Kirsten Buck examines whether traditional approaches to management are on their way out, and how collaborative alternatives could work for firms


The labour market in the UK is bustling, despite the cost of living crisis we are all facing, and other external factors destabilising our economy. An active labour market, while positive, can also bring speed to a rotating door of people; the downfalls of this for a business are clear.

In an ideal world –  which as life teaches us, is never the reality – we want to hire, train and retain talent. Yet people leave, yearning for the next opportunity; whether this is driven by the need for a greater challenge, salary increase or connection to a different organisational purpose, the reasons for waving farewell to an organisation are often layered with complexity, and the true nature of departures are rarely addressed after the exit interview. 

Where reasons for departure are not addressed, the rotating door of people does continue to spin, and it will do so at an accelerated pace should organisations not listen to what their people are calling for. As leaders within organisations, we need to start picking up on these signals.

Signals can be heard during those impromptu catch-ups in the office, during the annual appraisal (something we will refute the need for later in this article), and must be heard before we get to the exit interview stage. Signals can also be interpreted from insight gleaned in robust studies. Pick up any report by one of the ‘big four’ since 2020 and you will see that seeking more flexibility, autonomy, collaboration and alignment to purpose are among the most important drivers for people leaving roles. If we do not pick up on these signals, this shift in what people expect from work could have a cataclysmic effect. 

Business-as-usual cannot be a reason to be blind to this. The best leaders and people managers are attuned to the needs, but also the capabilities of the people around them. They are also usually acutely aware that the people around them often prop them up. So, why are our people management practices still (often) entrenched in bureaucracy and a top-down reporting structure? Leaders must take a decision to flick the switch.

Hands resting on each other


We propose that with the rise in people putting purpose-led business at the top of their agenda for where they want to work, coupled with a call for more flexible and autonomous ways of working, that people management must become exactly that! Opportunities for radical transparency, enabling true (as opposed to tokenistic) moments of trust, and space for collaboration are going to become the norm in the workplace of the future.

Top-down people management is on the way out: collaborative and guided practices are in the ascendency. People really are an organisation’s only appreciating asset. However, the word ‘asset’ does not do human value justice. We are continually evolving, and to quote Kim Lafferty, former head of people effectiveness at GSK, we are “always unfinished”. Given the optimal set of conditions, people can flourish and cumulative human value is infinite. 

Organisation Design as iterative; with high individual and organisational alignment

The practicalities of creating these optimal conditions are, of course, subject to the unique make-up and mechanics of an organisation. As systems thinkers, we understand an organisation as a system. People make up some of the cogs that keep the system running. 

An effective system is increasingly one where organisational purpose is authentic and speaks to consumers, investors and employees. Perry Timms designed the ‘42@work’ model to act as both an organisation design model and a diagnostic tool: you can build an organisation from left to right of the model, and diagnose conditions from right to left.  

PTHR’s 42@work model

Using this approach, both leaders and individuals can run a diagnostic on how strongly self-alignment correlates to organisational purpose. In this system, leaders can recognise where there may be short circuits being taken or components malfunctioning. From such a diagnostic, it can be highlighted where people management practices can be improved. For example, if the system is powered by human energy, the whole purpose of the employee experience is for people to flourish. 

When people can do work that is meaningful to them, then they have a good job, and where there are good jobs, there are good companies. These purpose-led organisations use business as a force for good, with ethical and sustainable practices now being independently verified, as seen in the increasing popularity in the B Corporation movement. 

Businesses that take a reactive and sticky-plaster approach to evolutionary organisation design need to pay heed to the signal for alignment in work, or will fall behind. People will see through this. They already are. Take your time. Listen, diagnose and iterate.

Self-management as standard; liberating teams

People perform best when they are given autonomy. Autonomy in managing our daily structure, in getting tasks done, and in how we shape solutions to problems. 

We mentioned earlier the reign of conventional leadership having had its day. This style of management is typically hierarchical, restrictive, and paradoxically out of control when trying to be controlling. 

Self-management is a challenge to conventional leadership and is in its simplest derivative a psychological contract between employee and organisation ‘leaders’ whereby we have autonomy to shape our work within the guidance we are given. This guidance is not definitive in nature but creates clarity in alignment with strategic direction. 

This psychological contract is not one only seen in the peripheries of organisations that are unorthodox or ‘progressive’. In fact, this way of working was manifested in the 1980s; INSEAD Professor Michael Y Lee’s research on self-management suggests that working this way is “fitting for the demands of an increasingly turbulent world” – which we are in. 

To give people flexibility and autonomy, we therefore need to liberate teams; less parent-child relationships and more space for peer-powered practices. Peer-led reviews and co-created objectives are key results (OKRs) have to become the norm; what did you ever hear in an annual appraisal other than a request for a pay rise, anyway? 

Giving your people space for growth is not a worrying void, but a place for people at all levels to add human value. Ricardo Semler – self-management pioneer – stated that organisations actually need fear of falling behind to take a leap: fear must have an overbearing presence to lead to there being the need to take risk. This risk of management and leadership ‘losing’ control is, in fact never as great as it is perceived. Liberation of people in their work leads to a calmer, more predictable people-dynamic and is for now, a signal we are picking up.

Hybrid teams; crafted collaboration

We can’t ignore the sizeable challenge, but even greater opportunity, that hybrid working has given us. Aside from navigating the need for hyper-personalisation and preferences for in-office versus working from home, and implementing digital tools that are needed rather than another tab open on our browser,  the solution to effective and transparent asynchronous collaboration is ever-changing.

People want to collaborate (as part of making sense and showing their work matters to other people) – both virtually and in person. Where this collaboration takes place is irrelevant, for the space can be created by committing time to it. Watercooler chats won’t cut it where connection and collaboration is concerned. People want to shape their work rhythms, shape their priorities, and see their value add to both team, and broader strategic objectives. 

It’s how this collaboration in a hybrid workplace is role-modelled that matters. It’s also how accurately all other signals – for autonomous working, flexibility and meaningful work – are heard.

The benefits of collaboration in people management are non-exhaustive. This collaboration can only happen where there are conditions for autonomy and through this, flexibility in how we work: even a mature organisational system can have immature people-practices. 

It is every leader’s responsibility to create conditions for people to flourish; to diagnose where there are faults in the system and consider if alignment to purpose is seen in only factions or across the organisation. 

Let’s better understand our people and the system. Pick up on the signals.