New-style rituals for a new approach to work

For Jaap Purmer, purpose in our work is essential for personal and professional success.
Interview by Koos de Wilt

For some 40 years, organisational consultant Jaap Purmer has been studying how corporate structures can best realise their staff potential. Purmer looks for a shift from management by power and rank towards getting the job done according to who we are as people. How, exactly? By turning the pyramid upside down and placing responsibility and power at the bottom of the organisation. This has proved a highly visionary approach as we see today’s young professionals acting in the spirit of themes such as trust, freedom and responsibility. New-style rituals can facilitate this new approach to work. The organisational consultant with a mission tells us how.



Feeling secure in an organisation

“Anyone whose ambition is to see their dreams realised is well-advised to believe they will succeed. If you yourself do not believe you will succeed then you very likely won’t. Though belief is not a guarantee for success, it is still one of the most important requirements.” From a farming background, Jaap Purmer was taught: study, work hard and be socially committed. In the 1970s he studied Business Management. “I opted early on for the combination of the professional and the personal with a job in Human Relations and Organisation at Ahold. As a young employee I regularly encountered founders Gerrit and Albert Heijn. They were no longer on the board of directors but were still very much involved with the business. For them, the “customer” was the prompter of every decision taken. A few years later I took on HR & Organisation and Management Development for Ahold worldwide. For many years, Ahold was a company in which people felt secure. It was a safe place for quality to develop. Market success was due to a considerable degree to the quality of the staff. In the 1990s the corporate culture changed with the arrival of Cees van der Hoeven and Jan Andreae in the top. There was a clear shift towards shareholder value, at the expense of the quality of the organisation. I sat it out for a while and finally decided to leave after almost 25 years. Roel van den Berg and I set up Access to Quality, a company looking at strategy development and change processes in many different areas of industry.”


Relationships are changing

What is organisational change for Jaap Purmer? “The essence is a shift in basic business relationship types. Exchange relationships are less and less determined by respect based on hierarchical inequality. Increasingly they are voluntary and democratic in nature and determined by high levels of interdependency. Relationships such as these can be seen for example in the increasingly popular ‘communities of practice’ – informal knowledge- and social networks. These groups use a common platform to develop targeted activities. Intra-organisational relationships are likewise undergoing marked change. There is growing interest in leadership by coaching, employee engagement and an increase in individual autonomy.


Research shows that informal networks in which staff work together on a voluntary basis, setting targets, structures and processes in mutual collaboration, are far less dependent on top-down instruction. There is trust in mutual feedback and these networks are far better equipped to collate and share relevant information. Equally people are more ready to consider and accept points of view from other areas of expertise. Purmer: “Informal groupings such as these are perceived as safe settings enabling those involved to bring newcomers more easily and quickly up to speed, to identify competencies, to address customer issues and develop innovative ideas and products.”


Exchange relationships are increasingly voluntary and democratic in nature and are determined by high levels of interdependency.


Success is not achieved in the top echelons

Over the past decades, the sense of a common culture has been crumbling. Lately however we see a renewed need to share experiences. Purmer observes how many organisations are still run according to outdated ideas of leadership, with terms like control, hierarchy and power still ruling the roost. “I am convinced that these terms are not going to win us the race. And this is clear from studies of successful companies. The success of an organisation is not dependent upon who is at the top, but precisely on those at work in the lower echelons. Put your money on that part of an organisation, is my advice. And only then need you turn your attention to putting the right people in at the top. This may mean some changes and more often than not you will see one management level disappear completely. This can be a painful process, but people will ultimately realise that there is no joy in being a manager in an organisation with seven hierarchical levels. In every case, the crux of the matter is making sure you have people doing what they are good at. In the past, organograms were the order of the day. But experience now shows there is absolutely no need for them if simply you empower the people themselves. In many cases there is not even any need for a boss. It strikes me that young people have totally different ideas about what they want to get out of their work. They don’t want interminable meetings, a Collective Labour Agreement or leave day planning set in concrete. But how does one organise such freedom, such creativity? Well, it will keep me in work for the next 20 years!”


