Future skills are set to transform leadership more quickly than expected. In my August 2021 article Next Steps in Communication & Leadership Training, I looked at the ‘caring personally’ aspect of leadership. Since then, the natural development of future skills has been speeded up by what some are calling ‘The Great Resignation’. There is new urgency in questions such as ‘what practical steps can I take to become a more caring leader and create a more caring work environment?’
That question has been amplified in the US recently by analysis of the Great Resignation, the post-lockdown period of more than 4+ million employees racing for the door, or leaving the US job race altogether, in search of better work or a better life.
Publications and media outlets have guessed at reasons why, such as “lazy” Americans who received “free government money” during the pandemic not wanting to return to the grind; remote employees wanting to avoid the commute and stay closer to family; millennials and their Gen-Z colleagues leaving for more meaningful work or to start their own businesses.
One reason many of the 4+ million ‘Great Resigners’ (and 50+% of current job holders seeking better ones) have frequently offered for their great re-consideration is ‘the workplace’.
Whether it’s workplace politics, toxic environments, lack of opportunities, the need to be home to care for family, or a sense that one’s work has no meaning or positive impact, employees are asking for more of the workplace and workplace leadership. And they’re willing to walk away from paying gigs to seek more rewarding careers. This creates a challenge for employers and leaders expected to rise to the occasion by adapting to these new needs, while staying focused on the bottom line. It also takes us back to our initial question about the practical steps that could or should be taken on the journey to becoming a more caring leader.
The first step to achieving these goals is recognizing that caring and bottom-line results aren’t mutually exclusive. Researchers like Mary Fontaine, Ruth Jacobs, and David McClellan have proven that social skills and safe work environments lead to better results, whether it’s in the C-Suite (where ‘intangibles’ like emotional intelligence trump technical skills, especially amongst high-performing peers) or on team-based projects, where fundamentals like psychological safety, and clarity of mission and values, can make significant, bottom-line differences.
In short: a more emotionally rich environment enhances, not impedes, the business of business.
Focus on the basics
The best way to care for your people is to know your people, another leadership must that can maximize a caring environment while also netting bottom-line results. In her book Radical Candor, author Kim Scott tells the story of a manager, Russ, who was about to lose a high-performing direct report, Sarah, to another opportunity. Because Russ had got to know Sarah, he was able to meaningfully engage with her around the topic of leaving. Russ asked about Sarah’s ultimate goals of running her own business. Then, the two began working together to better prepare Sarah for entrepreneurship, including assistance with career planning and management training.
Russ was able to retain Sarah for a few years longer than expected, while also doing what former chair and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, advises all leaders and mentors to do: “Mentors should care enough to say, ‘I want [my mentees] to soar – not just soar under my wing.’”
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is equating personal temperament with leadership strategy. This mindset suggests that leadership ability is more a function of gut feelings, as opposed to a set of strategic choices guided by experience. It’s true that some leaders have a more caring style, while some have a more analytical or hard-charging style, to name but a few stylistic differences.
However, strategic leaders know that being fluent in multiple styles doesn’t change who they are, it simply changes how they approach a situation or individual, based on the need at hand. They see that strategic flexibility offers options, while leading by temperament narrows those options. They recognize, to utilize analogy, that one spice isn’t right for every dish, that one golf club isn’t right for every shot.
Working Voices offers courses like The Inspirational Leader (a.k.a The Leader as Coach) that offer practical approaches that can help leaders expand their emotional repertory and strategic vocabulary. One such approach is Daniel Goleman’s Six Leadership Styles.
Goleman’s six styles are:
Coercive (“Do as I Say”)
Coaching (“Try This”)
Authoritative (“Follow This Vision”)
Affiliative (“People Come First”)
Pace-Setting (“Expecting Excellence & Self Direction”)
Democratic (“Share Your Ideas”)
Leaders hoping to create a more caring environment would be wise to know these styles, as well as knowing when and how to combine them, or switch between them.
Remember your responsibilities
Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game reminds us that leaders have three fundamental responsibilities: (1) Protect people; (2) Generate profits; (3) Advance a purpose. These three responsibilities exist in a sort of business ecosystem, each dependent on the other.
Sinek’s text, written before the pandemic, first reminds us of the essential need to ‘protect our people’. One reason cited for the Great Resignation, particularly among office workers, is FOTO, Fear of the Office. “Will the workplace be safe again? Will I get sick? Will co-workers give me a bug that I’ll unknowingly bring home?”
Protecting your people doesn’t just mean taking (and communicating) workplace safety measures. It also means paying your people enough to live, helping them stay healthy or manage illness, and freeing them from on-the-job bullying and exclusion.
One universal cause of the Great Resignation – cited by sources ranging from Fox Business to The New York Times [paywall] – is a feeling among workers that their labor is devoid of purpose, with no tangible impact. That’s why Sinek encourages leaders to provide purpose or, like the story of Russ and Sarah, to know your people well enough to tap into their why, or their sense of purpose.
These practical leadership approaches may mean the difference between an employee staying or leaving. They may also have a more positive impact on a caring climate and workplace attractiveness than more costly, complicated, options.
Gene Douglas is a Working Voices Trainer based in NYC. He’s been teaching communication and performance since 1999.
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