Although we can’t predict the future, we can say that next year will not be a return to business as usual. The pandemic, social unrest, cultural divisions and new remote work and school possibilities all but guarantee that leading teams and businesses in the coming calendar year will be anything but “business as usual.” The technological trends of automation, digitization and hybridization — in which workers have to learn skill sets outside their roles — combined with new ways of working (remote, in-person or a hybrid of the two) will require leaders to be nimble, empathetic, inclusive and strategically focused.1 But how do leaders prepare for the challenges of 2022 and beyond?
Use Technology in Human Ways, for Human Reasons
When it comes to even the near future, the ability to adapt to new technologies is always a priority. And the question hovers in the minds of the workforce: Is it a tool or the enemy?
Professor Roshni Raveendhran’s research explores the integration of novel technologies into the workplace — and where those technologies intersect with the psychology of human behavior.
With studies including the examination of monitoring technology and the use of virtual and augmented reality, Raveendhran keeps focus on the use of new systems to augment human life — and how to use new technologies responsibly. For example: The use of avatars may relieve a sense of social threat through psychological distance. Or an organization’s behavior-tracking application may be used for the better if it’s informational for employees’ self-analyses, rather than making them feel constantly monitored.
“As companies start thinking about making remote work a longer-term reality,” says Raveendhran, “one key challenge pertains to missing social connection, the feeling of being part of the same group. So there will be a lot more demand for immersive technologies like VR. That’s why it’s important to understand the psychology that drives people to adopt some of those technologies.”
Maintain and Improve Company Culture
If a company does maintain remote work as the status quo, how can leaders nurture a sense of teamwork and company culture across distance and difference?
Darden Professor Laura Morgan Roberts is an expert in human potential, diversity and leadership development. She notes that compassionate, responsive leadership is what every organization needs, whether face-to-face or screen-to-screen.
Because learning needs to happen so rapidly, the fastest route is often peer-to-peer and through nonlinear ways of thinking. “Set the example that no one’s job or ego is on the line if an experiment doesn’t pay off as expected,” Roberts notes. “A crisis is messy, and so is innovation.”
Even after a crisis, there will be a new normal, and leaders need to map out old values, behaviors and norms — even and especially the unspoken ones — and contrast them with what that new normal could be. As companies compete and grow, the successful ones will emphasize a culture with inclusive, authentic ways of developing and retaining talent.
“In the past year, we’ve seen more of a push to hire minorities, and we understand the value that diverse identities bring to the quality of work that organizations engage in on a daily basis,” says Roberts. “We also see how diversity enables those organizations to build relations with communities of stakeholders that go beyond tokenism.”
Advance Diversity Efforts and Intelligent Inclusion
As we move forward, next year or any year, successful leaders will forge beyond diversity efforts and developing minority talent, pushing their organizations to embrace the importance of intelligent inclusion.
Ultimately, the impact of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, however well-meaning, depends on how they’re viewed.
“Because creating an inclusion climate is an inherently ambiguous task, how organizations undertake inclusion matters,” notes Professor Martin Davidson, who also serves as Darden’s senior associate dean and global chief diversity officer.
Decades of research in social psychology and organizational behavior show that when individuals question the value of group identity, the social identity threats they register are massively damaging not just to the individual, but to the individual’s relationship with the organization. Davidson explores how those organizations can design and institute “programs and policies that work to eliminate racial inequality by reducing psychological reactivity that arises in response to racial friction.”
We’re All in the Same Boat
Friction can sink the boat, keeping team members out of sync when in fact they should be pursuing the same meaningful goals. Teamwork is a business imperative and the cornerstone of high performance.
Darden Professor Lynn Isabella, an authority on managing teams, likens a business unit — whether working in the same space or remotely — to a rowing crew on the water. “What it takes to row together with seven other people is a true manifestation of teamwork in action,” she explains.
Winning crews share common characteristics: Not only must every member have mastery of technique and a similar level of talent, if different strengths, but each must learn to row with the rest of the crew.
“As a member of the team, each rower must learn how to follow and lead simultaneously,” Isabella says. “Individual stars will only slow the boat down.”
Leadership Can Be Taught
To take their teams to the next levels of achievement, successful organizations will need a cohesive understanding of what leadership really is — and what it is not.
True leadership is about influence, not power; it’s more inspiration than control. Power is based on the dependence of others, and authority is based on formalized hierarchy. Command-and-control approaches lead to burnout and disengagement.
“Leaders inspire people to action,” emphasizes Darden Professor Sean Martin. “Working through influence requires more effort than exercising power, but over the long haul, it leads to more engaged, purpose-driven and productive teams. Influence relies on and is given to us by others, so it requires good social abilities that encourage other people to grant it to us. Until people willingly provide their efforts in your direction, you’re not really leading.”
When looking at objective outcomes versus the perception of effectiveness, research shows that it’s behaviors, not personality, that lead to successful leadership and teams.
So the good news is that it can be taught. It’s important to understand that leadership is a process, and there are active steps one can take to deliberately cultivate the requisite skills — regardless of title.
Business Is Human
While COVID-19 has accelerated mass adoption of new technologies, it also brings into sharp relief the fact that some factors are constant: Leadership is profoundly human. In the age of automation, the human traits of judgment, compassion and ethics are critical to maintaining business success. An organization is a set of people, after all. Technology can make our processes more efficient, but it cannot make us better colleagues, employees or leaders.
Leadership requires a human touch now more than ever, and Darden is unparalleled in its human-centered approach to leadership.
Led by world-renowned faculty, Darden Executive Education & Lifelong Learning offers a variety of leadership programs designed to prepare purpose-driven, growth-minded leaders to thrive in perpetual change. For leaders at every stage in their career, Darden’s noncredit Certificate in Leadership provides the opportunity to select four programs tailored to specific development goals, in online, in-person or hybrid formats to fit modern schedules.
- 1. Burning Glass Technologies, “Beyond Tech: The Rising Demand for IT Skills in Non-Tech Industries,” August 2019, https://www.burning-glass. com/research-project/beyond-tech/; Burning Glass Technologies, “The Hybrid Job Economy: How New Skills are Rewriting the DNA of the Job Market,” January 2019, https://www.burning-glass.com/research-project/hybrid-jobs/?