At a glance
A “wicked” workplace is characterised by rapidly shifting goal posts and a lack of clear, unstructured feedback and repetition.
According to David Epstein, bestselling author and high-performance expert, the “kind” working environment has been permanently replaced with a “wicked” one.
In a kind work environment, tasks and deliverables are much the same year-on-year.
In a wicked environment, a narrow field of expertise is no longer necessarily rewarded with steady career progression. In fact, it may even lead to being passed over for senior roles, says Epstein in his award‑winning book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
People often find a wicked environment challenging. They may struggle to adapt, learn and foresee what their role will be like in the future. They may also be unsure about how they can remain a valuable team member in the face of constant change, Epstein explains.
“Arguably, we are now in what is called the ‘collaboration era’,” adds Dan Auerbach, executive coach.
“Tasks used to be clearly delineated. You could pick up a manual that was sitting on a shelf somewhere that said, ‘This is how you do your job’.
“Today’s manuals are a little bit like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge – by the time you have finished writing them, you have to start again,” says Auerbach.
Phil Hayes-St Clair, a TEDx speaker and adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales Business School, says the COVID-19 lockdowns profoundly altered the work environment.
“There was a significant degree of distraction in the workplace prior to COVID-19, through the use of phones and laptops in meetings,” Hayes-St Clair says. “This phenomenon became even more pronounced as we moved to a virtual environment.”
Hayes-St Clair believes a major consequence of this virtual distraction is that people miss the cues that help them to learn, interact and respectfully disagree. Over time, this can result in increased uncertainty.
“Prior to COVID-19, priorities and incentives could be communicated, and people understood who was who, and how to get things done. When COVID-19 arrived, we were forced to rapidly decentralise. Those norms broke down, and getting things done needed to be reimagined in real time,” he says.
Having studied the world’s top athletes, artists, musicians and scientists Epstein has found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, generalists have a surprising advantage over specialists, outperforming them in complex and unpredictable fields. Generalists can be more creative, agile and better able to make connections that a highly specialised peer cannot identify.
Epstein’s research could be seen as debunking the idea that success comes from doubling down on a niche area, or that acquiring the 10,000 hours of practice is the key to mastering a complex skill.
Epstein contends that people who think broadly and embrace diverse perspectives will increasingly thrive.
“The most successful problem-solvers figure out what type of problem they are facing before matching a strategy to it, rather than relying on memorised procedures,” he says.
Auerbach has identified a paradox in the skills that are now demanded of many employees. While many rudimentary tasks are being automated or outsourced, the greatest value comes from deep specialisation as well as the more generalised soft skills. Soft skills are needed to collaborate across complex stakeholder environments.
“We need both depth and breadth in our skills,” Auerbach says.
“For example, when a business is subject to a takeover or merger, suddenly the IT systems will be merged.
A person with accounting skills who grasps business information systems and is able to skilfully communicate across both departments has an advantage over someone who cannot, Auerbach says.
Epstein advocates embracing an interdisciplinary mindset. People who adapt to the notion of constant learning and reinvention are well positioned to succeed despite disruption to markets and professions.
Philippa Cable, managing director of At Work OH&S, believes organisations that provide a wide range of development opportunities can help employees adapt to change and prevent “hyper-specialisation”. They may also create more engaged, innovative teams, with fewer organisational silos.
“Gone are the days that professional development was directly aligned to your existing role. Rather, it is aligned to your future goals,” she says.
In a rapidly changing work environment, it is essential to stay “hungry” and seek out new skills and experiences, she adds.
“With people working longer, and skill demands shifting with rapid technology evolution, it is no longer a world that suits a ‘degree for life’ approach. It requires an attitude of life-long learning,” Cable explains.
Why a multidisciplinary team makes sense
Cable also regards growing numbers of workplace psychological injury claims as evidence that the wicked workplace is becoming more prevalent.
“Constant and rapid change can create ambiguity. This can have a negative impact on work performance by creating uncertainty and making it difficult to set clear goals. It results in insecurity and anxiety,” Cable explains.
Cable believes that acknowledging the stress inherent with uncertainty can improve wellbeing, while ignoring or downplaying it could exacerbate anxiety.
In addition, Safe Work Australia flags inadequate rewards, recognition and feedback as a psychosocial hazard within a work environment.
The agency’s website explains, “Inadequate reward and recognition means there is an imbalance between the effort workers put in and the recognition or reward they get.
Reward and recognition can be formal or informal. It is more than not winning an award at work. Inadequate reward and recognition become a hazard when they are severe, prolonged or frequent.”
“It’s normal to feel stress when faced with unfamiliar situations or constantly moving goal posts,” Cable says.
“This is especially true for people who have built their career on finding the ‘right answer’, such as accountants. Rather than trying to ignore the discomfort, we must learn to embrace it as a normal part of the learning process.”
Communicate with clarity
Hayes-St Clair argues that effective communication is integral to equip people to navigate the “wicked workplace”. Context is key, because it provides the information needed to understand the reasoning behind a task.
“When working with our customers, who are busy senior leaders, we make a point of starting every conversation by revisiting the context of our relationship,” Hayes‑St Clair says.
“It grounds the conversation and really helps, particularly when they are moving from one virtual meeting to another with little break in between.”
A tool that has been critical to clear communication in a hybrid workforce for Hayes-St Clair’s team is a software platform called Loom.
Loom enables users to film themselves describing a problem, such as an IT issue. The recipient of the video can watch it when convenient and film their response.
“It has been so helpful, because you can hear somebody talk through an idea or issue and pick up the nuances in their tone,” Hayes St‑Clair says.
Know your blind spots
For Auerbach, feedback is central to helping others grow in their roles. Yet even in ideal working conditions, he says feedback can be in short supply.
“Feedback is essential. We all have blind spots,” he says.
“However, giving clear feedback is often intimidating even for senior leaders, which is why many people avoid it. My advice is to proactively ask your leader and stakeholders for feedback in a very direct way.”
This could involve asking for specific areas where improvement is needed, or an example of where performance may have fallen short.
Listening without defensiveness will vastly increase the chances of receiving feedback on an ongoing basis.
Cable says that the best-performing organisations are deliberate in the way they create new opportunities to communicate, both formally and informally.
“Where ‘kind’ learning environments allow for coffee room catch-ups, the new world requires businesses to redesign ways to build connections that replace those once organic catch-ups.
“A connected workforce creates resilience and fosters a team that is more likely to withstand disruption,” Cable says.