Building a Better Workplace

Leadership’s Role in Creating a Supportive Workplace
Written by Pauline Müller

The American-Lebanese writer, Khalil Gibran, once described work as love made visible. But how many people have that lovin’ feeling towards their occupations these days? Research says that most do not.

Hubert Joly describes this current status quo as a “global epidemic” in his book, The Heart of Business: Leadership Principles for the Next Era of Capitalism, published in 2021 – alongside the research that backs up his claim, of course. The trend shows us a lot about where people are psychologically and, considering that we spend most of our time working, the challenge is fast becoming a big deal to business. But how does it affect the future of manufacturing?

Considering the role of artificial intelligence within the field of manufacturing, the next decade will be decisive in how people’s lives improve as humans are removed from repetitive tasks and replaced by machines. While this makes some people quite nervous, the reality is that it frees humans up to move on to more inspiring work.

This watershed, surprisingly, is an interesting turn of events when one considers how critical Karl Marx, nineteenth century philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, and political theorist, was of the industrial revolution, saying that it turned people “into appendages to machines.” The twenty-first century will no doubt see the end of those days – a tremendous victory for humanity.

With the severe pressures of recent times just beginning to blur in our rearview mirrors, post-COVID (if there even is such a thing) and with disengagement claimed to be at an all-time high, however, we clearly live in a time where companies can no longer afford to ignore the mental health needs and issues of their teams. In 2022, companies that parade the outdated “suck-it-up-buttercup” approach as their management culture are most likely to be ghosted over time by employees who refuse to work in an environment riddled with systemic toxicity. Because, these days, staff vote with their feet – the same way customers do.

In a job market where demand outnumbers supply, migrating to where one gets treated best is perhaps one of the few gifts that the philosophy underpinning modern cancel culture changed about the nature of employee loyalties in recent years. Dubbed by Forbes as the “New Leadership Imperative” earlier this year, awareness and proactive measures concerning the mental health needs of employees is, indeed, imperative – not only to retention but also to effectiveness and productivity.

While there are at least a dozen leadership styles that companies combine, ranging from micromanagement to laissez-faire leadership, the true answer to successful management, as with most things, is most likely to be found somewhere between these two extremes.

Some seasoned team members with longer tenures may find the ideas that constitute being mindful of mental health in the workplace as questionable as “liberty, equality, fraternity” probably sounded pre-French revolution, early adopters leading the change swear by the efficacy of the concept in practice. For these trailblazers, ensuring that morale is healthy and without interpersonal toxicity amongst team members is much like good maintenance, which may ring a bell for those who recall the wisdom of Robert M. Persig in his 1970s cult classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

While many companies report implementing new measures such as flextime, compassionate leave, and more, much can still change to ensure that the workplace of the future contributes rather than detracts from employees’ quality of life. Here, we look at a few easy steps that any leadership team can take to embrace and drive the change they would like to see within their organizations.

Masterminding macro-management
We have all heard it… That line about how “helicopter managers” kill morale and productivity. If this is a problem in an organization, it could indicate a lack of adequate training, either on the managerial side or on the contributors’. Perhaps it is needed by both parties. Most adults flourish when they have space to think and execute their tasks autonomously – even within a team context. Instead of micromanaging individuals into resignation, managers do well to bring more sophisticated soft skills to the table, like taking the time to learn and understand the dynamics at play between individuals at a cultural level, their differences in communication styles, etcetera.

A purebred laissez-faire approach may be better suited to highly creative teams who tend more toward eccentric genius, where managers must be as adept at herding cats as they are at keeping complex projects on track. This style is, therefore, to be approached with care and sensibility at the best of times, as some teams flounder without more engaged leadership.

Either way, your team may shock you with their fantastic performance resulting from meaningful change. As the well-known maxim of astrophysicist, cosmologist, and skeptic Carl Sagan, councils: “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.” One remains practical.

Manners maketh management
Be people-positive. Much like any relationship, feeling invisible and unacknowledged easily becomes a niggle. As we know, niggles have a way of growing limbs and turning into oversized resentments in time. That, in turn, negatively affects the delicate biome of team performance. How appreciation is communicated may differ from one organization to another. But it is good to keep in mind that, as a minimum requirement, a simple please and thank you are never wasted. While old-fashioned courtesies may seem redundant and even repetitive, their meta-message is that of respect and attention to detail, which, when shared with sincerity, infuses any organization with a ubiquitous sense of goodwill and care.

Two relevant conversations from years ago come to mind on this topic. One was with an industrial psychologist on dealing with multicultural groups. “You would be surprised what people put on your tab,” he told me. “They subconsciously invoice one for even the smallest perceived slights.” With ‘perceived’ being the operative word here. Because what we intend for the listener to understand and how the listener chooses to interpret or automatically interprets what we say are often two entirely separate things. That highlights just how relevant emotionally intelligent communication is, be that verbal, non-verbal, or written.

Another case in point touches on simple courtesies in the workplace. A professional in the petrochemical industry once told me that by thanking subordinates, one gives the impression that they are doing you a personal favor. And that, as a result, would hold you in their debt for something they already earn a salary for. Contrary to this belief, research proves that staff who feel appreciated perform better, feel more confident, and are more likely to remain at the company. And best of all, leadership recognition of staff contributions is proven to vastly improve employee-engagement. Better yet, most people do not need carnivals or glamorous public announcements to feel appreciated. Instead, simple, sincere appreciation is the way to go, as a recent study published in Harvard Business Review agrees.

Find solutions, not culprits
We have all been there. That moment when the chips are down and things are not coming together despite weeks of preparation. Or, to everyone’s knowledge, things are holding together perfectly, but somebody drops the ball at the eleventh hour. It is easy to revert to playground politics when things go wrong, especially when the pressure is on. But rather than launching a witch hunt to frame a culprit’s face, experts advise quitting the blaming game. Instead, “change what is not working,” they say.

While the science behind why our blueprint contains pointing fingers as part of its main matrix, the short of it is that, as in Gottman’s relationship theory on marriage, it takes five good deeds to neutralize one bad in the mind of another. And that is a lot of work. Therefore, by keeping in the kindness lane, one can save oneself a lot of humble pie later. And because we know that humble pie is better than no pie at all, taking the steep (and hopefully sincere) hike back into colleagues’ hearts and trust is worth the effort if we do, for whatever reason, fall from grace.

Beyond becoming an expert on languages at work, however, there are ways to transcend blame when things do go wrong. Michael Timms, leadership development consultant, author, and speaker suggests reflecting on one’s contribution to unwanted outcomes as a leader is another step toward salvaging the faith in one another in the aftermath of such situations. Ultimately keeping the human aspect in mind while turning a negative into a positive by building stronger bonds amongst people, as well as improving systems by considering the bigger picture becomes the crux of preventing antagonism from seeping through teams and their relationships like a toxic midnight fog.

The good news is that, although it takes an entirely new way of looking at the health and well-being of employees, the equanimity and respect shown to people by their leaders reflect in their overall productivity and customer experience. Ensuring that those in leadership positions genuinely belong there and have the necessary skills to run an organization of excellence on all levels is also a key element to improved morale. How fast the manufacturing industry will set about implementing such modernity globally, in tandem with the changing role of humans within this field, remains to be seen, but I suspect that, as usual, the early adopters will lead the race.

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