Business Leadership Today

What is Good Leadership in the Post-Pandemic World of Work?


Mark S. Babbitt, Contributor
S. Chris Edmonds, Contributor

The pandemic has been gut-punching those of us in the working world for over two years. This includes most leaders, many of whom wonder if they’re helping their teams through a difficult transition. 

Some wonder if they are doing more harm than good. 

That is a tricky question to answer because our definition of good leadership has changed dramatically since the pandemic first hit us.

Or it should have. If not—if your organization hasn’t yet adapted to new realities—get ready for another gut punch.

The reality is that this virus, in one form or another, continues to impact the post-pandemic world of work. So today, everyone remains leery of the next punch.

When will the next “new normal” come? How much will it hurt? What will the new expectations be? Working from home? Back in the office? Hybrid?

We leaders still don’t have all the answers. And we may not know for a while yet.

We do know, though, that top talent continues to quit crappy jobs and crappy bosses. Driven by employees’ changing priorities and values over the last two years, over 70 million US workers voluntarily left their jobs, too often due to poor (inflexible, demanding, command-and-control) leadership.

This begs the key question: In the post-pandemic world of work, what is the new definition of good leadership?

Good leadership meets the expectations of today’s workforce, fosters a culture of respect, creates a servant purpose, and defines values and behaviors for employees. Good leaders embed their desired culture, modeling core values and measuring cultural alignment to ensure employees thrive in the new normal. 

In this article, we’ll explore how to put these hallmarks of good leadership into practice. 

The Expectations of Today’s Workforce

It’s clear that old-school, autocratic leadership behaviors don’t inspire new generations of employees, and that members of the workforce, especially younger generations, expect much more from leaders.

When rigid leaders don’t meet their expectations, talented contributors seek opportunities to work for “good” leaders. 

And not just a few are considering changing jobs: LinkedIn’s 2022 Workforce Confidence Index found that 25 percent of Gen-Z respondents and 23 percent of Millennials plan to change jobs in the next six months. 

What are these younger generations looking for from leaders and employers? In order of priority, Gen-Zs and Millennials deliberately seek careers that offer:

  • Better alignment with their interests and values
  • Opportunities to learn and practice new skills
  • Better compensation and benefits
  • A new industry or job function
  • Opportunities to move up or increase responsibilities

If we’re honest, we know most of our organizations don’t meet these needs. 

And we know many leaders, especially those who insist that workers return to the old normal, aren’t building a work culture of dedicated, engaged players who love their bosses, companies, and colleagues and genuinely enjoy serving their customers.

So how do good leaders build and sustain an uncompromising work culture—one that organically creates a sense of loyalty and commitment?

It starts with a fundamental human value: Respect.

The Number 1 Culture Element for Employees: Respect

Everyone understands that results matter. After all, business leaders and team members know that unless they deliver on performance expectations, the company will replace them with players who do deliver. 

And if enough leaders and players fail to drive results, the company will go out of business.

The problem is that for most business leaders, results—sometimes in a “win-at-all-costs” fashion—seem to be all that matters.

Today, though, delivering promised results is only half of a leader’s job. 

The other half of their job is delivering respect.

The data is undeniable. A 2021 study by MIT Sloan evaluated over one million employee reviews from around the world on MIT Sloan’s research identified the top ten culture elements that matter most to employees.

The number one response: Respect. 

To emphasize the importance of this most critical culture element, the study found that “employees feeling respected at work” is nearly 18 times more powerful a predictor of culture rankings than compensation, benefits, and perks—combined.

Among the remaining top five most powerful predictors are two desirable elements: supportive leaders and leaders who live the organization’s core values. 

Two undesirable elements also made the top five: The presence of toxic managers and demonstrating unethical behavior.

In your organization, you likely have supportive leaders who consistently demonstrate respect to employees and live your company’s core values. The problem is that to sustain an uncompromising (respectful, purposeful, and productive) work culture every leader must demonstrate respect and model company values—every day.

Unfortunately, chances are also good that you have some toxic managers and pockets of unethical behavior within your company. To sustain an uncompromising work culture, you must ensure that NONE of your leaders fall into these toxic culture traps—ever.

