What the workplace in 2021 will look like and what this means for you

2021 will be a very interesting year! If all prognoses are correct, sometime in the next six months we should have developed a grip on COVID19. 

For 2021, I foresee three trends in the workplace. Although none of these trends is initiated by COVID19, the pandemic will definitely act as a catalyst.

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Pump up the volume!

Time-efficient alternatives for reading business books

During my years in college, one of the first rap songs that became extremely popular was ‘Paid in full’ from Eric B & Rakim in the Coldcut mix. Its signature ingredients contained the soundbite ‘Pump up the volume’. 

‘Pump up the volume’ also was the phrase that resounded in my head when I recently read a bestseller from a well-known Harvard Business School professor. The entire book was based on a single concept that could easily have been explained on one single page. Instead, the author used more than 230 pages, which cost me the better part of a Sunday to read.

Why I like reading business books

I like reading business books for four reasons:

  1. To satisfy my intellectual curiosity
  2. To help me to make sense of what I personally observe about the way organizations ‘work’ (or not!)
  3. To enhance my skills 
  4. To keep me ‘current’

Why I am often disappointed after reading them

However, more often than not, I feel reading them is not the most efficient use of my time. The reason why is that (like the example mentioned at the beginning of this post), business books often try to expand ideas and concepts that could be explained in a couple of pages to the size of a book. This almost always means they need to cross the magical border of 200 pages.

I think this phenomenon is caused by the fact that business books mean ‘business’. Although it is not easy to gain insight into the market for business books, creatively extrapolating existing statistics indicate that each year more than tens of millions of business books are sold across the world. Therefore, the market for business books might be around one billion dollar. NB: This estimate excludes the sales of textbooks for higher education.

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Freud on change management

One of my core beliefs as a management consultant is that the root cause of why change projects fail is the lack of a clear and convincing business case. In my experience, the vast majority of people are willing to change (even if this change has negative implications for them), as long as they understand the rationale behind the change and have the means (resources) to change.

However, I also have come across a number of people who did not want to change, even when there was a clear need to do so, and they had all the required capabilities and resources at their disposal.

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Corporate Social Responsibility starts with your own employees

A couple of days ago my bible app opened with this verse of the day: ‘To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice’ (Proverbs 21:3). 

This text reminded me of the way some companies deal with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Rather than doing the right thing, they do the wrong thing and compensate for this by deploying CSR initiatives. There is even a special term describing this phenomenon: ‘Greenwashing’. In this context, it is no wonder that two professors from IMD (a leading Swiss Business School) published an article in 2018 with the provocative title: ‘Why nobody takes corporate social responsibility seriously’.

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The Art of Employee Engagement (Book Review)

Employee engagement is a topic close to my heart. In the past two decades I have designed, managed and implemented the findings of engagement surveys multiple times, and also managed to write an article with my point of view on how to make them ‘work’.

Given my interest in this topic, I was very pleased to receive a copy of ‘The Art of Employee Engagement’ by Marijn Faassen. I read it in one go, because I found it a fascinating read, for a number of reasons:

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What Nietzsche, Jung and Sinatra have in common

20190603 Cover NJS Autenticity

The importance of authenticity in the workplace

Dale Carnegie on steroids

In the 1970s and 1980s, authenticity and self-development in the workplace were considered to be important by many middle and senior managers in the Western world. Perhaps too important: organizations were sometimes seen as narcissistic vehicles for self-development, instead of entities that should serve the interests of their shareholders and/or other stakeholders.

This orientation changed dramatically in the first half of the 1990s. Two popular business books that were published during that time perfectly illustrate this change. The first one was ‘Valuation’ (1990), a book written by Copeland, Koller and Murrin (three McKinsey consultants), the second one ‘Emotional intelligence’ by David Goleman (1995).

The key notion in ‘Valuation’ was that the prime purpose of organizations was to deliver value for their investors; a completely different orientation than the personal development of the members of the organization.

