Tips for the perfect boss are on the menu at every career website and available on the shelves of every bookshop. But if the recipe for success and its ingredients are so clear, why are there still problems? Why do supervisors fail with their ideas?
One explanation for this is offered by the holistic approach of the relatively new scientific discipline of organisational pedagogy. "Leadership should not be viewed in isolation from its environment and its context," said Anja Mensching, Professor of Organisational Pedagogy at the Institute of Educational Sciences at the CAU. "We do not see leadership as a management project, but rather as a social practice – i.e. as an interaction between organisational structures and cultures, those to be led and the person who leads." Accordingly, a good leader would be someone who can first of all lead themselves well, so someone who knows themselves well and who reflects on their own actions. "I always say that leadership is primarily about 'seduction', which means that leaders should convince their employees by inspiring enthusiasm for ideas and tasks. Ideally, this leads to passion and identification," explained Mensching.
"Employees want to be regarded as autonomous counterparts," added Dr Adrian Beutler, research associate in the Department of Organisational Pedagogy. The fact that a certain degree of self-leadership actually works has also been shown by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the fears of some companies, the switch by many people to working from home has not led to sharp drops in productivity. In many places, this happened pretty smoothly. “Working at a distance represents a challenge for many managers, because it requires a high degree of trust," explained Beutler. Supervisors often feel more secure if the employees are present. Being present means that the employees have at least shown up for work. Whether or not they really work, can then – apparently – be easily determined. "Some supervisors have reached their limits through the teleworking, because they can no longer live out their ingrained need for supervision." Sometimes this leads to new technical supervision measures, such as Excel spreadsheets in which the work steps must be documented. "This is a mechanistic kind of leadership, but one that can result in the allegiance of the employees no longer being voluntary. The identification with the work decreases."
But why do self-reflective and motivated leaders also fail, who hold their position precisely because of their special skills and their personality? "They reach their limits if the external structures are not flexible enough," said Adrian Beutler. Within an organisation, there are sometimes high expectations of exactly how processes should operate – even if this is not written down. If new ideas contradict this and there is repeated criticism, then even motivated people also lapse into conformity sooner or later, in order to meet these requirements. "If there is a lack of positive feedback, the organisation will wear out and discard the leader." In order to still enable creative decisions, external consulting firms are often hired which are then given the responsibility for changes. But these are often ready-to-use catalogues of measures which are not always a perfect fit.
The Department of Organisational Pedagogy also advises institutions, authorities and businesses. "But we have a qualitative approach. We only act as a kind of midwife, and support the organisation during the learning process with specific challenges or problems, but the solution itself must come from the organisation," summarised Anja Mensching. The prerequisite for this is a high degree of openness, even to unconventional perspectives. Because it is a matter of alternative points of view, and working on the company's own structures. "The process itself already creates learning opportunities and breaks previously unquestioned patterns in the organisation. For example, a leader must deal with the question of exactly how they lead in everyday situations, and not just how they want to lead. We also ask the employees similar questions about self-leadership and leadership by others," reported the professor from practice. There is no standard checklist for good leadership, and developing one is also not the goal: "What makes good leadership can differ significantly, depending on the people and organisation."
Author: Christin Beeck
Organisational cultures: from power struggle to conflict prevention
The Department of Organisational Pedagogy was established in the winter semester 2018/19 with the appointment of Professor Anja Mensching to the Institute of Educational Sciences at the CAU. In research and teaching, the department tackles the topic of learning in, from and between organisations. The focus is on qualitative reconstructive analyses, which examine the everyday processes and organisations, for example the leadership practices, teamwork or dealing with conflicts. (cb)