What leadership is required as tech advances?


In the 2nd of our Technology and Humanity blog series, we talk to Hilary Harvey about the leadership required as tech advances.

Technology has been rapidly advancing in every sphere of life for decades. The conversation has long shifted from the capabilities of hardware to the innovations of software and onto the power of the algorithm and AI. As these developments change the way we work, they also cause us to question the way we lead.

In this time of global crisis, the most obvious manifestation of technological progress is that our interactions have shifted online. It is the fulfilment of Scorsese’s Zuckerberg who predicted, “We lived on farms and then we lived in cities and now we are going to live on the internet.”

But this has had a fallout effect. Both in general life and at work. “It’s not just that people have to work differently but that they’re doing so in the context of a general feeling of fear and anxiety,” says Hilary Harvey, an associate partner at TPC UK.

Without the advances in technology that have taken place in the last ten years, organisations would have struggled to function during this time. But the danger is that we will mistake the functionality our tech affords us for an all-encompassing solution.

Adaptive leadership

“Leaders have needed to adapt this year,” says Hilary. “To think of themselves as managing change programs.” The work has been to put new structures in place, to give vision in a time of uncertainty, and to coordinate teams through what might be an entirely new way of working for an organisation.

“It’s hard because people step into a role because they want to lead this team, to do this job, in this way,” says Hilary. “But now they have been forced into a remote situation. How do you build morale when it wasn’t their decision to work remotely? How do you support motivation and performance on an individual and team level?”

Leaders cannot just rely on software and internet provision and automation to hold everything together. They need to have a critical eye of the situation and take real measures of how people are doing.

“The biggest risk is that people will burn out,” says Hilary. “Under the psychological burden of constant stress, unless they are supported how can we expect people to have the same level of motivation and performance as before?”

Human-centric leadership

Leaders seek to move an organisation forward. Because technology appears to be always advancing, it is easy to look for it to be the answer to progression. But unless our tech is pulling our teams closer together, it might only be dragging us sideways.

“The need to be, not tech-centric, but human-centric is fundamental,” says Hilary. “And that has to be a decision from the top of the organisation that affects all levels.”

Usually it’s middle managers who are closer to the real issues. They have the potential to have a better grasp of what’s going on than those in senior positions. But they can’t notice these issues or communicate them if they are distracted by other priorities.

“Modelling human-centric leadership at the top is not enough to ensure it permeates the organisation,” says Hilary. “If, when it filters down to middle management, those managers are still pressured into delivering results, they can slip into not paying attention to the human relationships. Unless they are challenged to have a human-centric view of the situation, it’s so easy for middle management not to.”

How do we treat people? What do we really care about? It is easy for leaders, especially while  face-to-face to face interaction is limited, for false priorities like efficiency to take prominence over people. And if we’re not careful, technology can be a gloss of progressive paint that hides the slowly deteriorating material underneath.

Leadership that facilitates team

For most organisations right now there is a struggle to maintain a sense of team. And we should be careful not to interpret technological provision as authentic connection.

“Just because you have the tech in place – like Slack or Trello – and a lot of traffic doesn’t mean there is a quality of relationship,” says Hilary. “The risk is that leaders mistake quantity for quality of interaction.”

The same principle applies to video calls, Hilary says. “Being present in a team meeting doesn’t necessarily mean there is a sense of team. That’s the same logic that inspires businesses to believe ‘you’re on video at your desk’ equals ‘you’re doing a good job.’

Presenteeism is not a measure of engagement. “It’s the responsibility of leaders to be holding the view of how we are doing as a team. And to invest in it.”

Hilary explains how a professional service company has done just that – and has doubled down on it since the pandemic. “We train their consultants as team coaches so that when there’s a project team working for a client, each team will have access to a team coach.”

“Each team coach is tasked with supporting them with how they’re doing as a team, what their learning is, what’s working and what needs to happen to make it even better.”

We may be responsible for systems change, but unless relational leadership and team leadership permeate our mindset, we’ll soon find technology isn’t enough. As technology advances, we need to be careful not to lay to one side these more fundamental aspects. We are not leaders of technology after all but leaders of people.

For insight on how to build trust, engagement and collaboration in a virtual environment, check our virtual teams training.

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