Professional coach, speaker & writer (Worksphere) helping executives act with courage in creating organizations people long to work in.
A cursory glance at popular business publications and social media tells us much continues to be said about the post-pandemic workplace as we head into the spring of 2021. Predictions abound on the permanency of working from home, the long-term impact of Covid-19-related stress and unemployment on the global economy, and what the slackening of employee engagement means for the retention of top talent.
Further, technology is increasingly being used with impunity to track remote employee productivity, with bosses monitoring not only what we’re typing and to whom, but how fast. Along with the prognostications noted above, we will likely live with many other consequences of the Covid-19 workplace for some time.
What’s missing in much of this discourse, however, is any mention of what is not changing in spite of massive transformation in everything from our social lives to our consumption habits. Sad, and perhaps alarming, is how organizations seem to collectively be dragging archaic forms of leadership — most of which can be traced back to agrarian and industrial eras — into what will soon be the post-Covid-19 world. Allow me to elaborate.
In the early days of the pandemic, leaders at all levels sought tips on how to lead virtually, as if leadership from the kitchen table differed vastly from the corner office. Others laid employees off in order to preserve profitability, with bonuses for top executives. In one example, Hertz executives, leading the well-known car rental company that’s been a fixture at airports worldwide, handed themselves over $16 million in bonuses days before filing for bankruptcy.
At first glance, it is difficult to understand why, in spite of decades of leadership books, in-house development programs, executive coaching, consultants, change management webinars, tips, articles and experts, we have failed at developing the leaders our organizations need, particularly in a crisis. Where are the effective communicators, coaches, visionaries, strategists, influencers, empathizers, diversity-promoters and decision-makers these training initiatives promised? And more importantly, is there any quantifiable return on investment from the $370 billion that Training Industry magazine tells us is spent globally to develop leaders? The evidence just does not seem to be there.
Consider for a moment the money organizations spend on developing leader competencies such as thinking strategically, leading change, stewarding resources, communicating clearly and building consensus, all of which are common organizational leadership competencies. When the pandemic hit, managers everywhere were primarily concerned with figuring out if employees were slacking off when working from home. This was from leaders companies in every industry had been developing for years to be more self-aware, thoughtful, empathetic, strategic and flexible. Where employees needed trust, clarity and understanding, they were met with demands to be in video meetings first thing in the morning to prove they had, in fact, gotten out of bed and were dressed — at least from the waist up.
One relevant piece of data that highlights this gap comes from a Consumer Intelligence study in October 2020 showing that only a quarter of U.K. employees felt there was an obvious strategy when asked if their company’s leadership knew what they were doing when leading through a pandemic. These employees do not feel their leaders care for them, given the poor quality of communication, low levels of empathy and lack of clarity they are offered.
This suggests that while much may be different in how and where we work, many organizations continue to espouse poor leadership practices and use hierarchical and positional power, behavior control, and leader-knows-best biases to lead teams, in spite of everything changing around us.
Even with all our leadership development efforts, organizations still hew to authoritarian power, control and — in the worst but not uncommon cases — abuse. Witness how centuries of proclamations, decrees and rules about who could work (and in what jobs) relegated women and marginalized groups based on ethnicity, caste, class, race and physical ability to the least-paid and most insecure forms of labor, and how in the current pandemic, those taking the biggest hit financially, or the biggest risks to health in public-facing jobs, are these same groups. These are also the least represented groups in leadership ranks.
It is easy to become discouraged, yet herein lies an opportunity to step back and reevaluate. Putting thousands upon thousands of managers through leadership development programs is expensive and arguably a waste of money. Why? Because we do very little-to-nothing to create the work environments and cultures in which they can effectively use the insights and learning they acquired. Without an initial focus on the kind of culture we want people to perform in and belong to, we are often installing new plumbing and wiring into a teardown.
It’s time we stop the obsession with developing leaders on a bunch of so-called competencies disconnected from context and culture and based on archaic ideas of telling competent people what to think and how to behave. Rather, we are now called to start creating the environments and conditions for our common humanity, connectedness and creativity to emerge. Company values on the boardroom wall mean nothing; developing, nurturing and defending a deeply respectful and inclusive workplace is something else entirely. This is my first point.
My second is this: A significant part of creating robust work cultures involves senior leaders making the deeply personal investment in their own personal growth, learning, for instance, to self-manage the urge to quash the talents and aspirations of others to preserve self-importance. If these leaders neglect to shape the internal stance, mindset and character at the core of what people need from them and refuse to face their ego’s need to dominate, no amount of finely honed competencies or executive coaching will create the cultures that invite and celebrate human resourcefulness or ingenuity.
The bottom line is this: Unless we act with intention and humility in building healthy, values-driven cultures and looking at what we, as leaders, need to change in ourselves, we will collectively drag the toxic elements of our pre-Covid-19 workplaces into the post-Covid-19 ones. We can — and must — do better.
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Professional coach, speaker & writer (Worksphere) helping executives act with courage in creating organizations people long to work in. Read Lisa Schmidt’s full executive