KDVI Learning Lab Conversation Series Spring 2021 (2021)

Alicia Cheak

KDVI Learning Lab Conversation Series Spring 2021

We are now a little over a year since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which, alongside a broader backdrop of political and socioeconomic unrest and increasing climate catastrophes, have created a significant inflection point in many of our business-as-usual practices and expectations. While companies and individuals have and continue to experience major upheaval, this time has also brought forth opportunities for growth and change.


KDVI’s Spring Learning Lab brings together leaders from all over the world to take stock of current experiences and imagine forward on what to do differently and better in terms of the Future of Work, Leadership for the Future and Achieving and Sustaining Healthy Performance. 


Throughout the various conversations, we see that there is a strong desire and need to address the future (and sustainability) of work and leadership, at the same time, be aware of and support the current and emerging realities of people at work.


1. Quo vadis? Finding renewed purpose and meaning


Manfred Kets de Vries kicked off the series with a Q&A on his latest book “Quo Vadis: The existential challenges of leaders” (Palgrave, 2021).  In many ways the pandemic has given individuals and organisations a possibility for a reset. It is a chance to stop and reflect on what they have done in the past and how they want to redefine themselves for the future. 


Manfred proposes that this search for meaning and purpose is built around the fulfillment of the following existential challenges and drivers:


  • Sense of purpose: Future orientation and what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Sense of competence: Identifying what you are good at and what gives you a sense of flow and energy.
  • Sense of belonging Finding connection and mutual support from others and spaces to interact meaningfully with other people.
  • Sense of transcendence: To connect to issues that are larger than ourselves; and contribute purposefully to society at large
  • Sense of control: Making conscious choices in major areas such as life partner and career and owning ones own life.


An organisation in which people can thrive and perform is one whose people are invigorated by their work, able to find balance, commitment and completeness, as well as fulfil their need for exploration, learning and growth. Creating such organisations requires reflective leadership, embedding a learning and feedback culture and fulfilling the five drivers in a post-pandemic world.


2. Leadership Capabilities for Future Ways of Woking, anchored to emerging realities


Organisations have been through a significant shock over the last 12 months. In response, they have drawn on the collective desire to survive and relied on existing cultural assumptions, relationships and goodwill. Currently, we seem to be now moving into a new phase of looking beyond the immediate crisis to what next and how we will work in the future.


When we think about “what next?”, a common tendency is to be drawn to a desire for certainty in the form of clear models, processes, and policies. This is often rooted in a yearning to go back to what we know and to a situation of control. The risk of this pull towards certainty is that we may build foundations of the future of work on a culture that we currently have but may not be the one we need for the future.


Transformations is a messy journey full of contradictions and ambiguity; yet, it also filled with possibilities. I many ways, this period challenges leaders to operate at the edge of mystery: to know that there are some things they can know, and others that they need to tolerate not knowing.


John Kotter (1990) describes leaders as those who prepare organisations for change and help them cope, set a direction and align. In our work with leaders before and during the pandemic, we have identified the following core capabilities needed to operate and thrive at the edge of mystery: Trust, Psychological Safety and Empathy.


The leaders who have done well in the last year have gained clarity on their purpose, and through these core capabilities, taken actions and made decisions while bringing their people along with them. They also constantly test their decisions against emerging realities. By doing so, they can concretely and meaningfully navigate periods of transformation by having a plan which fits their understanding of the future but also working with the reality around them.


Your experience & insights: Discussion themes echo a point of inflection for individuals and companies to revisit the nature and meaning of work. At the time, the pandemic has exposed and brought to the surface the shadow side of how organisations function and increased the divergence and inequalities between people’s experience, aspirations and anxieties around future ways of working. Leadership capabilities that unify and align include: serving as a role model, deep listening, acknowledgement of the experience and effort of team, demonstrating vulnerability and managing group dynamics and emotions.


3. Mental health and well-being: Anticipate crisis and proactively build resilience


predictable surprise is “…an event or set of events that take an individual or group by surprise, despite prior awareness of all of the information necessary to anticipate the events and their consequences”. In retrospect, the pandemic which took people by surprise when it happened, ought not to have taken us by surprise. Workplace well-being has been steadily declining for some years but triggered by the pandemic, there is increasingly wide recognition that a mental health crisis is unfolding in organisations across the globe. What can we learn from the nature and cause of predictable surprises that can help prevent other crises, and secondly, how can we also proactively build well-being and resilience within our current systems?


