How to Lead in a Hybridized Workplace
Leaders everywhere are scrambling to figure out how to navigate the fast-changing rules of a hybrid workplace. Too many are grasping at straws to figure out how to communicate, coach, give direction and feedback, deepen connections, and remain credible across technological, geographical, and organizational boundaries. By now, many have figured out that what used to work—appearing confident and having the answers, giving one-way direction, avoiding hard feedback, being overly accommodating or overly inflexible, and remaining clueless about your impact on others—have long left the building. We have a global pandemic to thank for accelerating the eviction of long-outmoded leadership behaviors.
But what do we replace them with? New vocabulary like empathy, compassion, curiosity, self-awareness, and purpose are fast making their way onto the leadership playing field as talent continues to exit the workplace. And as last year’s bonuses are about to get paid out as the new year begins, many fear the exodus will only intensify.
The personal lives of those we lead have now become relevant to our work life in ways we’ve never seen.
For insights on what leaders need to do to adapt to these turbulent shifts, and help stem the tide of exiting talent, I spoke with Jeffrey Hull. He’s Director of Global Development at the Institute of Coaching and author of Flex: The Art and Science of Leadership in a Changing World.
“The hybridization of the workplace has definitely forced the hybridization of leadership,” says Hull. “The great news is that the changes to both are very aligned. Inflexible workplaces and work design—working 9-6, Monday-Friday, fixed vacation schedules, stoic meetings, cubicle farms, narrow definitions of collaboration and teaming—all accommodated rigid, command and control leadership behavior. But when and where work happens are off the table now.” People now collaborate synchronously as well as asynchronously. “The traditional workplace—the bustle, the serendipitous meetings, the rhythms—could absorb many leader’s flaws, and interactions were very superficial,” he says. “But that environment is no longer available. The value of the leader’s presence has shifted from controlling outcomes to facilitating the success of others. Many leaders aren’t prepared. But they can learn.”
For one thing, general self-awareness isn’t enough. It tended to suffice in the traditional workplace. As long as you weren’t a complete jerk, a few quirky flaws were dismissed as somewhat tolerable. But that tolerance has drained. Employees expectations have significantly escalated as they’ve awakened to just how much bad behavior they’re no longer willing to tolerate. “Leaders really have to know their strengths, their preferences, and their default orientations for leading,” Hull, an Executive Coach and CEO at Leadershift, says. “Are you generally controlling? Are you more democratic and consensus seeking? When are you at your best, and when aren’t you? You no longer have the luxury of ordering your world around a narrow set of preferences. You need to widen your repertoire of leadership approaches to adapt to the many preferences and needs of a team that may be scattered around the globe, working at different times of the day, and who collaborate and innovate differently than you do.”
Hull shared the story of an executive he coached whose team had started having innovation meetings without him. One of the executive’s new team members, an innovation lead, purchased an espresso machine and was making cappuccinos for the team who came by to participate in brainstorming and product-development meetings. For those working from home, he sent coffee gift cards for them to get their own beverages so they could join and feel included. He came into the office late and worked through the night. Innovation was moving along well but Hull’s client grew increasingly uncomfortable. He said to Hull, “I can’t just have people gathering to have coffee at any given time of the day. What will people think?”
Hull helped his client realize that the problem wasn’t the way his team member was delivering on his innovation goals. The problem was his discomfort with having to adapt his leadership to that approach. He would now have to learn how to add value, participate, get updates, and offer feedback in new ways.
It helps, especially in a hybrid work setting, to know your colleagues a bit better. Hull says you need to become a student of those you lead. “You have to shift from general knowledge to deep understanding,” he says. “Do you know their strengths? Their passions? What gives them a core sense of purpose and meaning? If you don’t know these things, your ability to earn their trust and lead them credibly will be muted.”
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To accurately assess an employee, you have to know what drives them. You have to learn—directly from them—what aspects of work they love, what they believe they are great at, and when they feel they are thriving. You may have one employee who is a great presenter, so you lean on her to do the heavy lifting for major pitches and presentations. But if you aren’t aware that she really doesn’t enjoy presenting, you won’t know that she’s harboring a growing resentment toward you. This means you can’t rely on just your data. “You need to provide rich and reliable sources of feedback for those you lead,” Hull says. “You need highly qualified sources—peers, other stakeholders, mentors, people they lead, etc. Having reliable data helps people center on how others see them, what their reputation is, and where they may have blind spots.”
Fairly evaluating an employee also involves matching their strengths and passions to the organization’s strategic priorities. Their most important work must clearly ladder up to what’s important to the organization so they never wonder where their contribution fits in. “Someone may want to deepen their social media skills but if there’s no strategic imperative for that,” Hull says, “you leave them demoralized and feeling irrelevant.”
The personal lives of those we lead have now become relevant to our work life in ways we’ve never seen. Hull suggests that leaders must now become much better listeners and inquirers. The need to be comfortable with “real conversations” characterized by mutual vulnerability, sincere care, and intentionality. Attributes like authenticity aren’t new, but in a hybrid workplace, certainly take on much greater importance. The hybrid workplace has stripped away the veneers of the surface-level interactions we’ve become accustomed to. “You may have been sincere when you asked your team member about their weekend while passing in the coffee area,” says Hull, “but the interaction wasn’t very deep.” Obligatory social exchanges are being replaced by new forms of social capital that demand more genuine and human connection.
“Today’s innovators need to transcend silos, break through boundaries, and coach themselves to be multifaceted—a fully realized leader, engaged partner, willing follower,” Hull writes in Flex. “As you look to continuously push against the edge of your own limitations, your goal must be to break down any wall that blocks you from knowing yourself. Don’t worry about climbing ladders that no longer exist. Instead, seek to defy the laws of gravity by elevating yourself and all of those around you with your passion, creativity, and enthusiasm. As simple as it sounds, you can be an inspiring leader, live out your deepest dreams, and change the world—from wherever you sit. And you can start right now.”
It may be hard to hear that to thrive in a hybridized world, your leadership must evolve even more than you thought. But if you want to gain the greatest levels of innovation and performance from those you lead, that’s what’s called for.
Ron Carucci is an Advisory Board member of Ethical Systems as well as cofounder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the bestselling author of eight books, and his work has been featured in Fortune, CEO Magazine, Harvard Business Review, BusinessInsider, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, and Smart Business.
Reprinted with permission from Forbes.