Theo Hermsen


Corona and our profession: the end of hierarchy?

Coronavirus has impacted most of our businesses and professions, consequences of which will shift the way we do business and the way we make decisions.  The consequences of the coronavirus on how it will influence our profession! The dominance of hierarchy thinking that is still so forthcoming in many organizations. Although we know that this approach is often NOT effective in tackling complex issues (Vermaak, 2015). In this crisis, I see this hierarchical approach still appears pretty dominant.

Coronavirus and our profession

My reflection on how the coronavirus will influence our profession. Much of my daily work takes place in groups. Teaching, chairing, guiding and also proximity, confrontation, making contact, and mirroring. But in these unusual times, all these words are complicated now. The Netherlands minister of Health De Jonge tried to disguise it somewhat with his sentence: "We keep a distance of at least one and a half meters, but are perhaps closer than ever!"

But how will this develop and which implication does it have on the way we operate? Are we going to sit five feet apart? Will we soon have large groups in which everyone is argumenting with each other with a mask? I can see it happening?! My suspicion is that we are going to a more hybrid form. More and more we will use online tools. And there is a lot more possible, then we used to think. But when issues in organization get more exciting and complex, then online meetings will come under pressure. That is my experience in the past few weeks. And when it gets tough and you get disagreements, that in addition to online meeting, you will use more 1-to-1 phone calls. As a new form of "managing by walking around". But my sense, is that when an organization has a really important decision to make, you still want to look each other in the eye. Also, the subversion in groups is less visible. When we are 'on stage' conferencing in a formal meeting, while in the meantime ‘off stage’ we are building a coalition to undermine the ‘on stage’ formal meeting.

What I do see is that we are going to use online meeting more and more and that we are combining offline and online conferencing more often. That on every conference there is also a rolling screen in the room. For the people who have to stay at home because of flu or Covid-19 symptoms. Nowadays, we have to rearrange a meeting, because too many key stakeholders have unsubscribed. Rearranging, will no longer be necessary, because you can simply check in from behind your laptop. 

That twisted hierarchy!
What I also want to talk about is how we handle this crisis as a country, from a change management perspective. And how dominant that hierarchical thinking still is. We all know that when we are in crisis situation, we fall back on our preferred style and old reflexes. 

Fussel and McChrystal have a few answers:


  1. Shared consciousness. Only together we win. If everyone fights their own battle, we lose. Everyone has access to all information. Shared information and insights must flow from top to bottom and from bottom to top and to every corner. On twitter they saw the Corona arrive faster than our government. 
  2. Make decentralized decisions. Leave the control as low in the hierarchy as possible, because they know better what is needed. Empower people to make their own decisions. Also listen to their wisdom (reversed mentoring). 
  3. What I also wonder: why are we not using all the thinking and doing capacity that we need in this crisis (wisdom of the crowd). I still have the feeling that a protected group of tough men is trying to combat this crisis. Do we use the right channels to arrange enough protective equipment and also test capacity? Or are there also informal channels that we should also use in times of crisis (On twitter you can see important influencers who are working on their own to organize protective equipment).
  4. The leader as a gardener, not as a chess master. The leader is no longer a chess master who plays his pieces on the board, but the gardener who creates the conditions so that others can function optimally. Protect them, take care of them, ask them what resources and information they need and what mandate they in order to take decisions. The leader is the connector and the 'ring leader', who makes connections, connects the functions, brings together the shared interests and rewards the people who share information across silos.
  5. Dealing with uncertainty. The world is limited in a crisis. You must do things that you have never done before. You have to make 100% decisions with 50% of the information.  The most stupid thing you can do is keep asking for extra information and keep analysing. You will have to act. And you will make mistakes. Adapting to the situation is the most important thing. You are constantly in a learning and adapting mode. You have plan as a baseline, which is not static and you continuously adjust your strategy.
  6. Relationships: Building relationships is key. That when it gets though, that you have built a bond with each other. That you do not come to a continuous exchange with each other, but that you can fall back on the relationship you have built up. This point may not be applicable in this crisis, but it may be applicable in organizations that are still way too hierarchical oriented. Or that a fellow colleague Edu Feltmann always says: when there is trust, rules are unnecessary.

That twisted hierarchy. Why is this still so dominant during this crisis and in most of the organizations I visit? My first explanation is that a planned and top down approach has brought us a lot of prosperity. Second, we need booth: top down AND bottom up. That combination is complex and difficult, but essential. My point is that I think there is still much to be gained in organization when we combine top down strategies with bottom-up approaches. By information flowing through the organization and valuable information does not get stuck in the workplace or at the board. I still see a lot of central decision-making and people at the bottom of the organization still look upwards instead of taking responsibility themselves. And I often see leaders as accomplished chess masters who want to be at the wheel (because then you matter) and only a few facilitating gardeners who dare to hand over the steering wheel to their often very professional employees. I also still see plans being made for 1 or 5 years and the deviation from this still has to be arranged in the rigid spring and autumn memorandum and via budget changes (I am exaggerating). And last but not least: a lot of my work is mainly establishing relationships between people, building bridges, translate so that people can hear each other and build trust. 

Do you recognize this pattern in your country, or in the organization where you are coming from?