David Goleman’s bestseller stressed the importance of emotional intelligence, EQ, as opposed to IQ, in career development. Since the publication of his book, a steady stream of books, articles and posts (for instance in the daily HBR alerts) is being published on how to please the different stakeholders (mainly bosses and co-workers) that are important for one’s career. Many of these publications feel like ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie (1936) on steroids.

Nowadays, many see conformity no longer as a necessary accommodation to ‘fit-in’ in the workplace, or as something ‘optional’ in addition to actual performance, to further one’s career ambitions. Instead, for a number of people it has become one of the most important, or even the only, ‘Critical Success Factor’ to determine one’s success in the workplace (‘behavior = performance’).

Inclusion is not optional

Although it is not always easy, many people in the workplace achieve a satisfactory balance between their need for individual development and expression on the one hand, and the social conformity required to cooperate successfully with others, on the other hand. If, however, the degree in which they experience the need to suppress their authentic behaviors becomes extreme, potentially dangerous situations can present themselves for the individuals, their families, co-workers and the organizations they serve.


First of all, people who feel forced to deploy extremely adaptive behavior can suffer from mental and physical issues (ranging from the inability to reach their full potential, to depression and even cardiovascular issues). Furthermore, their families sometimes suffer as well (‘spillover effect’).

One of the things philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was interested in, was the function of pain and suffering for us as human beings. In this context, he once made the famous statement ‘What does not kill you makes you stronger’. Although this statement is often abused, psychologists agree that adversities create resilience and enable individuals to deal better with traumas. This also implies that individuals who always deny themselves the opportunity to act in an authentic manner in order to avoid going against the tide, rob themselves from the opportunity to become stronger. Instead, they become weaker.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung sees collisions between the individual and his or her external environment as positive. If not too vehement, collisions as a result of making choices and taking a position lead to stronger problem-solving abilities and personal growth. On the other hand, individuals who are afraid to engage in these collisions and try to avoid them at all costs can develop a neurosis.

Embracing the shadow

In other cases, people who cannot deal with the tension between their need for individual expression and social conformity in a healthy manner, may (sometimes consciously) cynically throw away their own moral compass. Instead, they make a Faustian bargain and embrace those (opportunistic) behaviors they think are necessary to further their careers and/or ensure their corporate survival. According to Jung, they embrace their shadow. Often these people develop into corporate versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Symptoms of people displaying this behavior include, amongst others:

  • Entertaining ‘the truth’ only as an interesting point of view instead of as a moral checkpoint
  • Publicly stating convictions they do not share, and never taking a position based on their principles, if they think this can harm their career
  • Re-creating or erasing memories about their unethical behavior in the workplace
  • Implementing decisions they know are unfair to their co-workers and/or harmful to their organization, without raising their concerns about this.

Worst case, they will not even raise their voice when they become aware of unethical, unsafe, non-compliant or illegal activities in their organization. On the contrary, they may even be instrumental in facilitating them.

Paradoxically, this brings them into the same position as their narcissistic colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s. They perceive the organizations they are working for only as vehicles for their personal gain, and do not feel accountable to shareholders, stakeholders or society at large. No wonder that most organizations are battling with ever-increasing compliance costs to manage this type of behavior.

A new balance

Does this mean we need to go back to the narcissistic orientation on the workplace that was en-vogue in 1970s and 1980s? No, most people will agree with the fact that organizations primarily exist to serve the objectives of their owners. Furthermore, most people realize that a certain degree of adaptation is necessary in order to cooperate effectively with others and that having the drive to make a career is not a bad thing in itself.

However, what is needed is a healthy balance between authentic and adaptive behavior. This is especially true for senior leaders who have a big impact on the performance of their organization. Many senior leaders go through their work life as jellyfish, moved only by the current. They are only able to measure their success in terms of the number of times they survived management changes, reorganizations, and reshuffles in the aftermath of M&A’s. They have forgotten, or have become too cynical, to measure their success in terms of their contribution to, or ‘the difference’ they make for, their organizations and society at large.

