The following is an excerpt from “The Empathy Revolution: Practical wisdom to combat organizational and social loneliness” by Chris Meroff, (Oct. 17, 2023)
The Current Version of Leadership is Broken
As an owner of multiple businesses and ventures, a common theme that’s emerged when hiring young adults revolves around the horror stories they endure in work environments because of poor leadership. In fact, current reports show three out of four employees say their boss is the most damaging and stressful part of their job, while 60% feel negativity surrounding their positions in the workforce. When workers feel devalued by their managers, 50% will leave to look for another job within the year. This became most apparent in August 2021 when the Great Resignation began and, as a mass exodus of Baby Boomers retired, many young people felt they could finally escape to greener pastures. It’s estimated 48 million people quit their jobs in 2021, but half of those that quit (25.6 million people) did so at the latter end of the year. To compound the issue, many bosses, CEOs, and managers adopted a culture of nonstop productivity to increase revenue, sales, and growth. By 2022, thousands of workers began “quiet quitting” to combat the burnout culture they’d been forced to endure with an ever increasing bottom line.
Quiet quitting is where a worker stays at their job but is the last one in and first one out, not doing more than what’s required of them. In many respects, this is fair, as you pay your employees for what’s expected of them based on a job outline or performance review. To demand more of an employee without fair compensation or adequate guidelines isn’t just greedy, but immoral. And yet, productivity demands appear to be at the center of many employees’ dissatisfaction, as up to two-thirds state they’re expected to respond to work messages and requests outside of normal business hours, even during paid time off and vacation. Just how did we come to normalize such standards that continue to deteriorate our worker’s satisfaction and mental well-being?
Reverse engineering productivity
If you were to ask, “Name the most productive person on the planet,” most people would respond, “Elon Musk.” It’s reported that Musk only sleeps four hours a night and given his ambitions of a manned mission to Mars and acquiring Twitter, you’d be hard pressed to not agree. Regardless of what you think of Musk, what drive does he possess that’s missing in everyone else? How is he able to accomplish so much more than the average person? In reality, what exists inside Musk is inside everyone, but Musk has been able to psychologically align his work with his own goals and ambitions.
Here’s the issue within the work environment. We expect men and women to psychologically align with a company’s ambitions when we haven’t given them a reason to. As stated, many already feel devalued, overworked, and underpaid, while their managers demand more productive workers. If everyone is quiet quitting, then how do you even raise the threshold?
Prior to the turn of the 21st century, we referred to those willing to do the bare minimum as “slackers” because they didn’t care about productivity but simply getting by. I would contend, however, that it’s because they were never valued. As time has gone by, I believe we’ve seen employees less and less as human beings and more as means to an end.
To reverse engineer the question about how Elon Musk is productive and how we can make our employees more productive, it begins when they feel known, heard, and valued. If you start with the person and unleash their potential, then the natural outflow is more productivity. You don’t have to ask for it, because they feel valued and will put their ingenuity to work. However, when productivity is the bottom line to get profit, everyone loses. Turnover happens at a rapid pace and is the worst expense you could have. When companies are constantly hiring new employees, they restart at ground zero until the new staff member can perform the same functions as their predecessor. That person then leaves, and the cycle starts anew. You can hire professional accountants to slash budgets and end unnecessary spending, but you’ll never maximize profit. Maximizing profit is as easy as not having constant turnover.
A hundred years ago, when the Industrial Revolution kicked off, if you owned a company, you had to be an expert in manufacturing or agriculture. Back then, it was easy to plug-n-play human beings for a role. Here’s an assembly line. Put the cog on the widget and repeat. If the employee didn’t want to do that job or work in the factory, they could find someone else (even children for lesser pay). Because of the way that environment worked, 90% of success relied on the heads of companies and factories to be experts in their fields.
Now fast forward 100 years. The commodity of knowledge is no longer sacred, but anyone can learn it. Men and women can learn web development and graphic design from YouTube clips. Do-it-yourself renovation is a massive industry. Online courses allow anyone the keys to knowledge. It’s no longer the CEO who holds those keys. Instead, 90% of success depends on the staff who actually provide the work and results. And yet, we’re still stuck in an Industrial Revolution mindset. Many industries and business executives assume without their leadership that the company would fall apart when in fact it’s the exact opposite. The company is a house of cards when you don’t value the 90% of people who do the actual work.
Generationally, the demand to be an individual has grown and is why many CEOs and managers want to complain about younger generations. Younger generations have recognized that knowledge is just a commodity, and thus demand to be treated like a human being instead of a number. And rightly so. However, it’s much easier for those leading companies to blame Millennials or Gen Z instead of valuing and empowering those working in their offices and industries.
This is perhaps most apparent inside non-profits and also crosses into the for-profit industry. Most non-profit employees work for peanuts and are consistently undervalued because they’re told they’re saving the world or working on a social issue they’re passionate about. Once more, the individual doesn’t matter, but results about whatever social issue they’re tackling take precedence. Within many of the non-profits I’ve consulted for, they complain that for-profits are easier to manage because most of their workers are volunteers. Volunteers don’t have to keep volunteering and can easily step out if they become overworked. What the for-profit industry fails to realize is that they should treat their staff almost like volunteers, because their employees don’t have to come back tomorrow either. In effect, both industries have run into the same problem because they value productivity over the person.
Companies often operate, instead, through a posture of authority, much as you would with a young child: because I’m the dad and you’ll do what I say. But authority is never the solution to creating an environment that values your workers and produces results. Instead, it breeds compliance or rebellion—often both. If business leaders want to end turnover, quiet quitting, and increase productivity and happiness in their staff member’s lives, then they must make them feel known, heard, and valued. When managers and leaders accomplish this, they unleash their employee’s capacity to do and be more. That’s why the current model of leadership is broken, because in order to achieve fulfillment in the workplace, there has to be sacrifice involved. But to accomplish this task and begin the change, it will take trading your own power for their greatness.
Chris Meroff is also a USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Align: Four Simple Steps for Leaders to Create Employee Fulfillment Through Alignment Leadership