Ever noticed businesses sometimes do not care about what needs to be done, but rather who is entitled to do anything at all? That as soon as assignments have been made enthusiasm enters limbo? That several people seem to be volleying tasks like tennis balls towards each other, improving their deflection strategy each turn?
When it comes to responsibility — apart from our usual liability struggles — one could sometimes get the impression that external presentation (representation, status, “showing off”) is dominating the internal action (caring for getting things done).
This has a couple of consequences:
Status is a “static” principle
Responsibility however isn’t static. It requires dynamic action. It requires the guts of addressing problems (even “non-opportunities”). It requires the courage to walk new paths. It requires creativity. And, facing modern markets, it also requires pace.
Status conserves, what has been done in the past. Status is about slowing things down. About looking backwards. Looking at how cool I … was. Maintaining status means defending status quo, which is a killer of innovation. A conservative principle maintaining the past. Leadership always requires focus on the future, not past. Status is a phenomenon of society, not leadership. Society provides appreciation at places where there has been a lack of in other places. Leadership requires experience from the past, not its status.
Statusitis shifts focus to what may not be done
As long as companies are revolving around status, decisions in companies will also center on status, instead of business opportunities. Struggling over status, i.e. who may be responsible for what, will trigger enormous action, and waste a ton of ressources. Once the struggles have been set, things become suspiciously silent. Role descriptions along with bearers now define who can be silenced for taking initiative, if the doer doesn’t match the corresponding role bearer. There are environments where the latter can be helpful keeping things organized. When it comes to innovation, this is bad.
These “not my responsibility and none of your business”-attitudes may slow down organizations almost entirely, sometimes even in stable environments.
With Statusitis, results become secondary principles
Thinking in status means thinking in interest effects. A reward from the past shall bear its fruits in the future. However, interest profits no longer directly contribute to productivity, unless they’re investments. This may work (and be necessary) for some freelance people, who need to create a trademark of themselves or show off status to open doors. Within companies, it still works for people — but little for productivity. When productivity is required, Statusitis is your perfect troublemaker. Keeping focus on what’s important has become difficult enough given the information overload at our digital workplaces. We don’t really need even more distractions. Maybe this is the reason many “modern” IT workers have become rather status averse (several of them even pathologically *-averse).
Maintaining status may be a required strategy — on the right hand side of cynefin framework, when it comes to deliver stability to cash cows. But only if status is defined in terms of quality of service. Driving innovation, unfortunately we’re on the left, so choosing status is of little help.
Counter Statusitis: Find the gap and shift incentives towards contribution
Status is incentive, and incentives motivate. Appreciation by society accounts for this incentive, rather than organisational goals. As long as organisations and their members exist within our society, which rewards status, we may not completely get rid of it. But status is not the only possible incentive. Even apart from money there are a couple of helpful strategies which fill the gap. The gap of appreciation whose presence status has to fill. I dare argue, in any environment with roughly balanced appreciation levels status becomes irrelevant and people start to be collaborative as well as focus on action towards the future.
For a quick shot, money may substitute this appreciation gap. But it will only solve part of the problem, and shift the rest (back to status, which will be bought from it).
What really does counteract status thinking are solutions, which make people feel worthy, even without status:
- enhanced flexibility — to be able to decide on your schedule freely still is a rewarding “privilege” in our culture, which is not necessarily related to position. Furthermore it enables to lead a flexible, modern life.
- diversification of assignments — diversification in tasks provides a chance to explore new things, widening personal experience (and horizons), opening up new paths and tackling interest. Thus enabling people.
- feeling of relevance — giving people respectively their work an actual feeling of relevance, i.e. appreciating their contributions, letting them feel what they do really does matter, is one of the best rewards any organization can give.
- no projects for the trashcan — avoid projects whose results end in trashcans where ever possible. They’re one of the most frustrating ways of showing people, whatever they put their effort in, it simply did not matter.
And on top of all that, give an example: Never use status as a leadership principle yourself, even if it may be tempting. No claiming privileges. One day, as Technical Director at WEB.DE, in an attempt to test how much they would get away with, my team decided to close down my root accounts on online servers. Pretty much everybody would feel offended. Wouldn’t you? Actually, I was quite happy about it. What happened? People finally took over responsibility for those systems. Real responsibility. That any relevant account is always stored in a password safe for cases of emergency need not be spoken about.
Shifting incentives away from status and implementing real leadership instead of status maintenance can greatly help to increase productivity and enhance culture, especially within highly innovative environments.
Agility and Statusitis are pretty much contrary principles.