Empathetic Leadership. There is no other time in modern history where the workforce is more in need of authentic empathetic leadership. Over the past two years, employees as a whole have experienced every possible emotion from fear and anxiety to reckoning and enlightenment. They have adjusted their work lives, physically and intellectually, to adapt and still provide results for the organizations that employ them. They have endured zoom fatigue, burnout, uncertainty and for some, job transition. Get to know your employees on a human level. Show them empathy and genuine care and it will pay dividends.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Melanie Hicks, PhD.
Dr. Hicks is the Founder and CEO or InPursuit, a boutique consulting firm specializing in organizational excellence through operations, strategy and leadership. She is an author, facilitator, and thought leader with more than two decades of experience in the areas of human resources, workforce, social enterprise, strategic planning, employee engagement, and organizational culture. She has worked with clients from small to midsized companies, education institutions, and nonprofit organizations.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.
Without question, there are two experiences that have done more to shape my life than any other. The first is travel. My connection to travel is nothing short of spiritual, holding the most powerful of life’s lessons. It began as a child. Whether it was the quick spring weekend escapes, the traditional fall football trips or the six-week-at-a-time summer extravaganzas, we loaded into an RV to travel the country in search of adventure. While my parents thought they were teaching me a little about geography and this great country of ours, these memorable vacations would come to be so much more.
As an adult travel took on even greater importance. Traveling alone to dozens of countries and with others to dozens more, these experiences deepened my own sense of purpose and connection to the global community. I immersed myself in different cultures which left permanent imprints on my thoughts and soul. These experiences grounded me, inspired me, and most importantly made me a more open, accepting, and empathetic human.
The second experience that forever changed my life is making the leap to full time entrepreneurship. After a decade of operating my “loving side hustle”, I made the decision to go all in on myself, my talents and my capabilities and relaunch InPursuit as a fully functioning firm. It was, by far, the most frightening and yet most exhilarating moment of my life. Charting your own course means you hold the weight of your destiny in your own hands and when you believe in what you are doing, down to the very core fibers of your being, then you know there is nothing that can keep you from success.
Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
My team and I hold a fundamental belief about the workplace; that it is innately human. In that regard, I believe that workplaces ten years ago, today, and ten years from now will always hold a similarity. The human experience is affected by contextual and societal changes but at the most basic level, it remains constant. We want to feel valued by the organization and those we work with for the time we give. We want to feel our talents are being utilized fully and appreciated for their uniqueness. And we want to feel like we are making a contribution to something, whether that be the profitability of the company or a larger social mission. These are universal human emotions and motivators.
As for differences, I tend to believe predictions are akin to predicting the model T Ford when everyone was in horse-drawn carriages. Most of the changes will be completely unfathomable in this moment. That said, I think we will continue to see innovations in technology that change the way we conduct work. I do believe we will always have a face-to-face component but the value of those interactions will continue to be scrutinized and morphed.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Now, more than ever, it is critical to really know your employees. Holding a spherical view of the humans you employ offers far reaching mutual benefits. As an employee, you feel valued and appreciated when your supervisor or the organization as a whole knows and acknowledges your individual existence. This, in turn, builds trust which is the core component to employee engagement and innovation.
Additionally, quality onboarding is a true key to reducing turnover. My research centers around a concept called psychological contract, the implicit and unspoken expectations we bring to the workplace. One of the most discussed psychological contract violations is a lack of understanding how to navigate the systems of an organization. This could mean actual process systems or the unspoken social systems. A thorough onboarding that includes peer mentoring and other social components can work wonders for solidifying the comfort and productivity of new employees.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
By far the biggest gap is psychological. Employees have spent the better part of two years setting their own time and deadline schedules, redefining work/life balance and delivering organizational results on their own terms. Employers wanting to revert to pre-pandemic norms, are choosing to wear blinders. Moving forward employees will continue to demand flexibility, hybrid working conditions and more casual interactions. Employers wanting to recruit and retain the best in their field will release the norms of old and embrace the current environment.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
There is no question the work from home movement fundamentally changed our perceptions of what the physical workplace should be. However, for all its commuting and office space expense efficiencies, it also launched us into a new era of burnout. When the pandemic hit, I was still working as a corporate consultant. Pre-pandemic my 50–60 hour workweek was diversified with weekly travel and face to face client engagement. As lockdown took over, the same long hours were spent staring at a computer screen on an endless zoom loop.
Stated best by Rahaf Harfoush, author of Hustle and Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed With Work. “We were never designed to sit in front of a computer screen and do back-to-back calls and write and research and collaborate and manage people,” Harfoush says. “That’s just never the way that our brain works.”
The flexibility to alter the traditional industrial model will certainly have lasting effects on employee’s expectations. As a colleague recently lamented, you cannot give someone a taste of freedom and independence and then put them back into solitary confinement. Admittedly, not everyone sees working in an office that dramatically. But the vast majority of workers polled indicate a desire to remain in a flexible working environment and not be required in the office daily.
