After nearly 18 months of weathering the COVID-19 pandemic, the evidence of potentially dramatic shifts in the workforce is everywhere. Leaders need to also change how they interact with their employees in order to improve those interactions.
To do that effectively, it’s important to fully understand some things.
Daily headlines highlight how organizations are facing “The Great Resignation” as workers leave their jobs, emboldened by a strong job market, and often enlightened about what’s most important to them after months of self-reflection. Workers are also increasingly frustrated and burned out in their current roles, and the evidence reflects this.
A recent McKinsey article reveals that 75% of American workers are experiencing burnout. And while Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2021 report shows that traditional employee engagement measures in the U.S. ticked up about one percent to a dismal 36% during the pandemic, it also shows that employee engagement challenges are now compounded by wellbeing challenges, with startling evidence that workers are experiencing high levels of worry, stress, anger, and sadness. This means even when engaged at work, people can still experience burnout when wellbeing is absent in the rest of their lives.
On top of these challenges, organizations are seeing unanticipated generational shifts in the workplace as Baby Boomers either retire early or shift their professional focus toward other priorities and as other generational employees shift jobs for myriad reasons. As Dr. Megan Gerhardt has found in her research at Miami University and in her book, Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce, this shift is a call to action to change the way organizations retain talent.
If leaders choose to heed this call to action, they may need to reevaluate their traditional view of workplace relationships. Rather than being ‘all business,’ leaders can widen the aperture and truly engage people to learn more about their whole selves. Again, the evidence shows that this traditional employee-manager relationship can do more harm than good, with 75% of respondents of a recent American Psychological Association study saying that the most stressful part of their job was their relationship with their boss.
How do leaders better engage?
The list is long but facilitating a dialog that is more relational than transactional is a great first step. Once present, leaders can better understand the whole person working for them, including what their motivations are, what their life purpose is and how they might best align their personal vision with the mission and vision of the organization. Leaders can also create a two-way dialog that acknowledges and maximizes individual strengths toward achievement of clear expectations.
In short, leaders can be more coach-like than boss-like.
As a leadership coach, I am blessed to know the benefits of engaging with my clients in mutual dialog to better see and hear them as their best selves, and to better understand who they really want to be.
My coaching journey with ‘Mike’ (not his real name), a 60-something government leader, is an example of what I’ve written about in this piece. Mike started his coaching journey focused on how he could achieve the next level of leadership in his organization, planning to stay for another 10 years. These conversations continued over several months and then suddenly pivoted as he began reflecting more on who he wanted to be and what ‘work’ looked like after weathering COVID with a family member suffering from a chronic illness.
By the end of the coaching relationship, Mike no longer wanted to achieve a more senior leadership position and realized he wanted to retire within five years instead of 10. He also decided that the legacy he wished to leave was developing other leaders who could fill his shoes when he retired, and he committed himself to this purpose.
While I was fulfilled to know that coaching helped Mike, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that having these conversations with his boss could have been far more beneficial to the organization than having them with an external coach.
This acknowledgment serves as a calling for leaders to do more than they are today to create a dialog of trust that helps organizations identify the best way its members can contribute to the organization’s success in a way that complements their own strengths and aspirations.
 Gerhardt, Megan W., et al. Gentelligence the Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce. Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.
 Schein, Edgar H., and Peter A. Schein. Humble Inquiry the Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2021.