradually. Some of the members suggested to re-introduce the discussion culture. Nostalgia? I don’t think so. So I have introduced the first of many discussion topics to come.
Here’s the question:

And here are the answers (so far):

People Are important, so We Say.

Maybe it’s good to start at the beginning and to get the CEO of every organisation to understand that people drive results, and stop using results to drive people. That’s what John Backhouse says. But Jim Smith is critical about that. He says:  trouble is how to do it. If you look around here (in this linked group) and other resources, you won’t find much in the way of successful EE transformation stories. Thousands of what’s, very little on qualified how.
But maybe making sure that people at the top understand does not have to be that hard. Billie Wright suggests to have a roundtable discussion with all levels of staff to discuss their views in engagement, what it means to them and how they all contribute to culture.
John Backhouse compares the attention for customers with the attention for the people in organizations: And if every organisation invested the same amount in delighting their employees as they do on delighting the customer. Many spend vast amounts on listening to the customer, but relatively tiny amounts on listening to the employee… the ones who deliver the customer experience/products/services the customer uses.

Inspiration and Meaningfulness

Aah. The link between customer experience and employee experience. Simon Sinek is clear on that: how can customers love your company if your employees do not love it first?
Customers are the reason an organization exists. To serve a customer, a citizen, a client, a patient is what makes organisations tick. And even when organisations focus on product excellence or process efficiency, they still need to reach an olympic minimum in customer orientation. Customers are at the core of meaningfulness.
I have written a lot about meaningfulness in organizations. Creating Meaningfulness is a way to make leadership sustainable and of engaging people. if people feel that what they do is meaningful, they are more likely to be engaged.
Bobby Bakshi talks about purpose. He says we need to help employees discover their own purpose and only then have them see how it integrates with the purpose of their company. And by doing this people will see that what they do is relevant, because it’s relevant to them. Bobby makes an important point here.
So we need to focus on the work itself… engagement is at its peak if the job that one is performing is engaging- challenging, rewarding and impactful, states Lithika Sabat Mhetre
One way to create meaningfulness is to assign missions, not tasks, according to Guillermo Farcas.
And this is how Zeena Dsouza says it: Give all employees a clear understanding of how their respective job roles contributes to the overall success of the company,regardless of which role they are in. Having a common line of sight gives focus to both the business and its people resulting in high productivity and engagement. Let these reflect in everything you do… Right from your job descriptions to your careers page to your rewards program.
Eric Bruggeman has this advice to give to leaders: Try to inspire one person a day either by the acknowledgement of a job well done, asking and thanking someone for their opinion, or an actual engagement on an idea or thought that someone had because you genuinely want to inspire innovation and them.
I guess this is even more than inspiration. It seems to be also about involvement and recognition. Acknowledging that someone exists and is important is an existential deed. This is also what Julie Allen says:  Acknowledge them with the small things which will also show they are valued.
Piril Kadibesegil Yasar suggests to invest in Corporate Social Responsibility and Employee Volunteering as a way to boost employee engagement. Paul Corcoran mentions this too. He says:  Build an employee volunteering scheme. Ticks so many boxes. It’s cost effective, rewarding, engaging and visibly makes a difference for staff, companies and charities. For a company it is indeed meaningful to invest in society and give something back.

Feedback & Communication

To Shea Heaver feedback is probably the most powerful (yet under-used and incorrectly applied) management tool. It is most productive as a two-way communication mechanism where the focus is on collaborative problem-solving and improvements. And he adds:
Oh…and it’s not simply about being honest…it’s about being honest skillfully.
Alysson Marks says we need to go for Open communication! Also Lisa Anderson is clear about this: Really listen to employee ideas, with curiosity and an open mind and include them in discussions whenever possible. Also talk about why an idea wasn’t implemented instead of giving a quick no.
Talk to your people and genuinely get to know them – hear them, coach them, let them do what they do best and get out of their way. Recognition. Rinse. Repeat. This is the advice coming from Kelly MacCullum. And listening is what needs to be done according to Sebastian Chandy.
So maybe we need to give them the tools to communicate – be in the loop, says Tony BoatmanMost of these workers are “silent”. 
That’s also the take of Cynthia Pizarro , who even adds some commercial information (which I leave in her contribution). This is what she says: I’d do everything I can to communicate with excellence. I was frustrated because it felt like our communication wasn’t really working – despite our efforts. That’s why my team built Ohana – a mobile solution that optimizes communication to inspire engagement. Ohana filled the gap – it’s mobile, intuitive, and personal – and has connected our remote team at a completely different level. Now, there’s a virtual place where no one is ever alone. We love it. Check it out at We’d love your feedback. Well, if you want, you can give her your feedback on Ohana.
So if I understand the tool side, it’s about being connected. Also Shirley Palmer advocates for connectivity at all levels. And maybe a tool is not always needed.
And what about skills? What about training? I would train Supervisors/Managers to relate to their direct reports in a way that enables them to discuss the issues that build true employee engagement, says Michael Zroback.
Indeed. Communication seems to play a big role in how engagement can be increased. First of all communication is a way to create meaningfulness. It’s about storytelling, isn’t it? For Nancy Enger-Barrera we need to continually explain the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ and maintaining an open platform for dialogue.
But for communication to be open, including accepting dissenting voices, differences of opinion and speaking up, the environment needs to be safe. This is about trust. Cynthia Alloyda is affirmative: earn their trust.


