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The Leadership-Workforce Relationship Is Broken

Phil Carroll, Choose to Grow
February 21, 2020

In a functioning hierarchy there are some fundamentals that have been sacrosanct for centuries. Following the chain of command and respecting the uniform have been as important for business and civilian organisations as they still are for the military. Instinctively we feel these must be good solid, dependable principles to help build stable, tightly controlled, process-oriented organisations.

In reality though, these concepts are a fall-back position, relied on to prop up a hierarchy and keep it functioning. They keep you plodding on but won’t win you any medals. For as long as people have been organising themselves into groups with structures, real success has required much deeper, more dynamic and reciprocal relationships between the different echelons. Expecting unquestioning respect for rank, which until recently has been the dependable status quo within many organisations, will keep everyone putting one foot in front of the other, as long as the climate you are operating in is calm and relatively predictable.

Today’s landscape is neither of those things. It is highly volatile; “unpredictable” would be a huge understatement and the pace of change is accelerating. The nature of the workforce is also now unrecognisable. There are reports of five different generations within the workforce, co-existing within all different structural levels, the first time organisations have experience this. In response to the uncertainty and pace of change, the silent, “work hard”, older generations are working longer and harder than ever before. Meanwhile the millennials are really mixing it up; demanding involvement in decision making, a much closer, coaching-style relationship with managers, unwavering authenticity and recognition for the quality of their contribution over the quantity.

The upshot then, is the relationship between leadership and the workforce is broken; it’s no longer fit for purpose. With managers unable to sustain their own wellbeing let alone role model for the people in their teams, when the going gets tough things start to fall apart. The symptoms are everywhere and are found throughout an organisation. Absenteeism begins to rise. Managers and leaders of an older generation find themselves under ever greater pressure to deliver while their teams become less willing and unproductive. The old guard’s typical response will then be to work harder and longer and eventually something has to give. The millennials in the organisation also burn out but for different reasons. Without the fulfilment and involvement they depend on, they are likely to lose the will to keep trying. Others will simply walk. When any organisation finds its talent and experience haemorrhaging out of the front door, its prospects take an inevitable hit. Profitability and market share can suffer very quickly. Too often organisations find themselves stuck in a rut with a workforce displaying a lack of buy in, engagement or motivation and the management team suffering tension and resentment of each other and of their teams.

To avoid these dangers and to mend (or preserve and improve) the leadership-workforce relationship, leaders must become a new breed and forget what they have done before. To improve everyone’s working experience, they must facilitate better working environments.  They should promote practices and attitudes that help the organisation become adaptable to change, whether that change comes from within or without. Crucially they must harness the strengths of each different individual generation, foster closer relationships and interact cooperatively, creating a higher sense of belonging, which in turn will help engender a stronger state of resilience. All the while they need to facilitate a more resilient environment so that the organisation and its people can support each other when they take a knock. It is incumbent on leaders to be role models for their workforce and the budding leaders of tomorrow. By taking a people-oriented approach, yesterday’s organisation of bosses and workers plodding along and barely surviving, can transform into a crack unit of leaders and partners taking the field by storm.


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