August 17, 2021
From minimum-wage restaurant and retail staff to well-paid professionals, workers are leaving their jobs in droves. To an extent, the exodus reflects an extremely tight labor market — with many businesses eager to hire, walking from a job is less risky than normal. Despite the indignation of some observers, the fact that people are turning down low wages and miserable conditions when they have better options shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But why are many professionals abandoning traditionally coveted roles? The shift to remote work was a game changer for many. Those with long commutes and family obligations found that the home office delivered a long-overdue balancing of the work/life ledger. Facing the prospect of returning to traditional office settings, many just said no. Resentment is another factor. Employees who gave their all to keep businesses afloat during the stress and isolation of the pandemic, only to be unappreciated by their superiors, have turned to greener pastures.
Compensation, recognition and quality of life are obviously critical factors in choosing (or choosing to leave) a job. But more nuanced considerations are also at play. The pandemic sparked a fundamental soul searching that led many to want to try new things or question whether they are doing the things they are best suited to. While potentially a threat to stability, I believe such restlessness creates an opportunity. By accommodating employee interest in and demand for self-actualization, business leaders can build an agile and innovative organizational culture.
Businesses today must quickly adapt to new competitors, dynamic market conditions and emerging technologies. By definition, that means doing things in new and different ways. As such, I would argue that today’s intellectually curious workers seeking something new should be embraced and not feared. In other words, rather than focusing on getting back to “normal,” leaders should aim to leverage the disruptive momentum of the pandemic to drive even more change.
Consider the “stay remote” versus “return to the office” debate. A traditional mindset applies an either/or perspective with a static, pre-defined outcome — “We either go back to how we did things before 2020 or keep doing what we’ve done since 2020.” Innovative leaders, meanwhile, are fundamentally rethinking the meaning of the workspace. The result: an evolving, hybrid approach that combines the flexibility of remote work with the essential collaboration of an office environment. Workers benefit by avoiding the grind of a daily commute, as well as the isolation of working exclusively from home. It’s true that implementing such a program requires investment. Operationally, — as many leaders learned early on in the pandemic — service delivery models must ensure that workers have the tools and support needed to work productively and securely from home. Logistically, schedules must align so that relevant departments, teams and individuals are together on in-office days.
But the place where work gets done only scratches the surface of the issue. An innovative business culture positioned to meet the challenges of disruption needs fresh, clean-slate approaches to problem-solving. As I’ve discussed here, support of continual learning can facilitate a change-oriented mindset. Organizationally, innovation teams, sandbox projects and rotating roles can expose people to new skills, functions and ideas. While the workforce benefits of such initiatives can be hard to gauge and are largely qualitative, metrics such as reduced turnover and its associated costs can demonstrate value in concrete terms.
Full Brain Potential
Tapping the innovative potential of a workforce requires recognizing that people have different ways of thinking, absorbing information and solving problems. At a high level, the distinction is categorized as left brain (logical, analytical and deductive) and right brain (intuitive, non-linear and abstract) thinking. These innate characteristics translate into myriad differences and preferences. Working with numbers rather than concepts. Working alone or in teams. Gathering information and reaching a conclusion, or starting with an idea and then testing it with data.
Business leaders can leverage these differences to create “whole-brained” teams that benefit from the full spectrum of applied brainpower. Specifically, by mixing and matching various skill sets and perspectives, businesses can spark a dynamic of “creative abrasion” that combines logic, intuition, analytics and creativity to generate fresh insights. The leadership role is critical and requires defining your own style of learning and problem-solving, as well as avoiding unconscious bias against other approaches.
A Safe Place
To encourage the risk-taking essential to innovation, businesses should create a “freedom to fail” culture that supports teams and individuals even when projects fail to meet quantitative expectations. That support, moreover, should extend beyond bottom-line considerations. The concept of psychological safety examines criteria that contribute to (or discourage) an individual’s willingness to share ideas — particularly those that don’t reflect the dominant corporate culture. In this context, a business committed to open interchange of ideas must ensure that, for example, a creative, non-linear thinker is comfortable sharing ideas with a group of quantitative, analytical types. The key question, in other words, is whether people feel comfortable going out on a limb with their colleagues.
To create that safe place of individual expression, organizational leaders must evolve toward a learning climate that promotes innovation and risk-taking while embracing diversity and inclusion. This strategic imperative requires that transformational leaders deliver a jolt to the system — a perturbation — that promotes change and intentionally disrupts the status quo.
To respond to unprecedented change and constant uncertainty, transformational leaders must embrace these challenges, learn from criticism, actively seek feedback and break existing stereotypes. These characteristics of a growth mindset are paramount to enabling individuals, teams and organizations to reach their full potential. Ultimately, organizations that thrive are the ones that will adopt, evolve and continue to transform. And change leaders will emerge as the modern-day superheroes that enable long-term organizational success.