Investing in ‘workable work’ for executives pays off, even in spades

Human Resources

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Starting January, Peggy will introduce a new blog series based on her contributions to 'In the mood for another social dialogue'. In this series, she will translate theory to the concrete and tangible practice. Prior to this, Peggy discusses the importance of workable work for managers in this blog post.

In the social dialogue, executives are often assigned to the employer’s camp, while they are generally still employees themselves. Their scores on ‘workable work’ are not always all that promising, even. Furthermore, attention for their situation, their problems and their workability could induce a leverage effect for workable work within the whole team and the enterprise. Why?

A lot of research into commitment, workable work and work satisfaction shows that one of the main culprits for our professional well-being is the poor relation with the direct executive. Or put in a positive and reverse way: “The direct executive ensures workability. Executives who you can turn to, who think together about solutions, who listen and motivate – they can really make a difference.” That is how we recently heard it through a syndicalist during a round-table discussion about workable work.

Managers are employees as well

From that perspective, investing in workable work for executives becomes a channel of communication. When they are able to work within a context of usefulness and workability, the chances increase that not the whole team will benefit from this. However, how self-evident this assumption may sound, this appears to be a tough nut on the level of equality. In a classical ‘us/them climate’, managers namely belong to ‘them’ and not to ‘us’. They represent the employer. The fact that they are employees as well, is difficult to reconcile with a classical union reflex.

Besides, this requires an (ideological) leap to other settings as well. During an academic congress concerning ‘industrial relations’, I recently heard the following utterance: “Managers are no longer seen as agents of capital, but also as employees of capital.” The fact that managers identify themselves as an employee in the first place, is also demonstrated by the fact that this professional group organises itself in a union. An extensive trade union framework exists (for example, within the Christian union ACV, the National Union of Executives or NUE exists). Here and there, ‘house lists’ and ‘union councils’ exist within companies without any relationship to a union.

An inclusive and indirect management story

A sustainable social dialogue aims for inclusive story, a story of workable work for everyone. Managers will present other risks in terms of workable work than, for example, labourers or technical experts. At any rate, custom work is desirable. Furthermore, investments in workable work can be assessed in terms of their direct as well as indirect merits. Concerning this, the assumption is that the investment in workable work for managers pays off in spades: not only the boss, but the work floor benefits from this as well.

The workability monitor (Bourdeaud’hui, Janssens & Vanderhaeghe, 2017) indicates that mid-levels and board members display much more problematic scores in terms of work pressure, emotional strain and the renowned work/life balance. The ‘useful work’ scan (De Vos & Stuer, 2016) even demonstrates that they also experience significantly more stress and can count less on co-workers when problems at work arise. Domains in which they do significantly better, are autonomy at work (they experience the impact of their work on the organisation more), work variation and learning opportunities. They experience they work as more useful.

During a round-table discussion with militants of the union NUE concerning workable work, the following union laments came to the fore:

  • Workable work for an executive is not self-evident.
  • Executives often experience a lot of pressure coming from the top, and they have to establish themselves as conformist, whereby they are reduced to ‘parrots’.
  • Often, there is internal competition between the executives, which affects the poor relationship with your own executive and your own functioning.
  • The evaluation procedure that has to be applied on the team (with, among others, a ‘forced ranking’, an impact on the compensation) is perceived as unfair and does not stimulate the quality of the internal relationships in any way whatsoever.
  • There is barely any career policy, and their talents are often not recognised.
  • Due to the heavy pressure of work, the ‘work life balance’ is severely under pressure. Working times are often experienced to be endless.

Sandra Vercammen, national secretary of NUE: “Time is running out. NUE’s ambition to get workable work and job satisfaction of the executive higher on the agenda of the social dialogue, has been prompted from direct experiences with the executives themselves. Think about (successive) restructurings, about challenges in terms of stress and burn-out prevention, reintegration of the chronically ill, a changing job content, work realities and careers. Executives in a workable environment have more resilience to provide their team with the necessary support and coaching in a transitioning work environment.”

