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Valentin Nowotny

Harmony in a group is a stroke of luck. Valentin Nowotny explains how it can be influenced positively and why hierarchies are no longer right for agile companies.

(Interview: Judy Born)

Mr. Nowotny, how do conflicts actually arise?

People don’t always act logically, and they have their shortcomings. They are apt to forget things, or act inconsistently or on emotions. They are guided by personal interests that affect their professional judgment. Conflicts arise if this goes unchecked. However, 90 percent of these situations can be stopped or avoided entirely with a little psychology and effective methods. The other ten percent requires more specific measures.

Nowadays we need knowledge workers, and people need to know their contribution to knowledge advancement at every stage of the value chain.

Valentin Nowotny

What does it mean for companies?

It is becoming more important for them to set up a support culture as companies steer away from hierarchies and become more agile. In traditional structures, these offerings are applied more like patches, I would say. And they are usually only used when the situation has become stuck in a rut.

Speaking of which, when are hierarchies helpful and when aren’t they?

Looking at the positive aspect of hierarchies, they can resolve conflicts because there is always someone who has to be responsible for the decision. Often, conflicts arise when people have the same standing and fight for the same resources. Hierarchies organize things, and they enable organizational charts to be made, which is very important in many companies.

Valentin Nowotny
Valentin Nowotny is a cofounder of dvct – Deutscher Verband für Coaching und Training e.V. and a psychologist and author (‘Agile Unternehmen – nur was sich bewegt, kann sich verbessern’).

But are they still necessary?

No. Employees’ needs have changed. From their supervisors, they now require mutual support, intensive exchange of information, and cooperation when developing solutions. However, it’s not like someone has to say what is right and wrong. Nowadays we need knowledge workers, and people need to know their contribution to knowledge advancement at every stage of the value chain. It’s crazy to think we need one person to make the final decision.

How far along do you think thyssenkrupp is?

I think the image ad on the thyssenkrupp website is interesting because it says, more or less: We don’t have an answer to everything, but together, we can find one. It’s an example of a modern company that says the individual cannot know everything. In a company with a hierarchical structure, they would always maintain that the rest will perform the actions that the higher-ups have decided.

What would be good for employees?

It’s not good to point a finger at one person in times of difficulties and conflicts. It’s best to make changes across the board and for everyone. You ask yourself, how can we change the company to adapt to the people, and not the other way around? Management has to help employees attain success in their jobs. There should be a give-and-take. People should be allowed to develop themselves. I believe it’s vital for a modern company to foster team building skills based on psychological methods.

When would be the right time for teams and employees to adjust?

If you want the company to become more agile in a traditional structure, you can offer project-based work. Hierarchies are not decisive in these situations. Employees who have the skill sets and can make contributions do. The problem is that people work without guidance and are left to their own devices in these projects. This gives rise to potential for conflicts. The project leader is in charge of cooperation, but they cannot always work on the right balance of interpersonal interests. Their focus is directed at the project’s success, and they are part of the team and biased.

What would be the best way to go about it?

A team that needs to work on a long-term goal needs to develop as a group, with a direction that is provided by an external force, not someone from the company. There are a vast array of instruments and methods to help people learn more about themselves in a group setting. It works quite well in training at the management level, but it should be extended to employees in a team, too. It would be a means to proactively take measures before a team encounters trouble.

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