Leading in the digital workplace

Published on: June 2018

Written by: Corinne Tucker

We constantly talk about digital transformation and how it affects us. It impacts everything from our habits and behaviors as consumers, to society and the economy, to the workplace and the way we work. Even the ways we shop, date and play sports have all been impacted heavily by the use of technology. Things like cyberbullying and popular social media influencers – both unheard of before the digital age – are hot topics of conversation. Yet, notably, one important piece seems to be overlooked in these discussions: the effect of the digital age on our roles as people leaders in organizations.

Today, organizations are facing unprecedented levels of change. This transformative world is reflected in the global marketplace and in businesses, which have dramatically shifted over time as a result of technology and the way it has shaped the expectations and behaviors of customers and employees alike.

As technology has continued to evolve, leaders have had to continue adapting with it. Now is the time, again, for leaders to rethink their leadership “attitude and mindset.” Although this is not the first time that leaders have had to reinvent themselves, this technological shift poses unique challenges and an important question: Has leadership evolved enough over the last 20 years to meet the needs of digitally transformed organizations today?

The answer is not easily defined.

As Pulitzer Prize winning author James McGregor Burns said in 1978, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” Even with so much thought around the subject, this statement is still true today. The challenge with leadership – especially great leadership – is that it is both incredibly difficult to define and absolutely essential for great work.

Research from the Corporate Leadership Council states, “Leaders are the most powerful conduit to employee engagement at a rational and emotional level.”1 From what I have observed in the last 20 years, and based on personal experience, I could not agree more: a manager’s mindset, actions, and behaviors have a dramatic impact on their employees, and as a result, the performance of the organization. There is no doubt that leadership will remain king in the digital age, so long as the way leaders interact evolves to fit the changing needs of their people.

Being a great leader in the digital age means understanding people and their potential, and new technologies and how they shape us, while acknowledging the combined potential of the interactions between the two.

The way technology shapes us and our interactions is especially notable. Social media and more frequent thought sharing between people has created a stronger social conscience and cultivated the desire for a greater purpose in life and at work. A clearly defined purpose is essential in the digital age – for both the use of technology and for the work that people do.

Simply said, in the 21st Century, focusing on the “people” part of leading people is the key.

To accomplish this, leaders need to do the following:

  1. Be personal
    “The only way to lead people is to show them a future; a leader is a dealer in hope.” – Napoleon BonaparteCorporate missions, goals, strategies and values are often well-articulated and documented in organizations. What is lacking is the acknowledgement of people’s personal goals, strategies and values, as well as the why and the how behind their own life purpose – all of which is necessary to better engage them in their roles.

    Lack of purpose at work is the primary cause of attrition for Millennials, and according to Bill George, Professor at HBS and CEO of Medtronic, it also causes disengagement in the rest of the workforce.2 Clearly, having leaders invest time and effort in ensuring that people understand their own purpose, the overall strategy and the why behind the strategy is essential.

    In order for this to happen, leaders need to devote time to understanding their own purpose as well as the company’s purpose. This is about building a bridge of understanding and buy-in for everyone to cross over.

  2. Tap into talent
    It is essential to acknowledge that building greater capability within an organization starts with building the capabilities of each member. This means leaders need to develop the desire and skills to know their people and what makes them unique, and put effort towards identifying innovative approaches to development that serve both the people and the organization in the best way possible. Leaders need to tap into talent to drive performance and achievement.

    Tapping into talent is particularly essential in today’s world, as employee engagement is at an all-time low. The 2017 Gallup survey on employee engagement reported that in 2016, 87 percent of employees were actively disengaged or not fully engaged, and this figure has been relatively consistent for the past 15 years. This level of disengagement and the lack of commitment to a career path are startling. How is this possible at a time when working conditions, information and opportunities seem to be the best that they have been in history? Leaders need to empower their people by providing an engaging workplace that appeals to them and encourages them to stick around.

    According to Gallup, employees who are allowed to exercise their personal strengths on a regular basis have employee engagement levels six times higher than those who are not, and their quality of life is three times higher.3 This is why finding the innate talents of people and turning them into strengths through coaching and conscious developmental actions is absolutely essential to both engagement and a leader’s own development.

    As Liz Wiseman describes in her book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, where she illustrates how leaders can be better by multiplying the positive attributes of those they lead, “Becoming a leader multiplier illuminates the paths that help organizations overcome inertia and move from insight to impact.” Wiseman’s findings corroborate the points from the Gallup study, demonstrating that leveraging the inherent talent of your people results in positive impact, for both businesses and the people who run them.

  3. Question oneself
    Developing self-awareness and continually working towards self-improvement is paramount. Not only is self-awareness the number one driver of success, as described by Dr. Travis Bradberry but knowing oneself also allows us to appreciate others.4

    A leader’s mindset, values, words and behaviors have a constant and ongoing impact on his or her people. Based on their leaders’ visible or perceived behaviors, employees will either trust their leaders and follow them, or mistrust their leaders and put up with it until they decide to quit. Questioning oneself, and fully understanding one’s character, personal values and the way these traits impact others is essential for being a great people leader.

    Last but not least, a core value for successful leaders in the new digital workplace is personal resilience when it comes to technology itself. Leaders need the ability to constantly adapt to the speed, volume and frequency of change in technology, even though this can be a challenge in and of itself. This means being conscious of the impact that technology has on the way they work and shifting to thrive within this new reality. But adapting is not enough. The next stretch for great leadership will be anticipating technology’s potential and the way it will continue to affect leadership and other roles in the organization.

  4. Turn data into insights
    Organizations should take the opportunity to collect data about leaders and employees to fully grasp their capabilities, aspirations and a perspective on their career development, then create initiatives that will help build a future for employees. This allows the organization to gain a better understanding of their people as a whole and the goals and aspirations of the collective. This understanding can help drive performance and the organization’s overall goals.
In summary…

Given today’s rapidly changing global environment, leaders need to focus on the human element of leadership. This means truly connecting with their people in a unique way and allowing them to exercise their skills in the daily work environment. Looking ahead to the future, leaders need to continue to explore the ways in which technology can both aid and teach leaders how to be better – more connected, data-driven and personal.

Perhaps new technology will open new avenues for leadership, provide data and knowledge that allows leaders to better understand an individual’s motivation, and expand the potential for increasingly rapid innovations in leadership. Maybe this is what we are really looking for in our leaders, and perhaps one day technology will get us there.

Finally, even if technology opens new avenues for leadership, offering data and knowledge that allow us to make better decisions, it does not provide us with instant wisdom! I believe that immediate, personalized leadership that addresses our rapidly changing needs is what we are really looking for in our leaders. So, for now, leaders need to focus on evolving with the rapidly changing world and this means spreading even greater wisdom.