Digitalization with a Dash of Appreciation and Humility

Digitalization means implementing new technologies. At least, that’s what most people think. But the digital transformation is actually about something else. Technological and cultural change need to be pursued simultaneously. The real challenge that companies are facing is the emergence of a new form of collaboration between employees: with increasing levels of technology, we need increasing levels of humanity.

“We should not take the pride in what has already been achieved away from employees,” says Karsten Ottenberg. “It is an important managerial task to always ensure that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, that we don’t put up any walls.” Ottenberg is CEO of the domestic appliance manufacturer BSH Hausgeräte from Munich, Germany, that operates with 50,000 employees around the world – and one of the 350 interviewees that I met. Nine years ago, neuroscientist Gerald Hüther and I founded the initiative, which involved us analyzing organizations with certain corporate cultures. The companies we have examined so far have managed to develop a culture in which their employees feel a higher degree of solidarity with one another. They are more committed and are in a better position to unlock their potential.

Three years ago, we noticed that the number of companies addressing their own culture increased significantly. Why? There was now a new driving factor: the digital transformation. This can only be a success when people in these organizations start to think differently, act differently and collaborate differently. But how can this be achieved? Let me describe some patterns of success.

Appreciate Employees and What They Have Achieved so Far
Be honest, sometimes boardrooms can feel just like the Pixar movie “Toy Story,” right? A new, exciting toy has come into the child’s bedroom, and suddenly all the other toys are forgotten. The Buzz Lightyear of the Toy Story movie at many companies right now is the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) and their team or the digital department. CEO Karsten Ottenberg – like many other business leaders – initially fell into this trap. He gave the new digital employees preferential treatment.

The serious repercussions on employees who do not feel seen by their boss or digital colleagues and feel unfairly treated can even be measured neuronally. Imagine you were a subject in a scientific experiment. I place 100 dimes on the table. You get five of these coins. A colleague gets 95. As you realize you have been shortchanged, I measure your brain activity and can detect sudden activity in the area of your front insular cortex, which is usually responsible for feelings such as pain, stress, hunger, and thirst, but which can also indicate anger and revulsion. If I had divided up the coins fairly, I would see reactions in other areas of your brain: your ventral striatum, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and a part of the amygdala. When these three structures work together, they are considered part of the reward system. The feeling of being treated fairly can actually be measured in the brain!

A successful example of fairness and appreciation from industry is Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG. Before the digital transformation even began, the leadership team assured all employees that half of all productivity gains would be passed on to them. A specific example: checkers used to drive a vehicle along the trains loaded with containers and manually type the labels for the containers into a computer system. Today, this all happens digitally: the trains are scanned automatically by high-resolution cameras. The daily productivity increase is 30 minutes of working time. And this is also great news for the employees as they get an extra 15 minutes break every day.

It’s human nature to be fascinated with a new toy at first. This is no different in the boardroom than in a child’s bedroom. It is even clear to most members of digital departments that increased attention on digitalization should not be at the expense of long-serving employees. “We received a lot of attention from Karsten Ottenberg in the beginning,” recalls BSH CDO Mario Pieper. “This has now been moderated. It is better for everyone involved if we’re not in the spotlight for too long. Because so much of what we do builds on what 50,000 of our colleagues did before us.”

Humble Managers Inspire Their Employees to Perform Better
“As managers, how are we supposed to assess something in a short space of time that others have been collaborating on for days or even weeks?” This is what Peter Fregelius from Swiss telecommunications provider Swisscom asked me. Fregelius is responsible for Swisscom TV 2.0, a blockbuster product that earns the company additional sales of half a billion Swiss Francs a year. At the start of the new project, he unceremoniously disbanded the approval board, the approval process conducted by the bosses. Since then, the employees have been the ones to decide which new functions the product should have. The great success of Swisscom TV 2.0 set a precedent: more than 1,500 Swisscom managers have now been trained internally to lead their teams in line with this hierarchy-free method. “But this transformation doesn’t happen overnight,” says Fregelius. “Managers need to be prepared for it. It also took me a long time to come to grips with the uncertainty associated with this method.”

The result of this change was that managers and employees increasingly interacted on an equal footing – person to person. Some managers still wondered: “What is my role if I don’t have as much of a say any more?” There is no clear answer to this question. But this offers managers a huge opportunity to invest in their own personal growth. Bradley Owens, Professor for Business Ethics at the Marriott School of Management, has been looking into the phenomenon of humility in management for the past six years. He has now assessed more than 6,000 managers worldwide and has determined that teams working under humble managers, who work on their own personality as a leader, exhibit above-average progression. If a manager doesn’t know what next steps to take and speaks openly about their own limitations, this transparency even makes them a role model in the eyes of their employees. “Seeing your own boss encountering personal obstacles and overcoming them is inspiring for employees,” explains Bradley Owens. “If an employee is personally finding something difficult, they can look at their manager’s behavior and base their actions on this. This can help employees to further develop and unlock their own personal potential.”

And how do you recognize a humble and competent manager? They always ask themselves two fundamental questions. When they know their own strengths, they ask: “How can I contribute?” And when they know their own weaknesses, they ask: “What can I do to grow?”

Sebastian Purps-Pardigol is a pioneer of digitalization, management consultan, and keynote speaker. He was already developing digital business segments for Sony Music at the turn of the millennium, then headed a global division at ­Ericsson, founded the “Culture Change in Organizations” initiative with brain researcher Dr. Gerald Hüther in 2010 and has been researching success models for employee-focus­ed corporate cultures ever since. Purps-Pardigol published his findings in 2015 in his international business bestseller “Leading with the Brain.” He published his book “Digitalisieren mit Hirn” (“Digitizing with the Brain”) in February 2018.


Sebastian Purps-Pardigol

Moltkeplatz 11

30163 Hannover

Phone: +49 176 80 20 54 58

© Ina Wagner, Sebastian Purps-Pardigol