The New Definition of Good Leadership

The new definition of good leadership today requires business leaders to make respect the most important element of the employee experience across the company

Furthermore, leaders must emphasize respect as meticulously as they do results. That is why the foundational principle of our book, Good Comes First: How Today’s Leaders Create an Uncompromising Culture That Doesn’t Suck, is: “equally value respect and results.”

Note that this foundational principle is an AND statement: “respect AND results.” That’s because our research found that for companies that equally value respect AND results:

  • Employee engagement increases by 40 percent or more
  • Customer service ratings and retention levels grow by 40 percent or more
  • Results and profits increase by 35 percent or more

In other words, the consistent presence of workplace respect most assuredly drives results

Of course, the senior leaders we work with are impressed by each of these benefits. Because leaders are historically focused on, and measured and compensated by, results first; however, they are most enthused about growth in profits and results.

Our job is to convince them that respect—treating people well while validating their ideas, efforts, and contributions—must come first.

Creating a culture of respect AND results doesn’t happen overnight. 

Typically over a 12 to 18-month timeframe, it takes consistent modeling, measuring, coaching, and mentoring respectful behaviors by senior leaders to build engagement and trust, which raises service and retention levels, leading to better results, including profits.

”The Great Resignation”? Or “A Quiet Revolution”?

Leaders are not used to demonstrating respect in the workplace. “Respectful treatment of employees in every interaction” isn’t even on the radar for most leaders.

Making this reality even worse, the pandemic gut punch has put many leaders on the defensive, a position from which we humans are not at our most creative or adventurous. We typically, and rigidly, revert to what we know. 

The most blatant example: Leaders demanding a return to the “old normal”—a return back to the office to perform our work duties.

The trouble is that the old normal, for many employees and stakeholders, wasn’t an inspiring environment to work within before the pandemic. So it certainly doesn’t address employees’ needs in today’s new normal (especially the needs of younger generations, as discussed earlier). 

And the old normal sure didn’t emphasize the need to equally value respect and results.

Torn between the demands of rigid leaders and their own needs, tens of millions have sought out greener pastures. Some call this “The Great Resignation.” We call it “A Quiet Revolution.”

And the only way to stop this mass exodus: Redefining what good leadership means in the post-pandemic world of work.

Good Leadership: Building and Sustaining a Culture of Respect AND Results

Some companies have not been as impacted by the awkward transition to our post-pandemic workplace; they are building culture, and, therefore, doing “good” leadership” right. 

Those organizations are led by senior leaders adapting to the needs of younger generations, and to every generation that learned to love the autonomy and balance of working from home. 

These companies are not experiencing unmanageable turnover. Many, based on their reputations as great places to work, have people clamoring to join their companies!

We must learn from these cutting-edge leaders and organizations. So here are ways they’re adapting how they operate to emphasize workplace respect and inspire loyalty, creativity, and teamwork.

Creating a Servant Purpose

Many proactive leaders have learned they can’t leave their work culture to chance. They begin defining the culture they want by stating their organization’s ideal servant purpose.

A servant purpose is different from a vision or mission statement. 

It’s very likely that today, your employees believe your organization’s core purpose is to build widgets so the company can make money. Yes, generating revenues is important. But it’s not naturally meaningful to frontline staff, nor does it inspire good work or loyalty. 

Today, people want to know their work matters—really matters.

To meet this need, craft your servant purpose to represent a meaningful, present-day “reason for being” for your company. 

Specifically, the purpose statement describes how products and services improve the quality of life for customers and communities daily. For example, Desert Sage Health Centers states its servant purpose as:

“Our neighbors choose our compassionate care team’s exceptional medical, dental, and behavioral health services to experience healthier, more meaningful lives.”

As other good leaders have done, we encourage you to keep your servant purpose simple. 

For example, an electrical contractor client defines their servant purpose as “Peace of Mind.” 

By keeping this concise servant purpose statement front and center, they drive every contributor to ensure, in one practical scenario, that a ten-year-old plugging in a toaster years from now won’t get shocked because of a poorly grounded outlet.

Defining Values and Behaviors

Values are the principles leaders want demonstrated in every plan, decision, and action across your business each day. Unfortunately, most company values are lofty and aspirational rather than specific and measurable. 

As written and reinforced, many “core” values are open to interpretation; very few are modeled, even by senior leaders.

Translating your company’s values into observable, tangible, measurable behaviors shifts those values from “lofty” to “required.” Measuring those values takes them from “aspirational” to “accountable.”

