An epidemic of emails, oppressive KPIs and strict silos are slowly consuming corporate life and rendering an already daunting image apocalyptic. Employees are time poor, as the days of coasting – itself a fruit of the 9-5 ordering of life – disappear and management by task reasserts itself. But there is mounting evidence to suggest that this new orientation places a wedge between effort and performance. It can be argued that policies and procedures are dismantling organisational competencies.

Access to big data, measurement tools and an always-on culture has provided leadership teams with an opportunity to monitor performance in increasingly novel ways. KPIs, dashboards and employee engagement apps provide a real-time barometer of organisational effectiveness. In our current risk averse climate, this appears to be an opportunity to maximise profits today, and preserve stakeholder value for the future. However, it leaves a side effect that is often left undiscussed.

Drawing on arguments as old as Taylorism itself, the domination of discreet actions drives down performance. Why are you doing that? What is the purpose of that specific task? Employees are often unable to answer these most basic of questions, unable to connect their actions with their organisation’s strategic objectives – perhaps because it is small in the grand scheme of things, or perhaps because lofty ambitions such as ‘Do No Evil’ create distance between the progenitors and the executers. Many organisations have created an assembly line of minds, and have thereby commoditised the only raw material that their success is dependent upon: their people.

Departmental silos compound the problem. As a them & us mentality emerges in our wider culture, its easy to find evidence of similar trends in the workplace. It’s an often-cited drawback of hierarchical structures, but goes beyond reporting lines, budgets and processes. Employees are emotionally distancing themselves as departments compete for scarce resources. This leaves teams to operate in isolation (at best) or opposition. Teams therefore focus on their internal connections, limiting any meaningful connection with their peers and self-identification with the wider brand takes on new and competing forms.

This leads to a set of organisational norms that (https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/culture-for-a-digital-age) have recently become recognised as the key predictors of poor performance: a lack of meaningful dialogue, tenuous organisational alignment and low corporate confidence. In our knowledge based economy, the essential commodity of brain power has lost overall direction. This head-down, focus-on-your-task approach leads to a dearth of creativity, ambition and collaboration. It’s enough to ground a sky-high market leader – the cases of Toys”R”Us, MySpace and Blockbuster speak of formidable technological disruption, but equally of intransigence.

It is easy to understand the managerial distancing that has facilitated this situation. Endless budget cuts, redundancies and restructures have led to difficult decisions that are emotionally taxing. Under these circumstances it is well documented that managers put policies and processes in place to insulate themselves from feeling the emotional impact of their actions. “It’s not what I would to do, I just must follow the rules.” Managers become distant from those they lead, leaving them reliant on digital dashboards to provide the control they crave.

However, if this tyranny of task is destroying shareholder value, what is the solution? Decisions have been made to drive efficiency, but how can performance be preserved? The clear articulation of company purpose may tick both boxes. Indeed, purpose-led organisations deliver operational efficiency, whilst driving growth and innovation. Indeed, purpose-led companies like Disney, Hitachi and Tata have outperformed the S&P 500 by 10 times between 1996 and 2011 (Raj Sisodia, ‘Firms of Endearment’).

It is the clear articulation of where, why and how an organisation is moving forward that provides managers with a narrative that helps them navigate the emotional terrain of employee engagement. Purpose can justify difficult decisions and motivate exceptional behaviour. It can inject the energy of a start-up into the most down-trodden of departments.

For employees, this approach helps to build emotional resilience (check out Prof. Susan David’s work from Harvard). Teams can acknowledge the highs and lows of their work, but are drawn together by their connection to a shared goal. They have the reassurance of their peers that acts as the foundation for their individual contribution. This delivers the building blocks to a high performing organisation – purpose, resilience and trust.

Although this is not a quick fix, it is one that delivers meaningful dialogue, organisational alignment and employee confidence – the cultural benchmarks of high performance, not any KPI.

Jason Langley

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Article by Jason Langley