How authentic can you be?

It might be interesting for you to reflect on the degree in which you can sing the following lines from the song ‘I did it my way’, immortalized by Frank Sinatra, when you contemplate about your behavior in the workplace,

‘For what is man, what has he got?

If not himself, then he has naught

To say the things he truly feels

And not the words of one who kneels’

It might be helpful to ask yourself to what degree you feel you can be authentic in the workplace, how this affects you in your private life, how this impacts the performance of the organization you are working for, and, finally, on a scale of 1-10, reflect on how satisfied you are with this situation. If you give a score is 5 or less, you might want to reflect on the what and how of the changes you, and/or your workplace, would need to make in order to enable you to act more authentically. An honest discussion with your line manager, co-workers and possibly HR might be a good first step. Alternatively, you could look outside your organization for a ‘more accommodating platform’ to deploy your talents.

Unleash the Wimpy Kid!

illustration managing the wimpy way-1

Why I consider ‘Lost and Founder’ by Rand Fishkin to be a must read

At the beginning of my career, I managed a high profile ERP project. A couple of weeks before the go-live deadline, the customer introduced completely new requirements but did not want to shift the deadline. Needless to say, this significantly compromised the amount of time available for testing, something every available textbook warns one about. However, due to a combination of intimidating behavior of the customer, my own unwarranted optimism and lack of experience, I agreed to implement these new requirements and limit the amount of time available for testing. A decision which resulted in a rather ‘volatile’ go-live scenario which was highly visible for everyone in the company…

It is common wisdom that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. If anything, success has a tendency to make us complacent, whereas mistakes force us to take a step back, reflect on why our actions and behaviors did not work out as planned, and stimulate us to make changes in the way we approach opportunities and challenges.

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Are annual performance reviews really that bad?

Belshazzar’s feast, by Rembrandt
 ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ by Rembrandt (Based on the biblical story of King Belshazzar in Daniel 5)

In the last couple of years it is extremely fashionable to bash annual performance reviews. A number of companies are publicly apologizing for the fact that they had them in first place, wondering aloud why they could ever have been so stupid, and demonstrate their remorse by publicly joining the ranks of the enlightened ones: those companies that abolished their annual performance review process.

In this context it is important to raise two questions, namely what the purpose of the annual performance review actually is and why it should be abolished. Continue reading

Book Review: Pariahs, Hubris, Reputation and Organizational crises

Tw Cover PariahsA ‘must read’ for the C-suite.

By Dirk Verburg

Ever since the industrial revolution, large corporations have played an important role in our society. Due to the globalization in the past decades, their influence is continuously increasing.

At the same time it seems that the number of scandals caused by these large organizations is growing as well. Established names, such as Barclays, Siemens, Wells Fargo, Ahold, VW, BP, Shell, Worldcomm, Tyco, Enron, Olympus, Arthur Anderson, E&Y, the BBC and many others, have all experienced scandals, and some no longer exist as a result.

What complicates this situation even is that governments and other institutions (e.g. regulators and ‘independent’ accounting firms) do not seem to be able to control, or at least monitor, the way companies in the private sector are operating. Continue reading

Why I feel sorry for Donald Trump

By Dirk Verburg

How you can prevent pursuing the wrong role and what you can do if you find yourself in one.

Trump Skidmore
Photo by George Skidmore

No – this is not the title of yet another ‘Trump-bashing’ article, but a genuine empathetic feeling I have for Donald Trump. I already suspected for a long time what Donald Trump recently admitted, namely that he finds the job of being president of the US harder than he expected. The reason I feel sorry for Donald Trump is that I think he might have made a mistake a lot of us are prone to. It is the mistake of applying for a prestigious job, without a proper vision as to what the actual content might be and without honestly reflecting whether this content plays to our strengths and will keep us engaged in the future.

Why people pursue roles that do not fit them Continue reading