People over ‘roles’

People are the core of the organisation. Therefore motivation, performance management and establishing an innovative culture are the new lifelines of today’s knowledge economy. So how to change the strategy from an output driven approach to an approach where shared values and direction are the key objectives of the organisation? Will it re-center people back into the heart of today’s businesses?

In this article I will elaborate on:

  • The link between individuals, organisational direction and corporate responsibility
  • Three different ways of looking at employment (input, output, meaning)
  • The role of the people manager vs the role of the functional manager


the how = the what

Organisational output is not a goal in itself. It is a logical consequence of the right people, working in the right climate and inspired by a shared challenge.

Successful teams embody basic skills, shared language and diversity. Diversity in specialism, professional background, gender and culture will create blended teams, versatile enough to act and react to changing circumstances. Having a blended team reduces the risk of groupthink and stimulates outside-of-the-box thinking and innovation.

Intrinsically motivated people are natural problem solvers. The managerial challenge lies therefore not in Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) or in coaching on the desired output, but in developing people in a meaningful way, so their talents surface within an organisation that has defined a direction that is shared and a goal that is achievable.

People Management

At the heart of people management lies the goal of maximizing people’s potential as opposed to their mere output. This has not always been obvious in the management styles of today’s corporate world.

For the purpose of this article I distinguish 3 styles of management in their logical sequence of evolution:

  • Input driven: industrial /manufacturing based management
  • Output driven: post-industrial / society based management
  • Development driven: personal development based management


stage 1


Mainstream styles in modern societies have evolved away from utilitarianism and the view of ‘the worker’ as a mere production factor in a chain of activities to produce a good or a service (e.g. a bicycle manufacturing plant or a car wash). In the utilitarian view the individual his role is to connect other production factors or fill in process gaps that cannot be automated easily. The human resource is ‘bought’ by offering relative high salaries for routine jobs. The more routine, the more efficient the ‘human factor’ could produce. Production is the ultimate goal and people are means to that end.

This management style, inspired by Fordism and Taylorism, drove the industrial revolution and mass production in the 20th century. Workers are asked to start working at 8am, when the production line is fired up, and leave the factory at 5pm when the belt grinds to a halt. Management focuses namely on availability and efficiency of workers input.


stage 2


This utilitarian view of the worker became less relevant in a world that developed from a class society into a society where individuals have free access to almost limitless sources of information and knowledge. Individuals no longer landed in a job-for-life but progress in different roles as their levels of knowledge change and they become more ‘useful’ to the process. The organisation is born.

Workers become employees and act as an agent in a complex surrounding of processes amongst other knowledge workers. Anticipation is the key skill that keeps specific roles from being automated. Employees are continuously asked to evolve as ‘automation’ and cheaper off-shored resource are chasing them. Because of modern ways communication the knowledge worker is no longer bound to the office floor. Knowledge workers connect in virtual teams and in online team rooms. Be it from a traditional office, the comfort of their home of from within the social buzz of a Starbucks cafe. Management therefore focuses on ‘key performance indicators’. It is not what they do, or how they do it. Performance is expressed in the only tangible factor that a knowledge society produces: output.


stage 3

Developing people

Where to go from here? As people start feeling disengaged from their social surrounding they are at risk of isolation, stress and a lack of belonging. Their virtual office no longer caters for a framework of social bonds and shared meaning. If their output is objectivised and disconnected from any norm on how to achieve particular ends the organisation is at risk. Many of today’s’ knowledge organisations face surprisingly similar challenges when their employees focus more and more on their individual output. The lack of cross-functional working, politicized office cultures and the lack of belonging counteracts the ever increasing requirement of constant anticipation to an accelerating world. There seems to be a need to a re-evaluation of the ‘human resource’ in the organisation that can only survive if it connects people’s worlds. All people’s worlds: employees, customers and suppliers.

The relationship people have within their teams transcends their role in the organisation. The individual will need to overcome both stages that their role has gone through in two centuries (input and output) simply because there is no such thing as ‘a role’ anymore. Roles were production factors, where today’s knowledge society calls on people as actors and ‘meaning givers’. Not to enable output, but to identify themselves in the workspace as a human being. The (virtual) office is just another playground for people to give meaning and their output is a logical consequence of meaningful relationships with the other actors around them. Output is no longer the goal of today’s management. It is a collateral result, a spin-off of an activity where people join in a safe environment within a shared set of values, facing a common direction.

Whatever the organisation sets out to achieve, it is the management’s task to facilitate an environment where like-minded people gather and find meaning in shared goal, be it the production of a good of the delivery of a service. In fact, providing this environment for people to be meaningful is the people manager his way to transcend his role. It is explicitly doing what he is good at. It is his way of giving meaning. This builds on the people manager as a mentor as opposed to a teacher. It is the people manager his goal to bring out intrinsic capabilities in their people, not to teach a specific skill. Accepting that his team members have their own unique set of talents and no longer follow suit of their manger’s skill has major implications for style, responsibilities and performance management.


So what is left of accountability? Giving meaning is not a ‘laissez-faire‘ free ride, not a limitless brainstorm exercise for the sake of it. ‘Meaning’ is the first step in a dialogue to construct a framework of shared values. Call it an office culture. For meaning to become a part of the culture it needs a platform, a playground, where ‘meaning givers’ meet and share their perspectives. It is the organization’s challenge to employ people that join this playground willingly and enabled. An intrinsically motivated and diverse community of ‘meaning givers’, defining their shared values and direction. Maybe accountability is the wrong word. It is a concept that points a finger. Accountability is derived from responsibility and that is where it should stay. When people feel responsible to put their talents and goodwill to give meaning, they naturally will. There is no need for a managerial finger to point at their accountability. If anything, it is the managers responsibility to coach their team members in finding the right direction. The direction in where they can give their meaning and drive sustainable change (be it progress or a change in direction).

Accountability is a top-down concept, where responsibility is a bottom-up approach to find shared values. When there is a community of intrinsically motivated employees with a diverse enough background, engaging in a safe playground, the organisation will (re)define itself to cope with its commercial and social environment. It is in this playground where meanings clash, catalyze and construct shared values. Once meaning is shared, mindsets merge and values emerge. These values streamline the contribution that leads a shared end in production and service.

People management, managing people

There is a tendency where functions in the knowledge economies become increasingly complex. As a result it becomes more difficult to manage people explicitly on their functional responsibilities. Specialists simply specialize themselves away from the teaching of their manager. Namely in bigger (diverse) teams the different functional areas require more intimate knowledge and expertise than any one manager can handle.

To establish and maintain their role as a mentor the people manager will have to delegate the specialist teaching to peers in the teams and focus on the mentoring (the ‘how’) of his team. This creates a double ‘reporting line’ for the people in the teams. One on the ‘how’ and one on the functional ‘what’. Ultimately the how needs to be dominant in the rating, where the what should define the benchmark and remuneration of the role.

To make the role of people manager efficient, teams between 15 and 20 people are ideal. These people do not have to be part of the same functional area though. This enables great opportunities for cross-functional relationships in the organisation. The constitution of the ‘people teams’ shall be inspired by the required leadership culture. Some teams will need to focus on innovation, others on diligence. The choice of people manager to coach on the ‘how’ needs to reflect that.

People manager

  • mentor / coach
  • focus on the how of performance (style & ethos)
  • rewards the individual on contribution to the organisation (bonus)
Functional manager

  • teacher
  • focus on the ‘what’ of performance (kpi’s)
  • rewards the individual on the basis of their market value in the job market



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