Episode 14: Why The Work From Home Transition Is So Difficult

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Josh Allan Dykstra is a recognized thought leader on the future of work and company culture design. He is an author, TEDx speaker, and the CEO of #lovework, where they use technology to help heal burnout and create astonishingly great places to work.

Today I want to talk about two ideas that are constantly confused — management and leadership — and more importantly, I want to talk about WHY this is such a big problem.

Just a couple days ago I saw a headline from the Harvard Business Review, of all places, conflating these two terms as if they were the same thing.

But if they were the same thing, we wouldn’t have two different words.

Now, I can’t be overly harsh on this, because I’ve been studying leadership for the last twenty years and until a few years ago I used these two words interchangeably, too.

But now I know better — these words are NOT interchangeable, because they don’t mean the same thing.

They have completely different origins and meanings, and to continue using them as synonyms is terribly unhelpful, and actually quite harmful.

The etymology of these words helps us understand why we need to immediately separate them in our vocabulary.

Lead comes from language that means “to guide” — to go before, to accompany and show the way, to bring forth.

Manage, on the other hand, literally comes from language that means “to handle, train, or direct… a horse.” 

I can accept that certain things need to be “managed” or “handled” — processes, technology, buildings, equipment… horses, maybe.

But people?

Absolutely not. 

As my friend Chuck says: “Manage Stuff, Lead People.”

The words we use matter way more than we realize, because operating systems like Linux and Windows — in tech or in your organization — are built in language.

I’ll talk more about the deep significance of operating systems in another episode. For our purposes today, I think we can say COVID has made it fairly obvious that the operating systems our companies use are both deeply fractured and terribly outdated. You can check out sites like Linode to know more.

We noticed this in dramatic fashion the first few weeks when the work-from-home orders started. Remember the chaos of that time? The scramble to get people laptops? The frantic rush to figure out if people could still work at all? 

After that initial dust settled the emotional storm hit, as “managers” realized how difficult it is to properly “handle” the reins of people when you can’t see what the heck they’re doing all day.

Even great managers — who are, without exception, actually leaders — who were used to the operating system of a traditional workplace struggled with trying to find a new place in the old system.

And here’s where it gets back to management versus leadership.

You see, whenever people are “managed” — handled — we’ve effectively removed their adult volition.

The “handled” horse doesn’t get to do what it wants. If I’m the manager, it does what I want.

We take away its decision-making power. 

But this is really hard to do if the horse isn’t in the office. 

Managers have been able to use “the office” as a proxy for a functioning operating system. The office structure provides a really nice container to be able to manage — excuse me, handle — the people. 

Keep them in their nice tidy cages, keep tabs on them, and so on.

I want to pause here, because it’s vitally important for you to know that I’m not vilifying the people in manager roles at ALL. As I describe in depth here, a bad system will beat a good person every single time — and a system designed to treat humans like horses is a most terrible design.

We just don’t see how awful and dehumanizing it is, because for our entire lives, the existence of “people handlers” — excuse me, managers — have been the most normal thing in the world.

But it’s NOT normal for you to be handled like a horse at work.

I’m going to switch metaphors here, because the other way to see this is through the lens of our own species, just much much younger.

You see, this is also how we treat children. They don’t get to make decisions until their brains are developed enough to make good ones.

A standard rite of passage as we move from youth to adult is getting to make decisions.

Well, this hallmark never comes to pass in the old organizational operating system, because your handler always makes the decisions for you.

And we have decade upon decade, generation upon generation of people who have experienced this madness as “normal.”

A big part of the undercurrent struggle with the work from home transition brought about by the pandemic has been that people, overnight, were being required to instantly become self-managing, autonomous adults inside organizational structures that have treated them like children for their entire lives.

Here’s the really big problem…

If an organization’s operating system is any version of a fiat hierarchy — also known as “command and control,” or uses “people managers” in any fashion — remote and distributed work lies almost directly at odds with that operating system.

Because, as my friends at Corporate Rebels said, the best work from home “policy” is just three words: WE TRUST YOU.

But if you have a handler, it’s because we DON’T trust you.

These two things are fundamentally incompatible. “Distributed work” is software that simply won’t run on the old hardware. 

THIS is why this transition has felt so hard for so many.

Command and control isn’t leadership, it’s management — it’s people handling — and it’s NEVER truly worked.

Coercion may get someone’s attention for a short time, but it never wins hearts. 

And the battle for people’s hearts is what will define the next economy.

Now is the time to do something VERY different. It’s time to upgrade the operating system.

See you next time.

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