Complexity: a simple issue for wellbeing

Complexity: a simple issue for wellbeing

by | Feb 14, 2019 | Nature and Environment, Working

This one’s a little heavier… but then we’re not all lightness and roses. ?

Complexity. Complexity. Complexity.

It’s everywhere, all around us.

And if you are like most people, there will be days when you are yearning for simpler times from days gone by. But we can’t put the genie back in the bottle – our work roles are becoming more knowledge-intensive, and the context in which we work is changing too.

We live in an era where most leaders’ work involves evolving human, cultural and social elements within the VUCA context of constant change, global trends and increasingly diverse values and understanding.

The most effective leaders recognise and acknowledge a high degree of complexity does not lend itself well to traditional management practices, and they change their approach accordingly. But how do they change?


How do standout leaders adapt to a more complex business world?

Leaders who understand work as complex and unpredictable and who create organisations in which people thrive because of – not despite – the complexity in which they operate, have their eye firmly on one prize, and that’s the coherent integration of contextualised knowledge.

When it comes to managing complexity and ambiguity, leaders who are regarded as more satisfying to work for and more effective in their roles as leaders tend to do five things:

  1. Appreciate that complex environments are inherently dynamic and fluid.
  2. Emphasise the importance of ‘emergence’.
  3. Limit the value of knowledge per se as a ‘thing’ and leadership as a ‘position’.
  4. Focus on relationships, listening and learning, more than doing.
  5. Prioritise connections, context and content as essential elements in creating a sense of purpose.


From ‘leadership hierarchies’ to ‘leadership wirearchies’

Leading in knowledge-intensive organisations (KIOs) requires a shift in thinking and practices. Perpetuating the traditional focus on ‘heroic’ or ‘charismatic’ leaders who are at the top of the hierarchy is ineffective for communication flow in KIOs. Insufficient and poor-quality communication flow is frequently cited as one of the key sources of employee frustration and disempowerment, even at senior levels within organisations. There is a better way of connecting the dots, adapting old structures to new challenges – and that way is to apply some ‘systems thinking’ to your leadership infrastructure. Play down your hierarchy and step up on wirearchy.

A ‘wirearchy’ is a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology. It’s about the effectiveness of people working together through connection and collaboration. And it offers a big boost for workplace wellbeing as frustrations, red tape and inefficiencies melt away, and as the opportunity grows for people to engage and connect in more satisfying and interesting ways.


So what does systems thinking have to do with wellbeing?

Flatter organisations are having their moment. Research has shown that reducing hierarchy can lead to more satisfied employees and speedier decision making.

Where leadership is reframed as being ‘the product of interactions taking place across organisations, in the space between people, in fluid circumstances and where leadership can pass between people as the situation changes’ we see dramatically more engaged, productive and satisfied people.

The most satisfied and successful teams span their boundaries, develop networks and work collaboratively.

After a period of adjustment – where traditional authority and governance is gradually reconfigured to be experienced as a more coordinated influence and force for change, embedded in the diverse interactions between people at all levels – leaders of the most satisfied and innovative groups report that all members of their groups collectively and concurrently evolve to also share the space of serving actively as a leader.

Members of such teams describe thriving in environments where they are encouraged to lead the creative potential of the team regardless of their positions, and where they have an opportunity to immerse themselves in ‘emergence’ – in the existence of something bigger than their individual parts.


The benefits of collective leadership for learning

Collective leadership may not only be advisable in a VUCA world, but required, as a necessity for the contribution of, creativity from, and collaboration among and across multiple ‘levels’ of employees. From a development and personal growth perspective, a culture of collective leadership fosters greater intellectual engagement and flow, a key tenet of the GLWS wellbeing framework:

  • Immersion into sharing of ideas
  • Freedom to innovate
  • Development of mastery and expertise
  • Expansion and challenge for our minds
  • Playing to our strengths
  • Fully utilising our capacities


But best to take heed – not everyone is a fan of collective leadership! Narcissists like hierarchical organisations better because they think they will rise to high ranks and reap status and power. They are less interested in flatter organisations where there are fewer high ranks to attain. So, if your team’s priority is to win in negotiations and you/they don’t mind being disliked and show a bias for action towards aggressive pursuit of potential rewards, then maybe best stick to the hierarchy!


How you too can be a leaderful organisation

‘Leaderful organisations’ enhance their agility by stimulating and coordinating a diversity of perspectives. Such leadership becomes infused with an inclusivity of diverse perspectives rather than aligned hierarchies, and it is this new approach that contributes to successful emergence – the creative potential, innovation and productivity of an organisation.

Employees at all levels in leaderful organisations value their nominal (hierarchical) leaders as being:

  • Inclusive of ideas
  • Understanding of the basic contexts and needs of group members
  • Responsive
  • Flexible in attending to group dynamics and
  • Enablers of the ‘emergence champions’


Arguably, an organisation’s greatest challenge today is to create a collaborative environment in which people find a state of engagement and concentration that leads them to perform better. The aim is not to achieve a momentary psychological state of being, but rather to find ways of working and collaborating better.

The result? Improved general wellbeing which is mutually beneficial to both the individual and the organisation.

Be well

Karen & Audrey



Raelin, J. (2018) What are you afraid of: Collective leadership and its learning implications in Management Learning SAGE Journals

MacGillivray AE. (2018) Leadership as practice meets knowledge as flow: Emerging perspectives for leaders in knowledge‐intensive organizations. Journal of Public Affairs. 2018

Narcissists Don’t Like Flat Organizations, Harvard Business Review, July 2016

Hierarchy to Wirearchy – Designing Flows for Networks of Purposeful People, September 2016

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