‘The successful companies of today are those which have learned to let go of the concept of management, to think in a more democratic way and to take a more interactive approach.’


Purpose in work

Jaap Purmer recognises how ideas about work have changed over the past few decades. “The successful companies of today are those which have learned to let go of the concept of management, to think in a more democratic way and to take a more interactive approach. Key terms here are equality, freedom, responsibility and trust.” But how does such an organisation make it clear to those who work there that these are its true operating intentions? And what might be the role of rituals in this? Purmer: “Rituals are important to establish who you are and who your colleagues are. In the old days at Albert Heijn, personal thanks and praise were dealt out during anniversary celebrations marking years of service. The speaker made clear who you were and what you were doing for the organisation. But all that was stopped. The culture of shared rituals fell apart and farewell events became unbearably impersonal. It regularly happened that groups of 30 staff found themselves out on the street with nothing but a bag of money for thanks. The message was clear: ‘you’re on your own now’. That’s not the way young people want to work these days. They seek purpose and meaning in their work. There is less ambition to get as far as possible up the career ladder and more interest in getting the work-life balance right. I truly believe that an attitude such as this can lead to a better world.”


The starting point is self confidence

Purmer is convinced of the importance of trust in work and in life in general. But how does one reach that state of trust? Purmer: “It all starts by having confidence in yourself, becoming aware of who you really are, acknowledging both the attractive and the less attractive sides to yourself. Lack of self-confidence destroys interpersonal relationships and ends up destroying the people themselves. Only once you have found self-confidence can you have confidence in others. Confidence is not something you can agree upon, it is something one must experience, and earn. It is possible to make organisational processes transparent, enable people to say what they think and feel, but without damaging others. The approach should be: “say what you do; do what you say.” The extent to which this is successful depends upon the level of leadership, both at the top and at the very basis of the organisation. This entails a shift of awareness. The success of change depends to a great extent on the attitude of those leading the process. Self-awareness, self-confidence and insight in personal strengths and weaknesses determine the quality of a leader. One must have an open heart, a clear head and a firm hand. The current climate calls for hands-on leadership.”


‘The success of change depends to a great extent on the attitude of those leading the process.’


Rituals can play an important role in building confidence in an organisation. Purmer: “Each employee plays their own personal part in bringing about change, regardless of the formal position they have in the organisation. More and more, people are inspired by the intrinsic values of purpose and personal growth. One important ritual might be taking a little time each day to think how you can be valuable for your surroundings. This aids mindful living, leadership and leisure. The rituals an organisation observes belie its culture. Steeper learning curves can be achieved by encouraging people out of their comfort zones – a simple trip to the Ardennes will do. I create other rituals too. For example, I open the weekly meeting by asking everyone what is on their minds. Or I start off with a moment’s silence. This gives everyone the freedom for reflection. It might be positive; it might be negative; personal or job-related. By giving space, you create trust. The creation of a culture in which people suspend their judgement can have very positive effects. In an age where everyone is free to speak their mind, it can be good, every now and then, to keep one’s thoughts to oneself. There is no single truth in life. Of course decisions must be made, but very often the answer to a question develops over time and through a process. Listening without judgement and without entering into discussion about what “the truth” might be, creates trust and promotes joint success. I work with a lot of people who have reached a personal impasse. For these people it can help to ask them what inspires them, what moves them. Taking a moment for oneself is often a ritual in itself. Inviting artists and philosophers into the equation teaches one to look at people in a different way. We invited Meike Ziegler to come up with a creatual suited to our Access to Quality conference.”


All participants were asked to think what quality meant to them. Each guest then etched his or her personal response to this question into a bar of chocolate which, during the conference, was melted down and poured into a new form where it set once more. Each visitor was presented with a piece of 100% chocolate, wrapped in paper on which all the various definitions of quality were written. Purmer: “It was marvellous to see how people really stopped to think about something as rudimentary as quality. By asking that question, Meike confronted the guests with other essential questions about who we are, what we want and what we can and cannot achieve. Which ripples will my stone create in the pool of life? And these are precisely the same issues that I target.”

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