The future of work needs a change from leaders in being and doing

Businessperson in a modern office connected on internet network. concept of partnership and teamwork

Reports of empathy fatigue. The Great Resignation. Leaders and managers enduring a burnout epidemic. The cost-of-living crisis reprioritising financial wellbeing over mental wellbeing and the Fourth Industrial Revolution with robots replacing humans.

Just where is the world of work headed? I reached out to five coaching practitioners from within the Association of Executive Coach’s (AoEC) community of executive and team coaches to get their opinions on what the future of work looks like and what organisations should be doing to keep pace and their employees at peak performance.

The VUCA world dictates change 

Academics and political think tanks have long debated workplace change, but most of what comes to fruition stems from the VUCA (volatile, unpredictable, complex, ambiguous) world we reside in.

World events like the Covid-19 pandemic have not only been tests of endurance, but significant change agents too.

As Karen Smart, head of consultancy with the Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC) believes, events like the pandemic are natural territory for coaches to delve into. Her assessment is that the services of coaches have never been needed more because of the levels of uncertainty and anxiety that came to the fore.

She says: “Many coaches had a ringside seat helping clients find ways through the disruption. Employees expected their leaders to have all the answers in how they were going to get through to the other side. With all the baggage and heavy lifting that came in helping leaders find the space to think and make tough decisions, coaches gained a good insight into how workplace practices and leadership mindsets need to adapt to cope with future challenges.”

Smart points to the pandemic as being a nanosecond in the cycle of complex change but recognises that the learnings from it were big and should be used to chart a path through similar times of upheaval. “That VUCA (volatile, unpredictable, complex, ambiguous) cycle is ongoing and getting faster. Those unseen challenges will come quicker, and organisations need to be applying what they have learned from the upheaval to better connect their strategy and culture.”

Jenny Campbell, coach and founder of the newly rebranded Resilience Dynamic (formerly the Resilience Engine), thinks the onus rests in part on organisational resilience. She says “An organisation’s resilience is the amount of change it can absorb successfully. Wellbeing sits right inside that, alongside resilience skills such as perspective and pacing together with a resilience mindset.”

Leadership mindsets must evolve

Intense debate still surrounds what makes a good leader with a move away from the outdated command and control model. The ideals upheld most in the wake of the pandemic centred on servitude, consciousness, adaptability and empathy. All pitched as attributes which should translate into autonomy, motivation for high performance and making tough times easier to traverse.

On servitude where the leader is focused on empowering others, coach Lucy Day draws on the need for leaders to be connected to the organisation’s purpose and aware of the contribution they make as individuals. “Enabling others to connect with these can increase resilience. And where possible, supporting people to solve their own problems, take decisions and embrace the learning that arises. A toddler does not learn to walk by never falling.”

The resilience theme is picked up by Campbell here too who says being present, optimising your energy levels and having a high learning capability are the key drivers to being flexible and feeling confident when things are uncertain.

George Warren an executive coach working with leaders and managers wants to see more of the human side: “Leaders can help communicate more, show vulnerability, talk about their mental health and share their own stories. There is a danger that leaders come across as superheroes, as perfect and invulnerable and that can be really disheartening to people in more junior roles.”

Warren thinks leaders should flex their EQ muscles more and emphasises their need to “model behaviour that will really help others get to those positions of leadership.”

Join our growing network of employers
Receive Make A Difference News straight to your inbox

Psychological safety is paramount

Psychological safety has already courted high profile interest from different camps including Google with Project Aristotle and Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization. It is also something many executive and team coaches cite as being crucial to the future of work and in turn, wellbeing.

Campbell says if the workplace environment is psychologically unsafe it can kill resilience and wellbeing: “The impact is obvious to those experiencing this, but to those who have created that unsafety they may not see what is going on. This is because most often, the underlying cause behind psychological unsafety is a low resilience – leading to over controlling and under-trusting.”

To counteract low psychological safety, Campbell wants organisations to invest in resilience and wellbeing by “bringing this thinking and action directly into the mainstream of the work.  It starts off with listening – and you need to extend to unleashing trust specifically. We find the easiest way is to help people trust themselves, and that then leaves them open to trusting others.”

Sheila Lloyd-Campbell is a coach with a specialist interest in neuroscience and thinks leaders, managers and coaches must do more to work with real workplace issues from a psychologically informed position.

With a trend towards collective leadership and teaming, she advocates looking at the neuropsychology of teams and the psychology of awareness so people can understand the mechanics behind it and build on the behaviours associated with it. She moots the idea that this is a great opener for teams to go on and challenge each other from a safe psychological space.

Lucy Day also does a lot of work with teams and places high value on: “A few mindsets and behaviours including agility, curiosity and trust. I think trust transcends the others. Cultivating behaviours that offer safety and support to be vulnerable, say when you are scared, to ask questions, admit when you don’t know the answers (even if you are the leader), to be able to be able to constructively manage conflict.“

Resilience and wellbeing must be front and centre

For Day, one of her “great frustrations is that some organisations believe they can’t afford to be more responsible and proactive in supporting employee wellbeing.” She references Alex Edmans research that the best companies to work for yield higher shareholder returns, with 2.3-3.8% higher yield per year compared to peers. In not-for-profit, the business case is also compelling with fewer deaths in hospitals with a happy, engaged workforce.

Jenny Campbell says put resilience and wellbeing into the business, right in the centre, and work to consider resilience demand versus capacity. Her advice is straightforward: “Don’t leave it on the side. If you are unclear what the first step is, consider how to enable your leaders and managers to listen well. It is simple to say, and it takes real, specific work.”

The last word goes to Karen Smart who says change must be harnessed in a positive way.

“The future of work boils down to finding the best practices in leadership, being change ready, developing people properly and celebrating human values. If employers are prepared to shift their ways of being and doing, then the rewards for their efforts will be a more resilient, more talented, more engaged and much more productive workforce.”

About the author

Lee Robertson is a content producer and looks after the communications for coach training provider the AoEC.

Passionate about all things related to the human side of leadership, management, people development and wellbeing, Lee is a keen advocate for the use of coaching and coaching skills in the modern workplace.

When she is not researching, writing or working on podcasts and events, Lee can be found looking after her multitude of animal friends or enjoying the rugged beauty of the countryside near her home in Cambridgeshire’s Fenlands.


Sponsored by The Watercooler


Sign up to receive Make A Difference's fortnightly round up of features, news, reports, case studies, practical tools and more for employers who want to make a difference to work culture, mental health and wellbeing.