Workplace Changes: Enlightenment or Entropy?

When you view life over the long arc of history, the picture is phenomenal. Death, disease, poverty, war, and other nasty things—when viewed with a 100-year lens—have declined and many things have flourished. If you don’t believe me, pick up Steven Pinker’s book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” When I first read it, I was flummoxed because the picture it painted was radically different from the nightly news. The morning I wrote this column, I started rereading it to brighten my outlook in the era of Putin[1] and economic turmoil. 

It’s easy to draw a trend line from a current headline and assume the world is going to hell. As someone who coaches business leaders, it’s easy to wonder about whether business has taken a sharp left turn toward something we don’t understand. My colleague Art Petty’s recent post (“People Don’t Want to Manage and That’s a Problem”) got me thinking (perhaps dwelling) on this. Being a leader seems to be as popular as being a cop right now. It’s hard to willingly take a position where you can’t seem to do anything right!

Some of you who aren’t in senior leadership roles might believe I’m overstating this. I assure you, if you’d been a fly on the wall in my coaching conversations with CEOs in the past three years, you’d concur.

So what current trends cause angst in senior leaders, and what should be done?

Work from home (WFH) has some positive attributes, depending on your perspective. My daughter with two small children would certainly attest to this. And it chaps many leaders because they know that teams, relationships, culture, and alignment are mostly built with face-to-face interaction. Every pundit and many ignorami have weighed in on this, including me. (I believe I fall into both categories on occasion!) 

“The more you know each other, the more you know what each other’s thinking, the faster you can accelerate the trust and confidence in one another when you get on the field.—Tom Brady”

You have to play the hand you’re dealt, so my counsel to CEOs has been to maintain an open mind, make the best decision (after reviewing as many facts as you can!) for your company, and understand that your decision today does not need to be final. However, regardless of what that looks like for you, have programs and practices in place to maintain and enhance teams, relationships, culture, and alignment. If you don’t, entropy will win!

Attracting talent is a challenge that most companies are facing given the current macro trends. This also morphs into some entitlement issues which is in some cases understandable and in some ridiculous. 

A funny thing about this… I just came from my favorite fly-fishing shop in Boulder and was talking with the new owner—a long time employee. For many years this place has delighted customers, has provided great service and selection and has zero problems with hiring and retaining talent. Some of that is because of the passion that fly fishing elicits but much of it is the workplace environment that ownership has created. Your business may be 100 times larger than this shop, but the same principles apply.

There are many pieces of the puzzle to attract and retain talent that you own. Don’t spend much of your time whining about macro issues. It won’t help!

Offend no one has many leaders all twisted up! Call it political correctness, inclusion, or extreme self-editing. It has been hard to communicate and direct the company’s activities (which is what leaders do!) without offending someone. Much of this is actually progress, changing offensive language and behavior that many of us are blind to, but when it tongue-ties a CEO it’s problematic.

Often this shows up in the conversation around DEI and ESG. Regardless of your position on what practices are most effective, it’s incumbent upon leaders to figure out their position(s) and be willing to defend them while being open-minded to change. Anyone over 40 probably has some dinosaur-like thoughts rattling around their cerebrum!

This doesn’t mean, however, that you should stop doing what your business requires. You must profitably address your chosen audience. You must make tough decisions. You must ensure that people are provided with a healthy work environment, and they must provide value to the firm. You cannot make everyone happy. You’re going to piss off some folks. Get over it. If you make a mistake, admit it, and move on.

Mental health has taken a drubbing for many people since COVID (and perhaps the divisive political environment) turned everything on its head. Several CEOs expressed dismay to me at their challenge of encouraging a productive workforce while showing concern for mental health. 

Like most everything, it’s about balance. Do you have to be concerned about your coworkers’ mental health? Of course! Leaders who empathize and know how to listen have always been many steps ahead of those who don’t. Does that mean you must put aside the need to run a profitable business? Heck no! 

Hire emotionally intelligent managers. Make sure they know how to have effective conversations with their teammates. And make sure meritocracy and value-adding behavior are values at your firm.

The science and art of management, when viewed over the long arc of business, have certainly improved. The current challenges, when layered over the imperative of profitably addressing a need, are daunting. But we need managers and leaders just like we need cops. Good ones!


[1] My 5-year-old grandson, while riding in the car with his parents who were listening to NPR, asked them, “Why is this Poopin guy such a bully?!”

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