For example, one client chose “integrity” as one of their company’s core values. However, they didn’t define what integrity meant within the company. 

We asked 20 different leaders at that company what integrity meant to them. Not surprisingly, we received 18 different answers.

Assigning a definition of a value, and attaching a series (three, or maybe four) of behaviors that would demonstrate whether someone was living that value, is critical to defining an uncompromising culture. 

Again using the integrity value as an example: A client chose “I do what I say I will do” as a measurable behavior. That behavioral definition describes precisely how you want every employee to behave to model their integrity value. 

It is also observable, measurable, and coachable. If a leader or player doesn’t keep their word, if they don’t keep the promises they make, it will quickly become clear they aren’t holding themselves accountable for living the integrity value. 

We have found that clients’ desired culture is well-served by formalizing three to five values with three to four measurable behaviors for each value. But, again, keep this simple. 

After all, remembering—let alone demonstrating—ten to fifteen valued behaviors is much easier than tracking 25 or more behaviors!

Embed Your Desired Culture

Creating your servant purpose, values, and behaviors won’t change your culture. Announcing those desired elements in a big speech or a lengthy memo certainly won’t create real change.

Instead, once the servant purpose, values, and behaviors are socialized, leaders from the top down must model, celebrate, measure, coach, and mentor each of these elements in every interaction. Doing so builds credibility for your uncompromising culture and embeds these elements in your work culture.

Modeling your valued behaviors requires attention and intention. You can’t fall short. We tell leaders all the time, “once you publish your valued behaviors, you can never run a yellow light in this town again!”

Why? Because running a yellow light, or taking 12 items through the 10-items-or-less line at the grocery store, or taking any other shortcut, means you’re not yet serious about living the company’s values; you haven’t yet become Chief Role Model. 

You and your fellow formal leaders must not only keep valued behaviors top of mind, but you must demonstrate them at every opportunity.

Because if you don’t—your employees won’t.

Measure Alignment

The final step in transitioning from “aspirational” to “accountable” is to measure alignment with the values and behaviors and, therefore, with the desired culture.

We get it: Some people think values can’t be measured. But because you’ve attached observable behaviors to each value, something as human as values can be, and are, measured. 

In our work, we guide clients to administer a values alignment survey for every formal leader every six months.

The process is not complicated. The survey helps direct reports rate every formal leader on the degree to which that leader demonstrates each of your defined valued behaviors. 

For example, using the “I do what I say I will do” behavior for the integrity value noted above and “Amber” as their leader, the survey asks direct reports to rate Amber on this statement: “Amber does what she says she will do.” 

Amber’s direct reports rate her on a 1 to 6 scale, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree; a poor rating) to 6 (strongly agree; an excellent rating). 

Of course, throughout this process, Amber’s direct reports confidentially rate her on each valued behavior. The resulting profile reveals her scores by valued behavior. 

Perhaps more importantly, the profile shows the areas in which Amber already excels (a rating of 5 or 6, which indicates direct reports believe their leader demonstrates that valued behavior) and where she can better align with the company’s values (anything less than a 5 rating).

Measurement gives you undeniable data about how well each of your formal leaders models your desired valued behaviors. 

You must then hold all formal leaders accountable for your desired culture by celebrating aligned behaviors and coaching and mentoring misaligned behaviors. As we say in Good Comes First:

“Leaders build culture based on the productive, positive behaviors they reward. Leaders tear down culture based on the destructive, demeaning behaviors they tolerate.”

Celebrate when leaders embrace your desired, valued behaviors. Conversely, if leaders are unable (or refuse) to embrace your valued behaviors, lovingly set them free; let them be successful somewhere else. 

You—and your employees—will only experience the combined power of respect AND results if you hold leaders and all players accountable for living your ideal culture.

In our post-pandemic world of work, this is the very definition of good leadership. 

Mark S. Babbitt is President of WorqIQ, a firm that helps organizations understand leadership’s impact on culture, the company’s collective level of Workplace Intelligence (WQ), and what “good” means to them. He is also the author of the best-selling book, Good Comes First.

S. Chris Edmonds is a speaker, executive consultant, and founder of The Purposeful Culture Group.  He’s also the author of two Amazon best sellers: Good Comes First and The Culture Engine

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