When everything changes, there is no new normal for leaders.
There is an alarm sounding at many organizations' front gates.
Not long ago, companies had lots of people sending resumes or lining up to apply for jobs. Today the long lines are gone.
Not long ago, employers had a simple strategy in salary negotiations: Take it or leave it. Today, more and more prospective hires are opting to leave it.
There is also an alarm sounding at many companies' back gates. Not long ago, dissatisfied workers knew better than to leave a steady job, no matter how unpleasant, until they had lined up their next job. They knew gaps in an employment history were red flags for hiring agents and a savings account may not cover an extended job search.
Today, those workers are not worrying about finding their next job. With the current labor shortage, especially for highly skilled individuals, many can find a new job in a day. And they are walking out the door in record numbers.
Alarms are sounding in the offices and hallways too. People want flexible, remote work options. They are rethinking the cost-benefit equation of work. They are re-evaluating their values and those of their employer.
Employees now weigh their pay. They wonder if it is representative of their contribution to the organization, especially when they are getting job offers at higher pay.
In the war for talent, some are saying talent won. The momentum has shifted toward a workforce whose bargaining power had been diminishing since the 1980s, when union memberships began declining and income inequality began climbing.
The great reassessment
What's happened? What stimulated such a multialarm event?
The pandemic was not the cause—it was the catalyst. Many changes have been simmering for decades; for all to surface together at this magnitude took a global event.
The pandemic forced an examination of every interaction. Whose work is essential? If an individual can be trusted to do their work without a manager hovering over them, is that manager essential?
Do people need to be in the same physical space to accomplish tasks? Is a meeting necessary? Is this job really necessary?
Even those who did not see the pandemic as a major life disruption often had reactions to others making it a major event. It has affected everyone.
The past two years have put everything on the table for reassessment. Most people will see and live life significantly differently in 2022 than they did in 2019. And businesses will feel the effects.
I have presented this evolving reality as a word cloud (see figure) to leadership groups and webinar attendees around the world. That has led to two dominant reactions: Individuals become overwhelmed or offer gratitude.
The overwhelming feelings come because the image makes real what they feel. Many people are feeling out of sorts and that they need a return to normal.
Many resent the loss of normalcy and their world feeling smaller because of real or perceived restrictions. Many want to blame someone and see those they want to blame as existential threats to their lives and livelihoods.
The gratitude comes from people who have been feeling all the pictured elements as singular experiences and are overwhelmed without having the full context for what they are experiencing and being able to name it.
They are grateful to have their reality spoken to and dramatized. The biggest surprise to me has been how many people feel gratitude, including senior leaders and CEOs.
Going back is not an option
Author Joel Arthur Barker is often quoted as saying, "When a paradigm shifts, everyone goes back to zero." I would say everything goes forward to zero.
What was first could be last. What was up could be down. With so many past realities and ways things have always been being upturned, people are re-evaluating their lives—how they live, what they want, and how long they will postpone what they want.
Their realizations are accelerating the change.
It is time to recognize a fundamental change to Kurt Lewin's classic organizational change cycle. The old model suggests the stages are:
- Unfreeze the organization—that is, there is enough unrest with the current state to put change in motion or an event has disrupted the organization so now is the time for change.
- Change the organization.
- Refreeze the organization into the new way of being.
Today, the option to refreeze is gone. As my friend and organizational change theorist Peter Vaill says, "We are in permanent white water."
There are no calm waters ahead—only more rapids. And the rapids do not end. The expectation of calm waters before the next set of rapids is not our reality. Refreezing is no longer possible.
As CEO of a consulting firm that specializes in culture change, I find it especially important for me and my firm to model the mindsets and behaviors we recommend to clients. Aside from that, we are confronting the same pressures for change as others, and we must respond to stay viable.
Here are some suggestions for me and my fellow CEOs and leaders, borne out of 50 years on the front lines of organizational transformation.
Accept and embrace the reality of change. Change does not need to start from the top, but it must include the top or it will not happen or it will just be a rebellion.
Change needs to be part of most conversations, with an emphasis on a vision of everyone's role in continuous improvement. Leaders need to show a level of comfort with the changes and the challenges that accompany them.
Put people first. People—not buildings—comprise your organization. Your most essential job as a leader is to recruit, retain, and develop the best possible employees and re-recruit them constantly.
You are at risk of many in your workforce walking out the door. They may leave physically or emotionally, but you will lose them either way.
Ironically, the best way to retain employees is to continually enhance their skills portfolio. Help them become great assets to your business, which will make them more attractive to your competitors. If your competitors are not trying to poach your top people, you are not doing your job.
Connect with your staff. Tom Peters, who co-wrote In Search of Excellence, would tell audiences on his lecture tours, "Do you know what distinguishes great companies from others? They talk to their people."
Good communication is part of the connection and inclusion equation. It includes being honest and open with people, disclosing your intentions, motivations, and plans. It also includes listening to people and making sure they feel heard.
True connection and inclusion require action based on the interaction: showing you have listened by responding in substantive ways and following through on your promises and commitments.
Move the middle. There is a lot of truth in the common refrain that people join organizations and leave managers.
Middle managers have the greatest effect on their direct reports' work experience and organizational commitment. Before you can move your company, you will need buy-in from the middle.
You can't move the whole without the middle. This group is often the most invested in the status quo.
Assess your middle managers for their commitment and competence for leading change. Include training, evaluation, and compensation incentives in your change strategies, and accept that some amount of turnover among this group may be inevitable and required for progress.
Get different now. Tomorrow is too late. People want change now.
They want to be trusted to do their jobs without needing to be watched or micromanaged. They want to know the expectations and desired outcomes regarding their work.
They want to have independence with the agency to do their jobs how they want as long as they get the results the company wants. Freedom, inclusion, and flexibility are the words for the rest of this decade.
Keep up with change
Yes, the alarms are sounding, but there is no need to panic. What they are telling us is that change is our current reality. We know that.
The number of alarms and their loudness informs us about the magnitude of change. Our challenge will be to think big enough.
None of us have ever experienced this magnitude or speed of change to organizations and workplaces or the resulting leadership requirements. And the change is just the beginning.
Leaders and employers will continue to experience radical, rapid change. Most people and companies are never going back to the five-day workweek at a primary office space.
Robots and artificial intelligence will dominate our work processes and workplaces—at first among manufacturing, storage, and delivery processes and facilities, but then (and soon) in more industries than we can currently imagine.
Leaders will be talking and problem solving with their people more than ever and need to know and connect with their employees more than ever. Leaders' real job—now and going forward—is to cultivate people's talents, genius, and capabilities.
Each person is an asset to the enterprise. The path to greater organizational success requires employees' ever-improving performance. And that necessitates supporting, nurturing, maximizing, and unleashing their agency, inclusion, commitment, thinking, and energy.
Change is here. The question is: Is your organization changing fast enough?
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