Research on predictable surprises show that systemic failures of sharing of information and perspectives broadly can lead to an inability to recognise and pre-empt what could have been anticipated. The session presented looked at some of the dynamics and hurdles within our organisational systems that prevent us from dealing with crisis in a holistic and sustainable manner.


Specifically, challenges were explored in the following phases:


  • Recognition: Data is often fragmented and in silos which results in a unit level view rather than a coherent systemic view.
  • Prioritisation: Competing priorities result in flawed attention focusing 
  • Mobilisation:  Focusing attention on the wrong thing (short term solutions vs longer term systemic issues) and some entities having vested interests which favor inaction


An argument was made to take a more proactive approach by addressing the factors that impact how people feel and thrive at work. Integrating these factors in the future of work agenda and design can lead to a more committed, energised and healthy performing workforce.


Your experience & insights: One of the recurrent themes is that underlying challenges have always been there, and the problem is always deeper and more permanent. We should address the deeper problems rather than the crisis at the moment. Many of the obstacles occur in the prioritisation and mobilisation phase. People recognise that there is an issue with mental health, but the deeper personal understanding of motivational drivers is not as often understood as well as what to focus on and what solutions to propose. In terms of how to enhance well-being in general, observations were made to provide sustainable longer term holistic solutions and going back to the fundamentals of what drives and motivates people in workplaces to thrive.


4. Healthy performance culture: Dream or Reality?


Employee well-being has been an important topic before the pandemic. A recent study by Harvard Business Review with almost 1500 participants from 46 countries shows however that almost 90% of the respondents declare that their general and workplace well-being has declined since the beginning of the pandemic. Many experts fear that a mental health pandemic is developing which will last longer than the COVID-19 pandemic. This learning lab explores whether we are set up to create healthy workplaces in a systemic holistic manner. What can forward thinking companies and HR leaders do to review their existing well-being and mental health initiatives? And how can we leverage new ideas rather than just leaving it to individuals to work on their own resilience? 


The journey towards improving well-being and regaining a sense of flow varies from individual to individual. For some people it is a steady progression up, with fits and starts, towards mental well-being and flow; others may slip into depression or anxiety echoing concerns of a looming mental health crisis; a third trajectory is a state of languishing (Grant, NYT, 2021), where people are in a protracted phase of lacking the drive and energy to be productive and happy in work and life.


In the workplace, this translates into leadership challenges of how to move oneself and others from a state of languishing (lack of agility and drive) to one of flourishing (energy and purpose)?


Individuals can take action to enhance their well-being by building resilience through a growth mindset. Mindsets are mental models, which determines our actions. Collectively, they can also dictate norms, systems and processes in an organisation. Through adopting a growth mindset, people can reframe perspectives and responses to crisis by moving from avoiding and feeling threatened by challenges to embracing them, persisting in the face of setback, learning from criticism and failures, and finding inspiration and lessons from others.


Taking a systems-level view, the underlying causes of workplace burnout need to be addressed to ensure healthy performing work cultures. Moss (2021) identifies a number of factors behind burnout: unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards for effort, lack of supportive community, lack of fairness and mismatched values and skills


In reality, a majority of well-being interventions in the workplace fail despite genuine intentions.  Many have great intentions but are not getting it get quite right in terms of creating sustainable resilience and performance. Sustainable healthy performance needs both working on individual resilience and a healthy workplace culture.


Your experience & insights: Many of you identified with the languishing state. More specifically, the challenges include sprinting a marathon, boundary management, sustaining energy and motivation and anticipating and supporting diverse experience and back to work needs. At the same time, there was a sharing of best practices, which acknowledged the need to use burnout and mental health as a mirror to the system, and to adopt approaches that are multi-fold, requiring both top down and bottom-up initiatives to provide immediate support and embedding longer term holistic practices.


