Here's How Leaders Are Failing Their Employees Right Now - And What They Should Do Instead
Michael DeVenney
February 21, 2022
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Leaders are facing the great acceleration, with trends ramped up in velocity by the pandemic. Everything is moving faster. And people need to be making their best contribution, leaders need accountability and responsibility.

And the pressure to perform, with seemingly no boundaries between time on the job and finding the switch to personal life, has created stress at unprecedented levels. And I think leaders are not completely in sync with the dynamics of the impact on people.

Mental wellbeing is now on the organizational agenda. It is not a personal responsibility.

The gap opens with confidence. While we found leaders having a high level of confidence to tackle the road ahead, with a 76.2% rating for readiness, and the belief that the workforce is ready to respond to change in a healthy way.

No! Resoundingly no, people are not getting the consistent communication needed to make sense of things.

A third of the workforce feel they are in a state of ongoing anxiety. While people felt competent in their role and connected to their team, their rating for coping with change was 65.6%, their capacity to maintain composure at 49.2%. Meaning, more than half of employees doubt if they can handle their emotions appropriately. And the stress from uncertainty continues, putting ongoing weight on people.

Feeling overwhelmed and anxious does not lead to the highest level of creativity, collaboration, and contribution. We need to be mentally healthy to be at our best.

The gap highlights the new tension as employees move from a culture of compliance, following the authority of leaders, to one of contribution, being engaged and empowered to work. The contract has changed, with greater interdependence, and leaders have not yet made the shift.

Leaders felt their greatest strategic strength was building cultures that encourage positive and supportive relationships. But being collegial is not necessarily the same as being resilient and in a place of mental wellness to handle continuing change, much less to be aligned to achieve shared success.

And engagement is dropping precariously, with only 45.4% of employees engaged by the direction set by leaders. Even more staggering, almost 75% of people are not engaged by their work. Interestingly, people find their work meaningful, but the pressures and uncertainty are draining the energy people typically feel from contributing in their way to the organization.

People are anxious, feeling unable to cope, losing engaged, and drifting in a congenial environment. What is a leader to do?

Leaders responded with the confidence of their ability to provide focused and deliberate direction. The focus is on execution to position their organizations to move through the pandemic and be ready to grow. The expectations are for teams to be accountable, interact positively together, and respond in a healthy way to change.

In other words, keep your feelings in and do your work.

This approach is not helping. It continues to build pressure on people, exacerbating the challenge to mental well-being.

Worse, people were often confused by inconsistent decision-making and the lack of a consistent and compelling message. Things do not make sense, making the foundation crack a bit more.

Stress and burnout have escalated dangerously in the last year. And despite being empathetic, many leaders feel that individuals should take care of their own mental health. Executives need to be present and open to appreciating how people feel, and directors as well (you cannot sit idly by on the board, you are accountable to the workforce as well).

No! Resoundingly no, as the working environment is a significant part of the emotional state of people.

Leaders have been traditionally uncomfortable with the emotional landscape for their employees. I think there is still a paternalistic approach happening, caring, but with an expectation to be strong and get through it.

This is a time for leaders to take a step forward and grow to be empathetic for the mental wellness of their people. They need to go beyond engagement, and look deeper into data on the working environment, understanding the impact on the dynamics, experience, and energy resulting for employees.

By missing this opportunity, leaders are not tapping their greatest asset. By accessing the perspectives of employees, leaders gain diverse thinking and contrasting views. They see the full context, invaluable for decision-making and bringing people together.

Leadership development generally starts with a focus on self-awareness, identifying strengths, highlighting areas for development, and spending time on personal reflection. This is all good if it leads to a higher level of emotional intelligence. But I think leaders need to place a considerable investment in contextual awareness – understanding the perspectives of the people who provide the contribution for success.

What is the impact of the working environment on people, and how are they experiencing work? Data on these two questions alone can make a significantly positive difference.

Understand yourself and understand those around you.

Well-being is on the organizational agenda; it is not the responsibility of the individual alone.

It is wonderful to care, but it is priceless to provide resources to help people cope and build their resilience. Mental well-being is an organizational responsibility.

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