We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
My team and I pride ourselves on being empathy-driven leaders and we are in the business of helping others lead in the same manner. To me, empathy is the key to every human interaction we have, especially in the workplace. At the broadest, organizational level, this means having quality processes in place to ensure employees feel seen, heard and valued. Robust onboarding, metrics-driven evaluation and bonus structures, and confidential ways to provide feedback are just a few examples.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
Without question, it is the ever-increasing value-based purchasing of consumers. More than any other time in history, consumers are using the power of their dollar to support companies that represent their personal values. From small, minority-owned businesses to social impact corporations, we are seeing a wave of sweeping accountability. Whether companies are leading the charge with authentic impact or succumbing to the trend reluctantly, our local communities and the world at large is better for it.
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
Earlier we talked about being an empathy driven leader from an organizational standpoint. This same principle applies to the individual as well. At the most basic level, this means treating employees as the spherical humans they are. Get to know them for more than the job description or tasks they perform for the organization. Do they have an outside hobby that might be put to use for your organization while also giving them work variety and personal fulfillment? What are their career aspirations and how might those be enhanced or encouraged by the organization? Pay attention to the little things they share about themselves and use that knowledge to drive incentives or simply make them feel seen and heard. We cannot always shield employees from burnout or zoom fatigue, but we can know them on a such a human level that we recognize the signs and acknowledge it before a dramatic consequence ensues.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?
Like many disruptive moments in history, this moment in time is a true reckoning of the workplace and workplace culture. The pandemic allowed employees to peel back the onion on more than just their current job. It unveiled a long repressed, psychological need to do work that is both interesting and meaningful. It heightened our sense of purpose and connection to the tasks we do day in and day out and the organization for whom we do them. ‘
To be successful, Leaders need to not only hear these messages but understand what that looks like within the context of their organization. For many years, the vast majority of employers have employed a top-down approach to human capital management. To keep the best and brightest, organizations need to truly understand, and do more than lip service to meet the needs of their employees.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Shapeshifting Work Landscape. They say the only constant is change. This is certainly true for today’s workplace. The customs and norms we once took for granted have all been flipped on their head and in order for organizations to remain relevant in today’s job market, they will need to adjust any antiquated thinking and then remain flexible as conditions and desires continue to change. Embracing hybrid and flexible work schedules and locations, replacing pageantry and formality with authenticity and directness, and normalizing the need for self-care and out-of-work lives are values that have risen to the top of the employment hierarchy and must be accounted for to remain competitive.
- The Intraprenuership Movement. The pandemic not only had workers reevaluating their current company roles, but it also fed the entrepreneurial spirit of many. But not everyone has the right acumen to be an entrepreneur. Many talented, innovative workers are happier with the stability of a paycheck but still long to utilize their creativity and leadership. This is where intrapreneurship can create a win/win. Organizations that allow space and processes for innovation, creativity, risk taking and self-directed leadership, gain the benefits of employees full talents while also reduce the risk employees will get bored and move on.
- Shorter Honeymoon Periods. It has been said that the attention span of the average American has been reduced from 30 seconds to approximately 7. The same can be said for employee’s tolerance for a mismatched employment experience. Job changing every few years has come to be an accepted practice but today’s employees are more likely than ever to leave within the first few months if they feel they have made a mistake. It’s critical that organizations work diligently to integrate new employees into the organizational culture and norms in a meaningful and positive way or they risk going back to the recruitment drawing board.
- Empathetic Leadership. There is no other time in modern history where the workforce is more in need of authentic empathetic leadership. Over the past two years, employees as a whole have experienced every possible emotion from fear and anxiety to reckoning and enlightenment. They have adjusted their work lives, physically and intellectually, to adapt and still provide results for the organizations that employ them. They have endured zoom fatigue, burnout, uncertainty and for some, job transition. Get to know your employees on a human level. Show them empathy and genuine care and it will pay dividends.
- Integrity Driven Businesses. Experts disagree on the reason, some believing it was an innate idealism while others believe it was a counteraction to decades of scandal and greed they witnessed as children. Either way, Millennials, Gen Z and likely Generation Alpha all share in the desire to uphold high standards of ethical company behavior. They want to both work for and support with their consumer dollars companies with authentic social and community impact. More than any other time in history, organizations need to integrate ethics, social good and genuine impact into their marketing and mission.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?
One of my most influential mentors, Dr. Fred Seamon, shared a valuable piece of advice with me when I was making a big decision about my career. I think of this quote daily.
“You can’t set yourself on fire to warm other people.”
It was critical for me to hear and really understand that messaging. No matter how much we care for others — our organization, our employees, our colleagues — we serve no one if we allow our talents to be consumed and not appreciated.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to the opportunity to meet my two favorite authors, Daniel Pink and Malcolm Gladwell. Both of these thought leaders have inspired me for decades. Their ability to break down human motivation and idiosyncrasies into insightful but consumable nuggets of knowledge leaves readers like me filled and yet wanting more.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
My company, InPursuit, can be found on our website at www.inpursuitresearch.org where you will find our weekly blog. You can also subscribe to The InPursuit Podcast anywhere you get your podcasts. Finally, you can follow us at any of the following social media handles.
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Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.