5. Leadership for the Future in the Post-Covid World


The COVID-19 pandemic is an epochal event impacting almost every aspect of life now and in the future.  More has already changed in how we interact in society and how we operate in business in the last 12 months than in decades. When combined with longer-term global challenges, especially around climate change and all its consequent manifestations, the outlook is for a very different business environment than existed in 2019. What brought us here is no longer sufficient to get us there. In this Learning Lab, we explored how such changes in the operating environment for business can be met with corresponding changes in leadership priorities and focus. While the fundamental principles of good leadership remain a constant, what are the essential qualities and attributes that will become new imperatives for leaders as we emerge from COVID?  How can we refocus Leadership for the Future to optimize effectiveness in the Future of Work


We propose a model that is anchored on aspiration, alignment and implementation, which in turn can be explored in 6 distinct areas: Purpose and Values, Leadership and Culture, and Sustainability and Citizenship. Our objective in presenting the model is to bring in more thoughts and perspectives on leadership and organisational aspirations, as well as challenges related to moving from awareness to action.


Your experience & insights: While many recognised the longer-term impact and potential learnings and implications from Covid, they remain preoccupied with current challenges: taking care of their people especially in terms of mental health, and the challenges of transitioning back to work. This may be due to the divergence and emergence of multiple realities which in turn leads to different needs and expectations related to the future of their work. This divergence has placed an emphasis on leading with paradoxes as leaders find themselves holding and managing multiple and sometimes conflicting realities at the same time. This has fortuitously seen the emergence and empowerment of new types of leaders; and the need to reskill those who are used to pre-Covid and “certain” ways of working. And finally, this period remains one of transitioning rather than transforming: leaders and organisations are still trying to make sense of their own experience and what they are learning and can change personally, rather than more integratively at levels beyond their people and their organisation. This can be tied to where they are in the journey and not having the visibility and bandwidth to think more broadly and systemically. For many, the destination, hence purpose, is still not clear.


Add Comment

Article Comments

Alessandra Cambiago

Jul 17, 8:57 AM

Very interesting series

jacek santorski

Jul 17, 5:04 PM

„Open minded” perspective and „wise” synthesis

Go back

Related content

"Technology sector inter-ventions"

KDVI Interventions in the Technology Sector

Case studies on different KDVI interventions in the technology sector.

Published on 1 Sep, 2015

"Financial sector inter-ventions"

KDVI Interventions in the Financial Sector

Case studies on different KDVI interventions in the financial sector.

Published on 1 Sep, 2015

"Energy sector inter-ventions"

KDVI Interventions in the Energy Sector

Case studies on different KDVI interventions in the energy sector.

Published on 1 Sep, 2015

Future of Work, Leadership and Organisations

Future of Work, Leadership and Organisations

The 4th Industrial Revolution, or age of rapid technological advances, is changing the way people work with disruptive impact on business, global economy and broader society (WEF, 2020). Future of work trends generally describe a workforce that is increasingly diverse, dispersed, digital, and dynamic. The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated these shifts, pushing companies to fast track the adoption of technologies and remote working. But what are the human consequences of these new ways of working, and how do they align with aspirations for the future of work?

"Applying a psycho- dynamic lens to org studies"

Sociology of Leadership in Organizations

A chapter in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition on using a psychpdynamic lens to the study of organisational phenomenon.

Published on 24 Apr, 2015

KDVI's Key questions  for reflection through these uncertain times

KDVI's Key questions for reflection through these uncertain times

Crisis forces people and companies to adapt and change. Covid-19 is particular because of its global impact; consequences are magnified both personally and collectively. Large scale disruptions can expose our fault lines and vulnerabilities and push us to challenge and question existing mindsets and behaviours. While traumatic, it can also elevate and bring to the fore different leadership behaviours.

"Overview of the psycho- dynamic approach to leadership study"

Psychodynamic Approach

This working paper provides an overview of the psychodynamic approach, including historical underminnings, its key concepts, and includes three case studies with which to apply the psychodynamic approach as well as a short self-assessment on leadership archetype.

Published on 19 Jun, 2014

"Forgiveness as a business tool"

The Art of Forgiveness: Differentiating Transformational Leaders

This working paper explores the subject of forgiveness and its importance in the context of leadership.

Published on 18 Apr, 2013

"Talented leadership in the European Union"

The Future of an Illusion: In search of the new European Business Leader

This article explores the complex network of relationships requires extremely talented leadership in the European Union.

Published on 1 Aug, 2005

"The victim syndrome in org contexts"

Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome?

This working paper explores the victim syndrome within an organisational context, and provides a checklist to identify people who are victims of it.

Published on 24 Jul, 2012