The Evolved Executive, book review: Banishing fear from the workplace

This useful book summarises a lot of theory and practice about management and company processes that could help you start some discussions and make some changes.

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The Evolved Executive: The Future of Work Is Love in Action • by Heather Hanson Wickman • Lioncrest • 235 pages • ISBN 978-1544511375 • £12.99 / $15.99

Even with the recent emphasis on company culture, you don't expect to see the word 'love' on the cover of a book about the future of work. But given the levels of employee stress and disengagement at work, and the fact that people are more productive and effective when they feel psychologically safe, author Heather Hanson Wickman deliberately uses the word, arguing that it's time to shift from the usual work emotion -- fear -- to the other big human motivation.

Love, by Wickman's definition, is the absence of fear, the gift of autonomy and building caring, human connections. Putting love in the workplace is about making employees feel that they belong, that they're valued and trusted to make important contributions.

Businesses want engaged employees who collaborate, and employees want to feel that their work matters. These days, even technology companies express official opinions not just about accessibility and tax policies, but also about fundamental human rights and protections, because they're trying to attract a more diverse workforce. Especially in technology, that workforce isn't afraid to stage demonstrations to protest company policies around workplace harassment or selling to the military. Increasingly, people want to bring their whole self to work.

On the other hand, there's an epidemic of burnout and complaints about toxic workplaces -- including from Wickman herself, who found her work as a healthcare executive to be more about budgets, bureaucracy and backstabbing than delivering patient care.

SEE: Launching and building a startup: A founder's guide (free PDF)

Secrecy, toxic management that pits employees against each other, feedback that just gets ignored, the refusal to answer questions, bonuses for working late (or more likely the expectation that you'll give up your evenings and be available on email all weekend without any extra money) -- Wickman describes every bad day you've ever had at work. The problem isn't malicious managers, she suggests; it's just that the command and control systems designed for factories -- which assume that workers have to be chivvied into doing a proper day's work -- aren't a good fit for businesses trying to cope with a fast-changing, uncertain world. Most business org charts look the way they did a century ago: knowledge is treated as power, and fear is the most common motivational tool.

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The changes required to move from companies driven by fear to love have to come from leaders -- the 'evolved executives' of the title. There's a lot of research and management theory, some of it going back multiple decades. Wickman summarises some important points, including the idea of 'servant leadership' (when your boss's job is helping you get your job done well). In fact, there are a lot of references to books and articles that you'll want to follow up if you're trying to evolve as an executive and you don't want to sign up for the kind of executive coaching the author offers when she's not writing books.

There are also plenty of useful points to work through in the book. As well as explaining that a growth mind-set is about what you can learn and become, rather than just what you already are and know, Wickman looks at attitudes of connection, trust and purpose rather than profit. The core of the first half of book is four ways of gaining self awareness: understanding your values and using them to guide your decisions; understanding your purpose (a process that sounds very like therapy); finding your 'growth edge' (a goal you want to work on, but get stuck on); and making time for mindfulness (which can mean anything from meditation to just going for a walk, as long as it gives you a chance to check in with yourself).

The second half of the book looks at company culture and organisational structure -- the traditional options as well as newer approaches like networks of teams and self-managed structures. The evolutionary practices here include: giving people roles rather than rigid job descriptions; a different way of making decisions called the 'advice process' (if you're going to implement that, you'll definitely want to pick up the book it comes from); and getting teams to make social agreements for how people are going to work together and treat each other.

There are also practical suggestions in the case studies that complete the book. Some will be broadly applicable, such as taking the time to let people 'check in' at the beginning of a meeting (including about personal situations if that might stop them being focused on the project), and the kind of language and behaviour that makes for a respectful community. Others are more radical: a self-help program of affirmation and support where employees concentrate on assessing one specific person at each event; transparency about everything, including salaries; or even letting random people from outside the company come to meetings.

The Evolved Executive isn't going to take you from frustrated to enlightened, but it's a useful summary of a lot of theory and practice about management and company processes that could help you start some discussions and make some changes. At the very least, it's refreshing to consider the possibility of a less toxic way of working.

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