The Soul at Work

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Complexity science: Relationships are the new bottom line.

A shift is taking place where valuing people and relationships is not simply a nice idea, but a conscious management action — with a positive outcome on business economics. Chalk it up to complexity science.

A relatively new discipline, complexity science strives to understand the structure and dynamics of complex systems in the natural world. Applied in the business realm, companies are seen as living organisms that adapt and evolve — a sharp contrast to the traditional view of companies functioning as machines.

By valuing people and relationships, companies enhance their ability to compete and achieve excellence. A fulfilling workplace and strong financial performance is not an either/or proposition.

Before Dick Knowles took over as plant manager at a DuPont facility in West Virginia, the facility had terrible safety records, high emissions and low productivity. Knowles implanted a new culture that gave employees the freedom to experiment and create improvements. The result: In three years injury rates decreased by 95%, environmental emissions dropped more than 87%, productivity increased 45% and earnings per employee tripled.

Organizational Characteristics

Companies that embrace the principles of complexity science typically:

  • Remain organizationally flat.
  • Promote open communication, participation and diversity.
  • Are agile, creative and innovative.

That means less hierarchy, more connecting. Yet make no mistake, this isn't about networking. Networking is too often self-serving, whereas complexity science is a human-centered approach that revolves around quality interaction. People must have a mutual respect and genuine concern for each other; leaders must be accessible.

In smaller companies, this happens quite naturally. Such an organization presents more opportunities for people to connect with each other, which is where the idea of "soul" comes in. Everyone wants to feel a sense of belonging. But as businesses grow larger, they tend to build bureaucracy, which, in turn, perpetuates distance.

By developing more relationships, you're forging pathways that lead to new ideas and opportunities. At the beginning this may feel awkward — that's because you don't always know where those pathways will take you.

Leaders Letting Go

For leaders, complexity science preaches a paradoxical style: leading by not leading. Leaders must learn to trust their people. That's easy to say, but tough to do because many managers' identities are wrapped up in being in control. And too often the model for leadership has been someone who is all-knowing and somewhat arrogant.

Remember, the world is too complex for any individual to have all the answers. Practitioners of complexity science view a manager's role as providing for people. You lead not by having employees turn to you for answers, but by asking, "What do you need from me to find the answers?" Think leader-as-servant.

Tip: Avoid a big corner office. It makes a statement of distance and cuts down on interaction. You need to be accessible.

A Winning Edge

Complexity science isn't a killer application or a complete replacement. Yet small changes can make surprising differences in your organization. Not only is there a financial payoff in increased productivity, there are payoffs in a higher level of loyalty and individual fulfillment.

When people discover they can make a difference, you get a "discretionary energy flow," reports Knowles at Dupont. "That's the difference in energy between doing just what you have to keep from being fired, and being fired up and doing the max."

Writer: TJ Becker interviewed Roger Lewin and Birute Regine, co-authors of "The Soul At Work: Using Complexity Science for Business Success" (Simon & Schuster), and partners at Harvest Associates, a Boston consulting firm.

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