In a recent U.S. survey of workplace attitudes, 61 per cent of employees said they and their co-workers were closer now than they were three years ago. Employers were even more enthused—78 per cent said they felt closer to their teams. This could simply be the metaphorical afterglow at the end of a long and difficult day. But it may also be that the economic slowdown simply accelerated the pace of change in what was already a changing workplace. Whatever the case, to lead a workplace today is to confront new expectations of occupational cohesion and unity.
For sure, crisis has a way of uniting those affected. Leaders can be elevated by the challenge and those under their direction may be all the more eager to rally around. The emergence of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani in the wake of 9/11 is perhaps the epitome of this. “Sometimes adversity forces leaders to be more than who they have been,” says Glenn Rowe, director of the executive M.B.A. program at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business. “And when subordinates see that in their leaders, it helps them to have a better understanding. It may be that the leader worked harder. It may be that the leader did things that they didn’t do before.”
But the upheaval of the recession also coincides with a wider, and older, discussion about the way we view work. The dot-com era, defined by the idyllic Google campus in Santa Clara County, Calif., brought a new generation with different ideas. Cultural values have shifted as well. “People are looking for their work to be meaningful in a way that I think was less obvious 20 years ago,” says Melanie Carr, a psychiatrist and an adjunct professor with the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. But we also want a balance between work and the rest of our lives. And while technology has expanded the workday, it’s brought greater flexibility to where and how we work. “I was at a company in Taipei recently,” Rowe says, “and they enlarged their total floor space so that they could have a huge room where all the employees could eat, watch TV over lunch, play ping-pong if they wanted to, and when the CEO wanted to meet with all of the employees, they could take a day once a month and have a town hall.”
A few weeks worth of management advice from the Harvard Business Review blog is perhaps instructive. Great leaders are said to “understand and meet our needs,” not to mention “empower and trust us.” Managers are advised to communicate and collaborate, to be open, to stay humble and to lead from within the group, not above. “The top of the pyramid is far from the realities on the ground and the organization’s energy fields,” Vineet Nayar, the CEO of HCL Technologies, wrote recently. “By contrast, leaders who stay at the heart of organizations can respond quickly to new developments as well as enthuse, enable, and encourage people.”
That recent workplace attitudes survey found that more employees desired a boss who is “visionary,” “democratic” and “coaching” than one who is “commanding.” And 88 per cent of employees agreed that a good boss is one who “rolls up their sleeves” to help the team; downsizing may have compelled bosses to get even more involved.
A recession that has significantly impacted sectors such as manufacturing may have also sped up the move to a different kind of economy. “It’s absolutely a knowledge- and innovation-driven economy, and so to be able to utilize your team to their best advantage, I think it’s pretty clear that old style of ‘I will tell you what to do and you will just do that’ inhibits creativity and then productivity,” Carr says. “It may have increased productivity on an assembly line, but when your goal is to come up with some new creative idea to help launch a new technology platform, you can’t use those same methods.” The individual, with his or her unique talents, is a resource and a source of competitive advantage.
None of which is to say it must all be sweetness and light. “The most effective bosses are those that do what’s best for their organization,” Rowe says. “That may mean firing someone. It’s not about being a nice guy.”
The sun has not indeed set entirely on the tyrannical. In fact, the most successful CEO of the last decade might be Steve Jobs, the famously temperamental boss at Apple. Which may prove it’s still okay to be a jerk. At least so long as you’re also a genius.