The conscientious employee pays the price for freedom
The feeling of no longer knowing when you have completed your tasks and met the expectations of management, colleagues and not least yourself is widespread in public organisations.
There was a time when the duties of employees were clarified in a job description, and they knew when their tasks had been completed. Today, many of them are responsible of defining their own role and responsibilities, which makes it hard to know where it all starts and ends,
These are the words of Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen, Professor at the Department of Business, Humanities and Law at CBS. Åkerstrøm does research in the dynamics between employees and their leaders and has analysed how public organisations have gone from expecting employees to do their duty to assume hyper-responsibility.
”There was a time when the duties of employees were clarified in a job description, and they knew when their tasks had been completed. Today, many of them are responsible of defining their own role and responsibilities, which makes it hard to know where it all starts and ends,” says Niels Åkerstrøm.
According to the CBS researcher, public organisations have become so complex that leaders are no longer able to grasp the needs of the organisation and for this reason place the responsibility on the shoulders of the employees.
In such a working culture, self-leadership and commitment become essential virtues, however, many employees become hyper-responsible. This development comes at a price, the researcher points out:
”Many people go home every day with a feeling of having failed, some with a feeling of having failed a lot. It is a painful situation to be in, especially because it is not always easy to understand where the feelings come from, so people become introspective and hide them.”
Uncertainty causes stress
The problem is real. According to the analytics company Gallup, 60% of the Danish population has felt stressed in the past year, and the number of Danes who are on long-term sick leave with stress has increased drastically in the past years. Every day, more than 35,000 Danes are on sick leave with work-related stress. Simultaneously,new research has debunked the myth that stress is a result of excess strain and points to the fact that the significant reasons for stress are often about fear of not being good enough at your job or not being able to live up to people’s expectations.
The title of Niels Åkerstrøm’s new lecture, “Den hyperansvarlige medarbejders tragedie (the tragedy of the hyper-responsible employee)”, which he has taken on tour these days, seems spot on. According to Åkerstrøm, there is a huge demand for new perspectives on the modern working life, however, he does take a critical view of a phenomenon such as ‘quiet quitting’ where you deliver nothing else but what your contract says and not one minute or one phone call more.
”Clearly, ’quiet quitting’ is a way of saying no to a lot of responsibility and look out for yourself, but I find it tragic if the solution is a distanced and passive approach to our jobs. I think ’quiet quitting’ must be interpreted as some sort of unrequited love. You love your job, but the feeling does not seem mutual, and then you distance yourself.”
Niels Åkerstrøm also points to something else significant; that the roots grow deep and are difficult to remove because there is still so much status in being driven by passion and be proud of your job.
”Most of us would like to have influence on our working hours and our tasks and would like to assume responsibility for our own career path and how we best realise and develop our potential. However, we also need recognition that we in fact take this responsibility, and this is practically non-existing in public organisations where leaders have so many employees that they often do not know what they are occupied with,” he says and elaborates:
”Many employees are not remotely close to being recognised enough for this. At best, it kills their motivation. At worst, it causes stress and ill-being.”
What is my responsibility today?
Responsibility becomes something to constantly search for and create and thus it becomes elusive and indefinite.
What went wrong? To answer this, we need to go back in history.
The late 80s saw a fundamental shift in the public sector, where all institutions were asked to be self-adaptable and independent organisations. So, where the classical bureaucracy defines clear roles for employees with clearly defined duties, self-adaptable organisations need self-adaptable and agile employees, Niels Åkerstrøm explains.
”If the roles are clearly defined, it may perhaps impede change, so your role is now to define your own role depending on what is needed right now. The organisation’s responsibility goes meta and is about taking responsibility for the employees taking responsibility in an organisation that is constantly going somewhere new. Responsibility becomes something to constantly search for and create and thus it becomes elusive and indefinite,” he says.
His analysis thus shows that responsibility has been gradually placed on the individual employee over the past 35 years and is no longer tied up on rules or expertise. Instead, we must report to ourselves. What is needed today? In relation to this patient or in this learning situation?
If no responsibility, what then?
According to Niels Åkerstrøm, this development has caused many employees to have, as he calls it, ‘an unhappy love affair with their job’.
”It is like picking petals off a flower, but instead of saying ‘she loves me, she loves me not’, we ask ’am I loved or am I not loved’, and ’how can I make people love me?’ You are oriented towards getting credit from other people,” Åkerstrøm explains. He points out that this leadership logic is prevalent in modern organisations, where the employee constantly chases the organisation’s need to be acknowledged and loved.
On the one hand, this creates self-leadership as many employees value, but it also means that you never know if you live up to expectations. It is a much complex game, which are often neither understood by leaders nor employees.”
Therefore, according to Niels Åkerstrøm, an essential part of the solution is that leaders learn to verbalise the feeling that we all feel inadequate and irresponsible.
“We need to talk about responsibility, and we need to talk about how it impacts us. And we must allow each other to fail,” the researcher says and points to the fact that this is a joint responsibility.
”A lot of employees do not understand why they feel inadequate. Instead of individualising this responsibility, we must make it a joint responsibility. If not, we will all feel a bit inadequate.”
Contact: Martine Mengers, Journalist, CBS (email@example.com)