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How Workplace Leadership Shifted in the Last Year

March 18, 2021 Leadership
By Dom Nicastro

The game is changing for businesses, and leaders must acknowledge the rapid shifts in employees' needs brought about by the past year.

“People aren't all coming to work all at the same time, and people have unique needs as they're impacted by grief and fatigue and everything else that the pandemic has brought,” said Emily Field, associate partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

McKinsey issued a report last year that found that HR leaders can identify such shifts in leadership behavior in order to keep leaders moving in a more focused way, all while working on the urgent business problems the COVID-19 crisis created. 

Why Empowerment and Empathy Matter

A variety of forces, including the pandemic and civic and social unrest that emerged in the past 12 month, has accelerated a shift in workplace leadership styles. And while these forces have affected nearly every organization in some way, what it means for leadership will vary from company to company.

“There’s not a perfect set of three to five shifts that every organization needs to see,” Field said. “But companies need to get clear on the shifts that are going to be required for their circumstances, and their strategy for leaders.”

She broke down three emerging leadership shifts:

  • Empowerment: How can leaders empower other leaders and people within the organization? “When you're starting to do something, ask yourself, ‘Are you the best person to do it?’ Or is there actually a member of your team that could take the reins there?” Field said.
  • Decision-making: A silver lining of COVID-19 is that timelines and bureaucracy fell apart, according to Field. How do we make better decisions in our new work environments and at the pace of the new ways of working? “That's a new muscle for leaders to build,” Field said. “Do I have to make that decision?” Field said leaders can ask: "Or could I actually push that decision down to someone who's closer to that work, and how can I empower and trust that person to make those decisions?”
  • Empathy: Caring for your teams is important, but so is self care. Recognize that leaders have to care for themselves in new ways amidst the pandemic. “It really starts with yourself and your own self care, and this is something where leaders need to make sure, particularly in a high-crisis year where they're experiencing fatigue, that they're really taking stock of themselves,” Field said. “First is their energy and making sure they are doing what they need to do personally need for renewal and then being able to ensure that they are also taking care of their people.”

Related Article: What Skills Do the Next Generation of Leaders Need?

Emotional Intelligence and Coaching in the Mix

Ian Brooks, CEO and founder of Rhodes Smith Consulting, said emotional intelligence has been rising in the past 12 months when it comes to leadership shifts. With connections built on screen time and not watercooler talk, leaders are having to increase their awareness, empathy and communication through heightened transparency, according to Brooks.

“Such transparency is applied to business partners or departments impacted by their work as well their employees,” he said. “The virtual environment placed a spotlight on organizational silos that can impede business success. As such, leaders are having to engage their employees, peers and cross-department groups more to align on strategy and execution.”

What COVID-19 has not done in the remote space is offer balance between home and work life. That means all workplace leaders have a heightened responsibility to monitor workload and fatigue of staff and support physical and emotional balance, Brooks added.

Talent development is being redefined through the diversity of candidates (i.e. race, gender, thought) and specific work experiences, Brooks said. Leaders can rely on an organization's talent ecosystem, such as self-guided training and mentorship programs, to some degree. But leaders will need to actively develop talent by acting as a coach and ensuring the talent is a representation of their diverse brand.

"Leaders must rethink how to grow this talent in authentic ways built on relationships or risk losing them," Brooks said.

Related Article: Soft Skills Are the Great Equalizer in Digital Transformation

Being Influential, Communicative

Loralie Thostenson, senior vice president and technology talent officer at Liberty Mutual, said the ability to influence and communicate using varied styles and approaches throughout all levels of the organization is a key leadership quality that rose to importance over the past year.

“Ensuring that team members have the information necessary to do their job is fundamental to making sure that people have long-term direction and context,” she said. “The ability to tell the story of why we are focusing on certain priorities in a way that welcomes dialogue and involvement is an essential leadership behavior. Using this trait effectively motivates and inspires employees to achieve the desired results by creating an environment where individuals feel valued.”

The best way to acquire this trait is to ask for feedback from team members and peers. Leaders need to understand whether they show an openness to consider other’s thoughts and feelings, especially when they are different from their own, she added.

“Noticing your own thoughts and feelings helps leaders interact more effectively with others because of the awareness it brings to how or what you may be sharing,” Thostenson said. “When discussing team or departmental objectives, make sure you share why the work is important and not just what needs to be accomplished. Soliciting feedback for ourselves gives leaders invaluable information about how we can be more effective. Simultaneously it also helps to build a more engaged culture with all of the benefits that brings.”

Leadership Requires Practice

Building out leadership qualities in a remote world has its fair share of challenges. You can't just send people to a leadership training, and voila, they're a great leader, said McKinsey's Field.

“It's really about practicing in the flow of how you work,” she said. “How do we do it? We role model. We practice. We ask our people to hold us accountable for trying those new behaviors, and we get feedback on how it's working to really be able to build those new capabilities and in the process, drive organizational performance.”


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