But how do you earn trust? Shweta Singh says leaders need to be more approachable, possessing patience to listen to them.
Jules Agombar also talks about trust and trustworthiness. He says to Encourage it, role model it, reward it. True empowerment comes from being trusted.
And Daniela Delivanelli underlines the importance of empathy. Build genuine understanding and trust between line managers and team members, she says.
Here Howard Stanten makes a point. He says that we should extend trust and be trustworthy. So there are two sides to trust. There is giving trust and being trustworthy. Both are essential.
Trustworthiness depends on how competent one is, how loyal and how integer one is. If people see that their leaders are competent but not acting on their behalf (loyal) of walking the talk (integer), they will not trust their leaders. Or this is how Dr Shakira Alauddin says it: Maintaining integrity and transparency at all levels. 
To me, trust is the fuel of leadership

Trust is the fuel of leadership.

Social Context

So far we haven’t talked much about the people and what they need.
Jane Keep brings that up. She tells us to make work about relationships and people – first and foremost. And she adds: support all staff to be on a self-care/their own health and wellbeing programme – as the more we take care of our health and wellbeing the more we naturally engage with others.
She has a point. Work can be amazing. But it can also be a source of illness. So by investing in people’s health we can show that the organization cares.
Also Cristina Melnik believes this. Build better relationships in the workforce. Relationships are the #1 factor affecting someone’s engagement at work.
Leslie Masih talks about segmentation. That would be the single thing for highest return to him. And he goes on:   because desire to give high performance ‘start from within’. That, in turn, enables Learning and Development, and serves as a Hawthorne effect based self-improvement vehicle. In aggregate this would lead to highest returns enterprise wide.
It’s a good thing that Leslie reminds us that employee engagement only makes sense when we can link it to performance.


Lee Collins has a very straigthforward advice: Flatten the hierarchy.
He has a point. When the distance to the CEO is big, people risk to be crushed by hierarchy. Personally I think hierarchy is not the cause of the problem. It’s how the hierarchy is operated. And there are alternatives to lighten the hierarchical weight: heterarchies, holacracy, …
Flattening hierarchies could also be a matter of Remove titles , cabins , approvals for rewarding according to Parul Chatterjee.
Kerry Mitchell says that engaging people is about giving autonomy and ownership.
Flatter structures have the advantage that responsibility and autonomy are higher, also at the front.And that is always an advantage in terms of agility, customer orientation and motivation. To motivate people is what Golla Gayathri wants us to focus on.
Bart vanderhaeghen describes how to develop autonomy: Put a cross-functional group together, give them a problem to crack (not too easy not too difficult) and some autonomy on how the solution may look like. Help the team along the way to improve their own skills and the cooperation.

Is Employee Engagement about Leadership?

Is employee engagement the sole responsibility of the leader? Dipleen Kaur has a message for leaders. She wants them to inspire , inform, involve , support , incent and connect and lead to increase employee engagement. A lot of that was in the debate before.
Leading by example is the input coming from  Anita D’Souza: Starting from the Top – I feel employees should see Leadership demonstrating the behaviours and characteristics they are expected to display. 
And Tim Goddard can only agree: Get support and buy in from C-level. Only way it will “take hold”.
Jim Smith confirms and says that the entire initiative would be sponsored by the CEO and led by an outside facilitation firm with a process that temporarily suspends the negative effects of the culture, politics, and silos.
According to Jim, this is the only approach that will get at the deep rooted issues and ensures that the blockers don’t count. That cannot be accomplished by inside resources.
Jim says also that he hasn’t been able to find a story of a single Employee Engagement transformation having occurred from an internally managed project.
Vivek Rao concludes: Apply a “pay it forward” mentality on a daily basis as it applies to two sides of a coin, if you will: inspiration and empathy. Start with top leadership and have it trickle down over time to the entire organization.


