Positive Leadership: Embracing Empathy and Flexibility to Attract Top Talent in the Post-Pandemic World
“Can you believe it? Their junior executives are stuck in windowless cubicles, and senior leadership refuses to consider remote work or flexible schedules,” Zariah shared. As a mid-career professional with an impressive track record, he had just turned down a substantial offer from a company he had once admired.
As an executive coach, I’ve witnessed a rising number of high-achieving professionals like Zariah seeking roles that align with their personal values and overall well-being rather than focusing solely on career advancement. This shift reflects the growing demand for human-centric leaders, leadership, and workplaces in a world forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Great Resignation has highlighted the need for a new kind of leadership that can attract and retain top talent. Positive leadership, characterized by its empathetic and forward-thinking nature, has emerged as a critical factor in fostering successful and sustainable workplaces.
So, how can you adopt this leadership style and create an environment that draws and retains the best and brightest? Here are six strategies to help you make that shift:
- Embrace empathy: Fear often prevents leaders from leaning into empathy. They feel like they don’t have enough time to spend on emotions, empathetic responses tread too closely to employees’ personal lives, or they might screw it up, so it’s safer to avoid it altogether. Many of us have never seen this style modeled well, so we ignore the empathetic impulse or delegate it to someone who is “good with people.” The magic happens when leaders turn on their emotional Wi-Fi, become present, and acknowledge what they see/sense/hear without trying to move into problem-solving.
- Lead with benevolent courage: Benevolent courage is achieving your results while maximizing the quality of the experience of the people you lead. It means giving equal weight to bold decision-making, achieving results, and developing the people you lead. Spoiler alert, you can only be as good to others as you are to yourself. If you are burning yourself out, there is a very good chance you are burning others out as well.
- Foster a blame-free culture: When things do not go as planned, people are inclined to off-load the responsibility of the failure to others, particularly on those who are not present. This sows dissent between teams and colleagues that can become so pervasive that it lives on even after an employee leaves an organization. Hold everyone in your organization 100% accountable for their results and behaviors. The environment demands that we be agile and adaptive, and to thrive in this environment, workers need permission to change their minds based on new information and to admit a mistake. Teaching that it’s okay to change an agreement but never to break it is a healthy workplace boundary that embodies the tough-minded, tender-hearted leader.
- Tame your negativity bias with generosity: In the absence of information, our brains close the gaps between events, making up meaning as fast as possible. The brain doesn’t actually care if it’s true or not because we are wired to prioritize perceived threat over opportunity. Therefore our story-making is not in other people’s favor and can hype up our sense of self-protectionism and create blind spots. Counteract your negativity bias with generosity, and ask yourself, “What is the most generous assumption I can make about this person in this moment?” Be prepared for internal resistance because your brain will want to stick with the original story. Notice the shifts in your creativity and problem-solving when you approach others from a place of generosity.
- Avoid over-functioning: Leaders are high performers who gain energy by getting things done. When under pressure or uncomfortable, many leaders exhibit a strong bias for action. They naturally ramp up energy and activities, which can feel like being bulldozed to the rest of the team. In the workplace, this can look like micromanaging and a rush to solve problems because it’s faster than teaching a team member how to solve their own challenge. By staying with a team member instead of solving a problem for them or simply remembering it’s not your problem, you can embolden your team to step up as leaders and free yourself up for higher-level strategic thinking.
- Cultivate a beginner’s mind: Be willing to learn in public, especially in areas you are viewed as an expert. This requires courage, humility, and curiosity. This can feel intimidating and vulnerable, after all you’ve been promoted because of accuracy, timeliness, and your“bulletproof competence.” Try this, when you are the most senior person in the room, wait for three people to speak before you make a contribution, even if you think you know the answer. Many leaders report feeling like a slacker when they shift into this style. However, your most important leadership responsibility is to develop other people. It has the greatest ROI and most sustainable impact on the company’s future success. You have to be willing to sit back and create the space for them to speak their mind.
The pandemic has prompted a global reassessment of rigid workplace norms and expectations. Organizations that embrace positive leadership will be better positioned to adapt and succeed in the increasingly competitive post-pandemic landscape. By embodying empathy, flexibility, and courage, you can drive meaningful change in your own organization and create a thriving, inclusive work environment that attracts top talent. While it is scary to let go of a tried and true way of doing something, the essence of leadership is being brave enough to do something differently before everyone else is doing it.