Employees are recalibrating their lives. They’re leaving their jobs in record numbers. But the harsh reality is they also are leaving their managers. While the “Great Resignation” provides insight into larger organizational trends, it’s critical we examine how employees perceive their leaders—especially where they see them succeeding and stumbling.
Leaders carry a heavy and complex load. Vaccines, mask rules, and physical safety. Hybrid or virtual structures. Fatigue and burnout. Talent drain. And while teams look for continued competence in their leaders, it is a more vulnerable leader who will carry us through today’s challenges into the future. Yesterday’s leader embraced an unstated rugged individualism—the belief that an individual can succeed on their own with minimal outside help.
But that model of leadership is gone. Why? Because employees are asking for—no, demanding—a different relationship with the work they do and their leaders. More than 4 million employees quit their jobs in November 2021, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Department statistics. That’s a cry of revolt against a version of leadership that doesn’t sufficiently factor in the human element of the workforce. Sound harsh? It’s no more harsh than seeing talent drain from your organization in record numbers. Command-and-control won’t carry leaders and their teams forward; collaborate- and-communicate will. The workplace has been forever changed, and leaders need to keep up.
TALKING OR WALKING?
As the Great Resignation exploded, we asked employees to reflect on what they see as the biggest successes and stumbles of their leaders.
Communication remains the single biggest reason leaders succeed—and their biggest stumble. It’s how leaders convey competence, demonstrate knowledge, articulate organizational goals, and provide direction. It clarifies goals and strengthens relationships.
In a digital and hybrid world, communication is both more important and increasingly complex. Being able to filter the signal from the noise, choose the right modality, and communicate consistently is critical. Effective communication includes expressions of empathy and vulnerability. Employees respond to leaders who communicate authentically and transparently. When talent is at stake, it’s communicating for connection that will make the difference.
NO MORE CUBICLE WALLS
While lowering walls and sharing vulnerabilities is the way forward, it may prove difficult for leaders in light of the fact that perceived humility is in short supply. The employees we surveyed cited arrogance and poor decision-making as the second and third most significant leadership stumbles.
Now is not the time for leaders to be seen as arrogant, withholding information and making unilateral decisions. Employees have been empowered to make choices and hold themselves accountable for results. They want to participate in decisions that impact them and their contributions. Employees want to be asked for input. They want to feel valued and fulfill their personal values on the job. When a leader hoards information and decision-making responsibilities, they send the message that they alone are capable.
A strong leader demonstrates competence and confidence, but over-applying these qualities, combined with poor communication, can lead to the appearance of arrogance. Leaders perceived as acting arrogantly may be covering for insecurities or creating distance to shield their teams from bad news.
The leadership of the future will be defined by more than adding operational transparency; it also will involve removing personal barriers. Employees want to work in an environment where they can bring their whole selves to work—and they want their leaders to do the same. During the pandemic, we’ve been virtually invited into each other’s homes, met each other’s families, and shared our worries about keeping loved ones safe. Reinstating an artificial divide between “the leader” and those being led will only reinforce the stumble of arrogance leaders should endeavor to avoid.
When leaders are more collaborative and inclusive and when they communicate with confidence, they give oxygen to the other factors that signal a successful leader: trust and competence. Employees want to be led by individuals they know are competent. At the same time, it is connection rooted in trust that will distinguish tomorrow’s leaders.
WHAT CAN LEADERS DO?
How can leaders live these lessons and authentically show up for their people every day?
- Increase self-awareness: Unless you seek feedback from others, it will be hard to overcome the perception of arrogance. Self-reflection, feedback, and coaching can help.
- Embrace vulnerability as a strength: Acknowledge you don’t know everything. Let your team know when there are setbacks and challenges and ask for their support. Express personal vulnerability.
- Communicate with intentionality: Share what you know when you know it, and be honest about what you’re not sure of.
- Empower others: Ask employees, “What do you think?” Employees need leaders to coach, not tell.
- Give trust: Assume your people will deliver regardless of where they sit. Let them know you are vested in their development. Share your challenges, opportunities, and key decisions. Ask them what they think.
DON’T ASSUME LEADERS KNOW BEST
Leadership is about how leaders share who they are, what they know, and their vulnerabilities. To stumble is to return to the old version of leadership that assumes “leader knows best.” To succeed is to be humble, share, collaborate, and value those around you—not only for what they bring to your organization, but for who they are as people.