Knowledge work is defined as a work where people ‘think for a living’. Knowledge workers are expected to come up with innovative solutions to the problems being faced by their organisations. Disruptions such as the COVID-19 pandemic have transformed our work as well as organisations drastically. Normal and established ways of working have been disrupted and some rendered obsolete overnight. One impact of the pandemic has been on the way we work. The pandemic has led to one of the most significant organisation design shocks of our lifetime – remote work. While work from home was a possibility for many before COVID struck us, it has become a reality with which we will have to live for a long time to come. To cope with such a change requires a large-scale human behaviour change. The role of leaders will be extremely crucial in ensuring the fine alignment of people, purpose and profits during these times. Based on my research on knowledge organisations over last several years, I propose a five themed approach to leading knowledge organisations in a post pandemic world:
Task-orientation is primarily concerned with accomplishing a task in an efficient manner. This behaviour deals with assigning tasks to subordinates per their expertise, communicating clearly to subordinates their job responsibilities, providing directions about how to do the work, monitoring performance and giving timely feedback, solving work-related problems and ensuring that the office politics does not interfere with performance of subordinates. Competent leaders use their technical competence to evaluate and select among ideas, walk a tightrope between over-control and too much autonomy, assign job responsibilities to deserving employees and ensure professional challenge in the work.
Relation-orientation focuses on the development of strong interpersonal relationships with subordinates. Leaders will need to display empathy, compassion and communicate with their subordinates on a regular basis in order to listen to their voices and understand any work-related concerns that the subordinates may have. This aspect is especially important in a hybrid work context. Leaders must devise mechanisms to inform the subordinates about the work-related developments in their teams and also the organisation, to provide the subordinates any work-related information that may be useful, to recognise and appreciate subordinates’ work efforts and lastly to inspire them by communicating the big picture and emphasising the importance of the work they are doing.
Knowledge work is inherently uncertain and fast evolving. In such a context, leaders must empower employees at lower level to take work-related decisions as those employees are more likely to be better informed about ground-level challenges. Involving subordinates in the decision-making process is likely to lead to better decisions as well as acceptance of those decisions. And once such decisions are made, they are also more likely to be implemented. In a world where personal contact has been disrupted and employees are working remotely, empowering employees has become a necessity and is no more a choice.
Authenticity is about doing what one preaches, doing what is right, having the courage to choose what is right over what is easy and quick. Openness and honesty are very essential in any organisation, more so in hybrid or remote work contexts. Knowledge work requires employees to take risks, collaborate and be prepared for uncertainties. If authenticity is absent from the conduct of leaders and from the organisation, employees will be hesitant to collaborate and generate innovations. Leaders who stifle authenticity, lead to the creation of toxic workplaces where there is an absence of trust and where the overall well-being and happiness of subordinates is sacrificed.
Knowledge work demands teamwork. Leaders must ensure a climate of ‘psychological safety’ where every team member is able to put forward his/her viewpoint without any fear of being ridiculed or laughed at. Also, team leaders should be sensitive to feelings of team members and must encourage them to openly share their perceptions, feelings and thoughts. It has become extremely important for leaders of knowledge organisations to develop teams that share mutual trust and respect. This task has been made more difficult with the distances and the remote workplaces. In times like these, leaders must identify opportunities to increase the frequency of interactions between team members and emphasise the importance of teamwork and identification with the team.
I call this model of leading knowledge organisations the ‘TREAT’ leadership model for two reasons. The first is that this model comprises five leader behaviours. I believe that leaders need to understand, develop and display all of these behaviours in order to inspire performance from knowledge-workers. The second is that when leaders display such behaviours, the subordinates (employees) feel that they have been “treated”-ed well by their leaders. Such leadership is a “treat” to watch and when displayed is likely to produce great results.