Achievable solutions

Besides problems, a lot of creative solutions and good practices came to prominence as well. We focus on three interesting, promising and achievable remedies:

‘Way of working’ 

This concerns a kind of workload dialogue, in which employees are systematically encouraged to indicate whether or not they can take on higher working level. They are also allowed to make suggestions or to point certain matters out to their own executive, which is appreciated. This way, they are not blacklisted.

‘Management information meetings’

During such meetings, the CEO provides the management with the necessary information. Where do problems arise and where does it work well? Managers are also allowed to ask questions anonymously (by passing sheets), and the CEO has to formulate an answer to these.

‘Reverse mentoring’

Floor employees give feedback to executives. In turn, the latter can develop further based on these suggestions, by means of training, coaching, …

Radically candid

Giving candid feedback and engaging in a connecting and constructive dialogue in diverse directions is the guiding thread throughout the different suggestions. In this regard, there are still many challenges to face. Therefore, inspiration regarding this theme is desired. In her new book ‘Radically Candid’ (2017), Kim Scott already advocates building radically candid relationships. Her starting point is making personal connections.

Laconically, the author notices that not many people think at the start of their career that they do not care about people, so they must become a fantastic boss. Yet, it happens way too often that employees feel they are treated as pawns or inferiors in the company’s hierarchy and as a human being. As a remedy, Kim Scott proposed two principles:

  • Connecting is, according to the author, a remedy against robotic professionalism (by ‘keeping it professional’, we often inhibit a real connection) and managemental arrogance (as a boss, we often feel we are better or superior).
  • The second principle is candidly giving remarks. Giving remarks – and stimulating others to give yourself remarks, such as in the example of ‘reverse mentoring’ – is conducive to build confidential relationships. This way, you show that you connect sufficiently and that you are willing to admit your own mistakes, or others’ mistakes, and (help) to fix them.

‘As simple as that,’ it seems. Yet, we all know how hard it is to give or receive the appropriate feedback in the right way, at the right time and from the right role. In a poisonous ‘we/them climate’, criticism is a weapon rather than a constructive instrument. Giving or receiving a compliment is often experienced as impure as well in this kind of culture. Does that person want something from me? Why does he give me a compliment, and not my co-worker? Maybe, I am doing other things wrong or not well enough?

  • Connecting within the social dialogue requires thinking in partnerships. Without connecting, we quickly risk getting bogged down in the quadrant of obnoxious aggression (giving criticism to humiliate or on grounds of pure dogmatic reasons, instead of trying to help or improve) or manipulative sincerity (being insincere to be liked or to gain political advantage).  Connecting without candour, however, entails disastrous empathy: you want to spare people, avoid conflict and, therefore, hide mistakes with the mantle of love and compassion. In a ‘candid remarks’ scenario, you embrace conflict and seek for solutions together. Therefore, investing in workable work on grounds of a feedback perspective requires two matters:

  • Investing in a connecting dialogue between executives and team members.
  • Creating a framework and exemplary behaviour to give candid remarks in two directions, and in two ways (compliments and criticism).

When this works, the chance of confirmation of the ‘two birds one stone’ assumption that we have made earlier increases.


In comparison with more prominent HR themes, the ‘workable work’ theme is the odd (and often perceived as soft) one out in the social dialogue. In any event, it deviates from the classical ‘pay down on the nail’ story, which has been dominant for a long time within the social debate. Furthermore, by focussing on the target group of executives within ‘workable work’ actions, a leverage effect may arise. This requires an open and constructive dialogue, for which a supporting framework (tools, training, coaching, exemplary behaviour, change of culture, …) and the necessary joint agreements and/or declarations of intent will have to be provided. Inspiration out of best practices is essential for this. Unions as well as employers’ organisations, researchers and the HR community can make a significant contribution to this.

On our blog, Peggy keeps you informed about everything related to the social dialogue. You can learn more about current HR themes in our Master Class HRM.

Discover our Master Class HRM

Sels, L., Vansteenkiste, S., & Knipprath, H. (2017). Toekomstverkenningen arbeidsmarkt 2050
De Vos, A. & Gielens, T. (2016). The future of jobs in chemistry & life sciences