The next few weeks and months are likely to be dominated by change management as many employees return to workplace. The spaces will be the same, but many people will have suffered a profound change in their status, without ever having been informed or even explicitly conscious of it. Things that were important, no longer are. Things that were insignificant now dominate everything. Inevitably, this has brought about arbitrary, and dizzying rises and falls in people’s condition in work-life which have been, hitherto, mostly concealed by isolation. Since what has happened was so sudden and so capricious, managing the fallout fairly is going to be an acute issue, and to that end I’m going to use this post to discuss the issue of legitimacy.

Legitimacy is a generalised perception that the actions of an entity are desirable or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs and definitions (Suchman). I give this definition here to give an indication of how thoroughly lockdown has upended concepts of legitimate behaviour and consequently what might constitute legitimate expectations. Legitimacy rests on different grounds, classically described as belief, tradition and rationality (Weber), but for the purposes of this change management post I’m going to concentrate in just one area, tradition, and one aspect of that: moral legitimacy.

Moral legitimacy can be split down once more into four facets, consequential, procedural, structural and personal (Suchman). The first three relate to specific outputs, the fashion in which they are achieved, and a wider sense of whether the organisation is acting for commonly valued purposes in a proper manner. These remain achievable as long as the management acts, and are seen to act, as honest brokers. Lockdown may have shaken some of these assumptions, but faith in them should be relatively straightforward to either maintain or restore during change management.

But personal legitimacy, by which I mean a manager’s personal sense of authority, is more complicated. In these circumstances, I argue that it resides very much in the subjective appreciation of the leader’s willingness to embody what John Keegan called the ‘imperative of kinship’, i.e., the sense that great sacrifice has been, and will continue to be, commonly endured. Regrettably, this has may have been absent over the past 12 months and even where hardship has occurred, this may have masked by isolation and it may have been difficult to avoid the impression that some staff have retreated easily, even eagerly, to comfortably appointed ivory towers.

This impression, if it has taken root, must be vigorously challenged or a serious breakdown in credibility and legitimacy is in prospect during change management. People may be unaware just how badly their legitimacy may have been damaged, and what new expectations have been forged in the experience of the previous year. In your change management, I suggest taking a careful, and discrete look around over the next few weeks to gauge to where the tide of workplace opinion has flowed once both social legitimation and official sanction of absence recedes.

References

Keegan, J. The Mask of Command, London: Pimlico.

Suchman, Mark. “Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches,” Academy of Management Review, 20(3): 571-610.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shakespeare, W. and Harrison, G., 1958. The tempest. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.


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