4 leadership trends we’re watching in 2023

by David Rock: Author, consultant, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, and executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, board member of the BlueSchool.
Recently, I walked into a medical centre and was met by an annoying light flickering above the receptionist’s desk. It twitched nonstop, resulting in an intense strobe light effect in the busy waiting room. When I commented about how difficult it must be to work with it, the receptionist responded, “Management just doesn’t care.” I was tempted to stand on a chair myself and take a minute to turn the fluorescent tube off, but realised I’d probably get yelled at for doing so. And I really wanted that appointment.

The next day, when I returned for a follow-up visit, all the lights were off and the receptionist was sitting in the dark. Still able to work, but now with a different problem: she couldn’t easily see people’s paperwork.

While a flickering light may not seem like a huge deal, the employee’s response - and the subsequent solution of not fixing the light but rather turning it off completely - struck me as emblematic of a larger issue. Everyone, everywhere is still struggling to find quality employees. And yet, when they do finally hire good people, they don’t take enough care of them.

If it feels like we spent 2022 learning how to adapt faster - to keep up with the shift from the Great Resignation to the Great Reshuffle, the Great Application to the phenomenon of Quiet Quitting - it seems much of 2023 may lead us to really focus on how we can take care of employees better, even if that means standing on a chair and fixing a light every now and then.

With that in mind, below are my thoughts on four trends to watch next year.

Your workplace is on the hook for well-being

For years, many leaders viewed their roles as shepherds of better business outcomes: better revenues, more profits, more growth. But with the likes of the U.S. Surgeon General’s report in October warning that toxic workplaces are harmful to people’s mental and physical health, leaders will need to take a more proactive approach to employee well-being. No longer will it be enough for companies to reimburse gym memberships, offer access to financial advisors or encourage the use of mindfulness apps. Now, organisations are also responsible for taking care of the physical and mental well-being of their employees.

For companies to succeed, they’ll need an agile framework that gives people a clear roadmap of choices they can make to eliminate workplace toxicity. Time and time again, we’ve watched leaders pledge to prioritise organisational change only to fall short. To truly implement change, there must be coherence between what organisations want to change and how they plan and execute that change.

It’s time to focus on a new kind of safety

With layoffs already hitting the tech sector and murmurs of a potential economic downturn, it can be tempting to go into protection mode at work: to stay quiet and not speak up, to keep ideas to ourselves. It’s a natural reaction that when we feel threatened we clam up.

But now is perhaps the most important time to be courageous, share ideas, and challenge other people’s thinking. In this economy, the need for innovation is not going away; if anything, it’s accelerating.

I was reminded of this recently, when one of our senior leaders challenged me about the preparation of a product demo. She spoke up about her concerns, and while I didn’t agree with her in full, I listened and noted some important insights in her comments.

The key here is she felt the environment was psychologically safe, or she wouldn’t have brought up a dissenting point of view. It may have felt uncomfortable for the team to hear our tense back and forth, but the exchange was necessary for us - and others in the meeting - to see and move through disagreement in order to move forward.

This belief - that it’s safe to speak up or even argue with your CEO in a meeting - is called psychological safety and it’s important for organisations to cultivate. Knowing that employees at every level may take fewer interpersonal risks in the current economy means leaders must work harder to create that sense of safety. Encourage dissent. Encourage speaking up. Do the opposite of what I saw in that medical centre: hold a chair for your coworker to get up and change the flickering light. 

Don’t just respect differences, design for them

Most organisational people strategies are built on the idea that employees are relatively the same when it comes to how they see the world or what motivates them. Yet neuroscience shows every person’s brain processes the world uniquely. Even identical twins can have radically different neurological responses to the same experience. That’s because, while our genes determine how our brain is largely organised and where our neurons should be placed, environments and experiences throughout life shapes how they act. The result is that no two brains are exactly alike.

The broad term for this feature is neurodiversity. While neurodiversity can also refer to people with significantly different cognitive abilities, such as folks who might be on the autism spectrum – and we don’t want to downplay the importance of accessibility for people with different needs – there’s a bigger issue that’s relevant to every company and every employee: everyone’s brain processes information differently.

In a workplace setting, understanding and accepting neurodiversity has huge implications across a variety of organisational practices, from recruiting and onboarding to performance reviews and day-to-day communication.

That’s why it’s incumbent for organisations to respect cognitive differences and ensure their ways of working are accessible to everyone’s mind. One way to do this is to weave in more autonomy into processes.

Take onboarding, for example. Some people might do best reading documents for five days straight, while others might want to meet with a mentor once a week or have as many conversations with teammates as possible. Rather than having the same process for everyone, or guessing what people need, give people options, and they’ll choose one that suits the way their brain works best. Consider it a form of “choose your own adventure” to ensure all kinds of brains can engage just the way they need to.

We’re all still in recovery

Over the past three years, we’ve all been through intense collective experiences: a pandemic that disrupted our sense of safety in so many ways; repeated tragic episodes of police violence and mass murder; a war in Ukraine; an insurrection in the U.S. Capitol and more. This combination of both discrete and prolonged experiences has left us trying to recover from something called collective trauma - which goes beyond immediate bodily reactions to trauma and includes our memory of traumatic events that we discuss or recollect as a way to make sense of what we’ve all experienced. This has exacerbated burnout, challenges in accessing mental health, and prompted many people to reevaluate what’s important in their lives.

What this means in the workplace is that we all must understand how our needs - as leaders, employees and humans - may be different in a post-traumatic context. What may be a reaction to a relatively recent event could be entirely different than a reaction to repeated or extended trauma.

Research also shows that when recovering from collective trauma, we’re hyper vigilant to any possible threat around us, and that those reactions fluctuate similar to microclimates. Just like it can be raining and 10 degrees cooler in one part of town, and then sunny and warmer only five miles away, reactions to various events and conversations can vary based on the topic at hand and who’s involved.

That’s why it’s critical for companies to understand how to address various types of trauma and devote adequate resources to it. As researchers at the University of South Australia recently argued, “never before has trauma-informed care been so important to promote the health and wellbeing of all and to protect our marginalised populations at greatest risk.”

Weeks after my visit to that doctor’s office, I still wonder now and then about that flickering light. Some days, I think maybe an employee got fed up with management’s lack of response and, in an Office Space-esque moment, quit on the spot. Other times, I wonder if they’re still working in the dark. Maybe as we head into 2023, the best thing we can do as leaders is remember to fix the little things that ultimately show how we care more than might be obvious.

Originally published on Fast Company

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David Rock
Dr. David Rock coined the term ‘NeuroLeadership’ and is the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global initiative bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to build a new science for leadership development.
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