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Modern managers must demonstrate that they care about work tasks and employees’ internal lives

illustration: You ok?

(Illustration by Giphy)

This article is based on the book 'Magt og omsorg i det eksistentielle lederskab' (Power and care in existential management) by Camilla Sløk, published by the Danish Psychological Association.

ResearcherZone |   05. Nov 2020

Written by Camilla Sløk, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Centre for Public Organization, Value and Innovation, CBS. Translated by Helen Dyrbye.

BOOK REVIEW: When home PCs and mobile phones make our work-leisure balance flow into one, employees also expect managers to be there when a life crisis suddenly strikes.

How do you balance work and leisure?

This is not a new problem. As far back as the 1000s, monks divided the day between work and rest. The idea was, and still is, that rest generates energy for work and activity.

The monks were inspired by Judaism’s Sabbath (day of rest), and the Christians’ own day of rest (Sunday), which must be respected (remembered).

Today, the line between work and leisure is less clear. And that makes new demands on both managers and employees.

The Covid-19 crisis has turbo-fuelled various IT technologies that make working from home easier and, not least, legitimate. This trend has been under way since the 1990s and is now commonplace.

Now we work at home and while ‘at work’, we answer the phone to hear how things are going back home.

The phenomenon not only affects the division of work and leisure but also how much we end up knowing about each other at our workplaces.

What do we expect of our managers?

During my research over the past eight years, I have focused on what employees expect of their managers in crisis situations.

This has, for example, led to the books ‘Blod, sved og tårer: Om ansvar og skyld i ledelse’ (Blood, sweat and tears: About responsibility and blame in management)  and ‘Magt og omsorg i det eksistentielle lederskab’ (Power and care in existential leadership), with the latter, in particular, forming the basis for this article.


Some of these expectations concern how managers should take responsibility for employees who are experiencing grief and crises on the home front.

This could involve emotional loss in the form of divorces, deaths, serious illness in children, spouses or parents – such as anxiety or dementia. It could also include sudden accidents, attacks, assaults etc.

All the crazy incidents we see and read about in the news happen to normal people who also have to go to work or have relatives and friends who have to work.

The psychological contract

According to my research, managers are often baffled when employees expect help from them and their workplaces (see e.g. herehere and here). However, this should come as no great surprise.

Workplaces want employees to put their backs into their work, along with the shirts off their backs, mobile phones and PCs while the going is good: So, of course, employees naturally also believe their workplaces should be there in times of adversity.

But that is not always the case.

Another research element also applies what is called ‘the psychological contract‘. We all have contracts like this with our workplaces.

We expect what goes around to come around. There are two forms of psychological contracts that I will call

1) the relational contract

2) the transactional contract.

Modern employment is dynamic and develops

The transactional approach views relationships between employers and employees as purely legal relationships in which every activity is described in minute detail. Employers receive only what has been agreed.

Most workplaces and all management theories have now moved away from transactional thinking. Instead, people prefer relational management: Relationships between employers and employees are dynamic. Employers give and provide everything they can, also in connection with employee job satisfaction and personal development at work, while for their part, employees deliver, perform and independently offer to innovate and develop tasks.

Critics misunderstand what employees want

This perception of the relationship between employers and employees has prompted some people to talk about wearing a ‘No hat’ (as opposed to a ‘Yes hat’). However, that is a very old-fashioned view compared with what people now want from their work.

Most employees no longer wish to consult an instruction book when they arrive at work or want to be inspected by a transactional supervisor who tells them what to do.

People want job satisfaction.

illustration: yoga robot

(Illustration: Giphy)

Some critics of modern business communities are labouring under the misconception that employees like wearing ‘No hats’. On the contrary, they want to contribute, be useful and be included. Therefore, employees naturally demand care when crises come knocking.

Managers as fellow human beings and bosses

My research indicates that managers should dare to be fellow human beings for their employees when crises hit. At the same time, managers should focus on tasks being solved. This comprises a manager’s dramatic sphere. How do you solve tasks while helping an employee through a crisis (which could also be caused by their job)?

Although it is difficult, that is nevertheless why we have managers: To balance caring for the employee with caring for the ongoing performance of tasks. We have organizations for one reason: To perform tasks.

Some managers shun the burden of taking care of both aspects and focus mainly on the tasks. Others step in with their management authority and ask how the work can be better organized during the period when an employee has cancer, stress, is facing divorce, has ill children, spouses or parents, or the like.

What I would like to discuss in my research is the form of management where managers give the impression that employees must give everything to their work, but when times get rough and employees have problems, managers suddenly lose interest in them and switch to a transactional form of management.

This change from an apparently relational form of management to transactional HR and professional dialogue with legal representatives can be exceptionally dramatic for an employee in crisis.

Managers must master both core tasks

Whereas many managers now have relational management rhetoric that is superb and captivating while everything is progressing well, some of the same managers have trouble navigating in private spheres together with employees when problems arise.

Managers may not necessarily know anything about cancer, cutting, dementia or grief, unless they have encountered them first-hand (which some have).

But even if managers have experienced crises in one way or another, some still think they are not responsible for solving employees’ personal problems.

Perhaps the heart of the matter is that employees are not requesting that anyway. Instead, managers acting as fellow human beings have two options: 1) Listen and 2) assume the role of manager by helping to organise work tasks to ensure the employee in question weathers the storm in a good way.

In other words, relational managers should be able to demonstrate care both for the employee’s needs and for the tasks at hand.

One dimension is not sufficient. If you only please employees, tasks will be neglected and/or other employees must work harder.

If you focus entirely on tasks, you will switch to transactional management, which amazes employees time after time: “It was OK when I was healthy and giving everything to my job, but now that I’m having problems, no help is available.”

That causes confusion, resistance, anger and frustration. Then it is the manager’s turn to feel baffled when criticised for not taking responsibility for employee needs.

Work can also be dramatic

The variations in work and private life that have occurred have also changed our perception of work itself. Dramas are not restricted to occurring at home.

Workplaces can be just as dramatic – with power struggles, bullying, stress and conflicts all taking their toll. Here, managers’ values also play a role.

12 percent of all Danes state that they have been bullied at work and 430,000 Danes experience daily symptoms of stress, according to Stressforeningen (The Danish Stress Society).

Work is therefore not ‘innocent’ but can be a battlefield where people manifest themselves in various ways. This also creates drama that managers must address.

Today, management tasks therefore involve more than just ceremonial speeches and programme statements, but instead include working with other people’s internal lives, experiences and accumulated expertise on a daily basis, and providing support.

We must be pleased that anyone ever has the energy to be a manager when expectations are so diverse. And we must be better at finding alternative positions for managers who are not interested in relational work.


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Modern managers must demonstrate that they care about work tasks and employees’ internal livesby

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