Thesis 4: Work Systems That Are Affected by Digital Transformation Require a Reflexive Concept Of Leadership

Here, leadership is considered as a function of the organization, independently of the individuals. The purpose of leadership is to pave the way for decisions and to balance the health resources and risks in a world of work undergoing digital transformation. This involves observing its own actions and opening them up for discussion. This reflexive attitude forms the basis of the design competency of leadership in an organization.

Traditional work system models tend to neglect the influence of leadership on how' the system elements relate to each other. In fact, it can be assumed that leadership plays an important role as intermediary between the technical and social subsystems, and is therefore a key lever in the design of work affected by digital transformation (Figure 3.2).

A question arises about the function and form of leadership in increasingly agile, self-organizing, and networked organizations (see Brendebach, Chapter 4 in this book), namely: do we still need leadership, and if so, what kind?

Leadership has traditionally been linked to the attributes and capabilities of individuals (Neuberger 2002; see Schbbel, Chapter 5 in this book). From a systemic point of view, though, leadership should be understood as an attribute and capability of an organization. As a social system, the organization develops a form of leadership which is conditioned by its historical conflicts, in order to maintain its problem-solving capacity into the future (Wimmer 2009). Leadership is therefore the attempt of an organization to increase the likelihood that the right decisions are

Leadership and the dynamically changing elements of the work system

FIGURE 3.2 Leadership and the dynamically changing elements of the work system.

taken for its own survival. The outcomes can be very different in terms of organization designs and strategies, each of them aimed at controlling imponderables and guaranteeing the long-term existence of the organization. For example, the exchange of necessary resources with the environment - depending on resource dependency and availability - can yield organizational solutions that encompass both internal (buffering, greater flexibility, etc.) and external programs (cooperation, contractual arrangements, etc.) (Schreydgg 2003, 89). The digital transformation exerts internal and external adaptation pressure, and as such it has a varying impact on the organization and therefore on the dynamics of the organizational change process, ultimately influencing the cultural diversity of leadership.

Based on a modern understanding of leadership, Wimmer (2009) proposes seeing the primary task of leadership today as finding and implementing organizational solutions that match the dynamic development of the relevant environment. In his opinion, power asymmetries continue to be necessary in order to make decisions and implement them. Even so, Wimmer favors a vision of “leadership which primarily guides the attention of workers no longer upwards - this is no longer the driving force in day-to-day activities - but outwards. What does the customer need? What is needed for successful interaction in the various networks which span organizational boundaries?” (Wimmer 2009, 25; italics by the authors).

Aside from the management of internal and external relationships, leadership in the world of work undergoing digital transformation faces the central challenge of mediating decisions about the design of the work system which allow coordinated action to be taken. This appears to be difficult because complex problems are increasingly associated with diverging interests and perspectives which must be taken into account. Success is only possible if workers are able to actively participate in the development and design process - in other words developing, discussing, and ratifying in a discursive process (Hartmann 1995). This can work particularly well in communication processes that result in ongoing “sense-making” in the organization (Wimmer 2009, 30). The important thing is not whether the communication is based on analog or digital media or is designed using Al programs. Instead, it is crucial that the medium and the content are closely aligned. In other words, communication structures that are able to cope with complexity and suitable media guarantee the flow of information and support decision-making. Meanwhile, a flow of information which is up to the task is also a resource maintaining the health and performance of workers.

Leadership is always exercised through communication. All workers constantly monitor whether the communicated content matches the actions really taking place. Leadership therefore influences the culture in every direction, and on the negative side, a lack of fairness or integrity can cause frustration and resignation among workers, becoming a health risk in the long term and resulting in reduced performance. Or on the positive side, leadership can be a health resource in the work system through respect, credibility, and participation. To make the ethical foundations of the leadership style more transparent, culture development programs are a good way of supporting organizations as they affirm the premises of their actions.

The DGU V (German Social Accident Insurance) has published guidance on developing leadership principles (DGUV 2019a). It contains support for the ethics-based analysis and reflection of the leadership style. It describes proactive, value-creating premises for action in the development of a culture of prevention, in which leaders should:

  • (1) Take responsibility: make decisions based on the values of respect for others, fairness, legality, and integrity, and be accountable for their own decisions.
  • (2) Give meaning, agree goals: provide guidance and agree realistic goals jointly with the workers in a transparent process, hold regular feedback meetings, and support the workers’ development goals.
  • (3) Involve workers: demonstrate cooperative, worker-oriented, and collaborative leadership behavior in which participatory discussion forums are deployed as self-evident leadership instruments.
  • (4) Provide support: harmonize competencies, resources, and tasks, allow for freedom of action, design health-promoting working conditions, and actively support workers.
  • (5) Maintain contact: take time for each other, express recognition and appreciation.
  • (6) Develop leadership competence: reflect on their own leadership behavior, be open to feedback, and take up training opportunities.
  • (7) Apply healthy leadership to themselves: pay attention to their own health and be clear that their own behavior is taken as a model for others.

The leadership principles can be used as normative contributions to the internal dialog, as a way of provoking reflection about the prevailing leadership style in the organization. First, this allows leadership to be considered as a function, independently of the individual concerned. And second, it stimulates constructive debate about the contribution of leadership to the design of internal and external relationships and to the patterns of decision-making that are able to cope with the development dynamics.


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