Heather E. McGowan is a keynote speaker and future-of-work thought leader. She researches the patterns and behaviors that are shaping the future of work. Her clients range from start-ups to publicly traded Fortune 500 companies, including AMP Financial, Autodesk, Biogen, Citi, Accor Hotels, AARP, The World Bank, and BD Medical.
Chris Shipley is an analyst, journalist, and advisor who focuses on the human and organizational challenges in the face of technology and economic-driven disruption. Shipley has served on the boards of several start-up companies in Silicon Valley and is the founder of Computer Life magazine.
Below, Heather and Chris share 5 key insights from their new book, The Empathy Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast, and Thrive in the Future of Work. Listen to the audio version—read by Heather—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Shift your perspective: your workforce is now empowered.
The existential crisis of the pandemic changed where work fits in our lives. Demographic shifts, long in the making, have caused persistent labor shortages. We are experiencing the attitudinal shifts that come with generational changes in the composition of the workforce. The rapid emergence of new skills and knowledge creates scarcity in key workforce sectors. These trends combine to give workers power and agency in all aspects of their working lives. No temporary economic retraction will change this fundamental reality; your workforce is empowered.
2. Shift your mindset: you work for them.
Increases in employee turnover, lack of engagement, as well as rise in disengagement, are collectively often framed as employee dissatisfaction—in other words, their fault. In reality, these are leadership failures: leaders must adapt and make fundamental shifts to their leadership approach. The first shift is from managing people and processes to enabling success. The team doesn’t work for you; you work for them. Your success depends on their success.
3. Shift your culture: peers as collaborators.
Gone are the days when you pitted your people against each other to drive performance. Today, you are likely managing a team of people who have skills and knowledge that you do not. Furthermore, each team member likely has unique skills and knowledge that are not duplicated across the team. You need to create a culture where your team sees their peers as collaborators who make them stronger rather than competitors against whom they must beat.
4. Shift your approach: foster intrinsic motivation.
You will not get your people to learn and adapt at the speed, scale, and scope you need by using punishments, threats, or rewards. These extrinsic motivational tools simply no longer work at this pace. You need to tap your employees’ intrinsic motivation and connect their internal drive to your business objectives, so they become self-propelled learners. In order to do this effectively, you have to get to know your people.
5. Shift your behavior: inspire potential.
You are no longer the unquestioned expert making decisions in certainty and myopically driving productivity with domination, fear, or even humiliation. You are now a caring, compassionate, and empathetic expedition leader who must inspire the human potential in your team. Your superpower is the ability to say, “I do not know, let’s find out,” against a backdrop of persistent uncertainty and change. In this environment, you will have to make decisions with imperfect and incomplete information and rely on your team’s unique talent for guidance.
Taken together, these five areas create high-performing teams and minimize employee burnout. These things are vitally important because how you lead your team affects your employees and the well-being of their families. Leadership is so much more impactful than you can imagine. New research shows that employees are demanding leadership transformation for the benefit of the workplace, and society at large.
A study by the Workforce Institute at UKG found that “managers impact employees’ mental health more than doctors or therapists, and even the same as a spouse or partner.” Furthermore, a decade-long study of working-class families showed that employees who have more autonomy and more supportive supervisors engage more warmly when they interact with their infant children. This sounds simple, but this is not just nice; it’s profoundly important to child development. Harvard-based studies have shown repeatedly that, “warm and responsive parenting in a child’s first year of life boosts their level of attachment with their parents as well as their emotional regulation, social skills, and academic achievement.” So, your leadership style can have a very real generational impact.
“Leaders have a profound influence over workers’ mental health, yet they may not be well prepared to hold that responsibility.”
For decades, MBA programs have trained leaders to drive financial performance for shareholders often at the expense of employees. A recent study of companies in the US and Denmark found that while this exclusive focus on profits to shareholders did drive better returns in the short term, it did so at the expense of employees, who saw relatively little improvement in pay. But, here is the thing: those MBA-earning leaders may not actually improve the value creation metrics of the company. As the study stated, “We found no evidence that CEOs with such degrees increase sales, productivity, investment or exports relative to the levels the company achieved before.” Higher-skilled employees are more likely to leave after relative wage decline, crippling the long-term outlook for the company.
Connecting the dots among this recent research, it’s clear that leaders have a profound influence over workers’ mental health, yet they may not be well prepared to hold that responsibility. Indeed, we know that rates of mental illness and burnout are off the charts. Even more critically, leaders have the potential to impact the next generation of the workforce, yet they may not be working in a way that increases the actual performance of their companies.
We stand at a moment of great opportunity to humanize work while improving company performance through a reconception of leadership. If leaders are brave enough to embrace this great moment of change and lead with empathy, we can seize the opportunity to create a brighter future of work.
To listen to the audio version read by co-author Heather McGowan, download the Next Big Idea App today: