An Evolution in Leadership for Today's New World of Work

By Laci Loew, XpertHR Senior Global Analyst, HR Strategy and Insights

September 5, 2023

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A significant majority (85%) of global employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged. How do organizations go about reversing that statistic? The answer, at least in large part, is nurturing a people-first culture with focus on satisfying employees' growing expectations around well-being, inclusion, belonging and parity - in other words, a modern leadership approach known as human-centric leadership.

When asked what makes a leader human-centric, employees said: Treat us as people first and workers second, welcome and respect our differences, empower, and trust us. They said doing so prompts higher productivity and better performance, and they appear to be on to something.

When human-centrism is mainstream leadership behavior, employees are almost four times more likely to be high performing, more than three times more likely to stay with their organization and more likely to show low levels of fatigue. Organizations generate revenues that are 32% higher than traditional organizations, deliver outcomes to market twice as fast and outperform the S&P 500 market by 211% on average.

Here enters the conundrum. While employees crave, and demand, human-centric leaders, few (29%) say their leaders exhibit human leadership. So how can businesses help?

Human-Centric Leadership Is a Business Imperative

Today's new world of work requires reimagining and reinventing leadership development. Multi-day executive education sessions and libraries of on-demand courseware just won't do it. Leadership development done right is not a collection of training programs; it is a business strategy.

Businesses need to help leaders think differently about:

Work

Focus on skills (not jobs) and embrace human-bot interaction to get work done.

Workplace

Build an inclusive culture fostering networked, digitally enabled workspaces.

Workforce

Be as concerned about the employee experience as the business's customers.

Worker

Be human, be empathetic, and show real genuine care for employees' holistic well-being.

Leaders who lack the capacity to make these mindset and behavior shifts - whose makeup as a person just isn't human-centric - will not be successful.

Helping Leaders Become Human-Centric

High-impact businesses should prioritize the transformation of leaders from traditional and process-driven to modern and human-centric by taking at least three actions.

1. Enable Leaders with Awareness

Require leaders to complete a self-discovery assessment drawn upon scientifically based patterns of behavior designed to provide evidence-based insights about their behaviors and how those behaviors influence others. These instruments are the means to discover the manners, attitude and mindset leaders bring to situations - business as usual, emergency, or stressful ones - and how they interact with others. Having a keen sense of awareness about personal approach and style empowers leaders to make required attitude and behavior shifts. Though these behavioral inventory instruments have been available for some time, few leaders took them seriously. That is no longer an option. Ignoring the need for potential change is the demise of today's leader.

2. Engage Leaders in Experiential Learning

Immerse leaders in perpetual opportunities to practice human-centric behaviors in role-based, personalized, and interactive learning scenarios. During experiential learning, leaders engage intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully, and even physically at times. This type of interaction builds authenticity and relationships. Learning by doing and practicing prompts leaders to question and examine personal values, biases and/or preconceptions, which serves as a catalyst for instantiating human-centric behaviors. Learning occurs when they experience first-hand how their behavior impacts others - positively or negatively. Learning is sustained when leaders transfer positive behaviors formed during practice to the real world of work and life.

3. Hold Leaders Accountable

As the new people-first social contract between employers and employees grows, successful and thriving organizations will be those that expect leaders to dive in heart-first (not head-first) and hold them accountable for being human-centric above all else. Leaders who give lip service to human-centric principles but to which they lack genuine commitment cannot be given a pass. The accountability process has two central components:

Responsibility to Self

Responsibility to Others

Holding oneself accountable is a leader's pledge to being human-centric. Leaders successful at self-accountability subscribe to the principles and benefits of human-centric leadership and have a genuine desire to bring the right attitudes, behaviors, and mindset forward. They regularly take time for self-reflection and are so self-aware that they know when they have erred. When they do so, they admit to the mistake, tell others who are affected and immediately self-correct.

As members of a leadership team, leaders have accountability to each other, to others they influence and to the teams they lead. To gather evidence that they are being human-centric leaders, the C-suite should require leaders to ask others about whether they are modeling human-centric behaviors, how well they are modeling them and plans for making changes if they are not. Leaders should solicit this feedback from others on a regular basis and share the input upward with the same frequency.

As it is far too easy to make empty promises, if requisite behavioral changes are not being made, then consequences ensue. Those consequences can be as minor as a warning or involve being passed over on succession plans or exiting from the organization in the most severe of situations.

In short, making the transformation to human-centric leadership is not necessarily easy. Transformation of any kind takes real desire first and huge effort next. When the transformation gets personal - as is the case with human-centric leadership - it is even more challenging. The very best leaders realize it is hard work, their role is about doing hard work and they go all in on making it happen.

The So What

The dynamics of what got organizations to the need for human-centric leadership are complex - in short, a whole new world with new work, workplace, workforce, and worker expectations. Similarly, the shifts from traditional to human-centered leadership are similarly complex. Yet, the quantitative links between human-centered leadership and employee and company performance are plentiful. Organizations seeking long-term sustainability and viability will need to require that their leaders take the human-centric leadership path starting now.

--Adapted from "An Evolution in Leadership For Today's New World of Work" originally published on Forbes.com on May 18, 2023.