So this was the discussion in the LinkedIn Group on Employee Engagement. It’s like if we were all in the same room and having an open and rich debate on this topic. There were people from Belgium, Malaysia, Canada, the United States, Qatar, India, the United kingdom, Mexico, Turkey, Australia, … united around one topic and sharing ideas and experiences. This is the power of social technology.
And of course this discussion is not closed.

Sustainable Leadership Revisited: A Journey through New Ideas.

A Twitter Journey through Sustainable Leadership

In my 25 years in business, I have had the pleasure to work with some excellent leaders. I must say that I did not have the bad luck to have to work with those toxic leaders you often hear about. Not all leaders score high though on … yes on what? What do we expect from leaders? And has that changed?
In the week of August 14th I started a small twitter journey about the book I wrote on sustainable leadership. The question I try to answer in the book is how can we make sure that leadership is oriented towards creating future value for society, organizations, teams, people and the leaders themselves. The key is that there needs to be a balance of stakeholder interests.

The World has become VUCA

This is important today. But difficult to achieve. Why? Because our world is kind of VUCA. volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
But some people seem to doubt that. Here’s a tweet about that.

Many things change faster than ever before. The Least you can say is that demographics are changing. People born around the year 2000 have 50% chance of becoming 100 years. This is revolutionary and will require people to plan their lives and careers differently. Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott wrote an impressive book about that.

My book is about leadership in a VUCA World. But I am not the only one who is thinking about it. Here’s another take on that.

And yes, we should not overestimate the disruptions that are going on and mystify how organizations disrupt.

Character is the Basis of Sustainable Leadership

One key point of view is that character is the basis of leadership.

I don’t use the word authenticity because sometimes we need to be less ourselves in order to be effective. But here’s a view on authenticity.

Maybe we should talk more about humility.

Even though the world asks us to be very confident. That’s not always a bad thing.

But you need to sustain confidence. And think about what is not sustainable.

And what is essential to see is that it’s always possible to base leadership on less sustainable aspects.

I have chosen character over personality because character is more deep and available across people and throughout society. Character in Latin is moralitas. I believe very much that character has a moral grounding.
It has many dimensions. I identify 4: empathy, reciprocity, kindness and fairness.

You could also talk about reciprocity on a collective scale.

So character can define a culture. We see it often that a leader inspires people to behave in a certain way. You could say that they copy behaviour.
This is what I read in one post

We believe the future belongs to who ignore the pressure to slash jobs, capture value and retreat

Empathy is also important. But like with many things it has a dark side.

Our Context Defines Leadership and Leadership Defines the Context.

It is difficult to maintain one’s character amidst expectations (myths), pressure and temptations.

In my book I identify certain ways of keeping character intact even when leaders experience pressure. And when leaders succeed that can focus on trust, meaningfulness, growth, engagement.

One of the reasons why character is the basis for sustainable leadership is that leaders are unable to give certainty. they should not even try. But people want to eliminate uncertainty. Character is the single most important source of stability. If leaders can show consistency behaviour in terms of empathy, fairness, kindness and reciprocity, people will experience a degree of certainty even when the world is in chaos.



How you trust and are trusted is important. You need to identify the levers of trust.

Nokia killed itself because there was mainly fear.

If there is no trust, leaders need to invest in control: that’s a trade-off between risk and cost.

Trust is also important in Politics
And Mr Trump is very inspiring for leaders, probably not in the way he would like to be.

But Trust is not always obvious. Trust should not be naïve.

Behaviour defines trustworthiness.


A leader needs to create a context that provides meaningfulness.

Work that is meaningless is awful.

But sometimes meaningfulness is sacrificed just by focussing on execution. I call that actionism.

Personal Growth

People need to develop. Leaders can create a context that allows and stimulates that.

Development is not easy.

And humans get competition.

One way to stimulate growth is customisation of work.

Taking care of yourself

You can help yourself by creating your own story.


I talked about personality earlier. Leaders do not have to be extroverted, or charismatic. Yes, it might help. But introvert leaders seem to be better at building sustainability. And they can be effective as well.

Karen Glossop has an opinion on that.

The final word

The more I focus on sustainable leadership, the more I see how important it is. I am looking for experiences and evidence to see how we can develop leadership that is sustainable.

My book on sustainable leadership is just a start. The Journey towards sustainable leadership is long and uncertain. This was only a journey through twitter. I hope you have enjoyed it.
Thanks for reading until the end of this blog. If you like it, please share it.

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