Think at London Business School
Black in Business co-president Seun Akingbogun MBA2023 charts her journey from science to finance.
By Hannah Davies
2023 promises to be a tough year all around. Our natural instinct when things get tough is to go into protection mode – to safeguard what you have. Most of us see recession as a threat to what we already have, and we know that loss in status or money is painful.
But research shows that individuals, leaders, groups, organisations, and even nation states all do better when they focus less on preservation and more on opportunity. The coming year always brings change, and change always means opportunity for those who keep an open mind, have the flexibility of thought to identify, and have the courage to pursue the possibilities that present themselves.
So, how do you avoid going down the rabbit hole of wrapping yourself in protective gear that also locks out opportunity? There are three simple strategies for thriving in these difficult times:
Challenge yourself, maintain a positive outlook and 2023 will prove to be your best year yet!
Here are my top tips for what every leader should have on their New Year’s resolution list:
Be kind to hybrid
There is no doubt that, as we think through the redesign of work following the pandemic, we are still at what I have called the ‘unfreeze stage’. Unintended consequences are emerging, attitudes are still changing, concerns about collaboration remain with us. It is still a time of learning and experimentation. So be prepared to be an active learner when it comes to the design of work.
Make this the year of friendships
At a time of high inflation, wage demands and general bad temperedness – look to friendships as a ray of hope. People come into an office to work in part because they have a friend at work. So consider what you can do to both show how important friendships are to you, and to give people the space and discretionary time to build their own friendships.
Drop the virtual meetings
During the pandemic, back-to-back virtual meetings became the de facto way of leading. More meetings signalled your leadership prowess. This is the year to break the habit. As you think about your next month ask yourself: “Does this need to be a meeting, who needs to be there, do I need to be there?” Plan for a 50% reduction as minimum, and replace it with time when you can focus and dream.
Wellbeing is top of the agenda this year. When Andrew J Scott and I wrote ‘The 100 Year Life’ we learnt how important healthy living is. I started pilates at that time and still see my pilates teacher once or twice a week. It’s been brilliant – my posture has improved, my back ache disappeared and she also takes a general overall look at my health. If, like me, you want to live healthily into your nineties, these are the habits you need to adopt this year.
Learn something new
Lifelong learning is key to personal resilience, and as we look into a new year it is a good time to commit to learning something new. Two years ago I learnt how to cook Japanese food, last year I learnt how to write narrative non-fiction. I’m open to suggestions about this year. These are important conversations you have with yourself and your loved ones. Perhaps there is something you can learn together?
It is during “unproductive” time we spend away from our everyday work lives, such as over the break, that we conduct important inner business — asking the big existential questions, remembering what makes us happy, shoring up the strength to make difficult choices, consolidating our sense of self, and more.
Yet research on the “fresh start” effect shows that while people experience heightened goal-oriented motivation after returning to work from a holiday, this motivation peaks on the first day back and declines rapidly thereafter.
Thinking on its own is far from sufficient. We rarely think our way into a new way of acting. Rather, we act our way into new ways of thinking — and being. Even dramatic events such as the pandemic, which disrupted our habitual routines, gave us a chance to experiment with new activities and to create and renew connections, rarely produce lasting change. The more typical pattern after we receive some kind of wake-up call is simply to revert back to form once things return to “normal.”
So even if you are at a point where you are keenly aware of what you no longer want, you might be stuck in limbo between old and new if more appealing, feasible alternatives have yet to materialise. How can you make progress toward your goals by building on what you have learned this past year?
Consider what you have done differently this year – new projects you’ve tried, new people you have connected with. What is worth pursuing further? What new interest has cropped up that’s worth a look? What will you drop having learned that it’s not so appealing after all? And what do you keep, but only as a hobby?
Choose one thing you have learned over the past two years and commit to putting it into action in 2023.
Balancing work that is important with work that is urgent is a challenge. For example, your employees are expected to prepare high-quality presentations for clients, but also respond to routine emails as they arrive in their inbox. Because of its increasingly knowledge-intensive nature, important work requires more uninterrupted time and focused attention than urgent.
Meetings and emails fragment people’s time and attention, and it is increasingly hard to accomplish your important work because many organsations reward behaviours such as real-time responsiveness. Research shows that small differences in employees’ displays of urgency often translate into large differences in pay, leading to “always-on” work cultures. In addition, it can feel easier to tick off tasks that demand an immediate, specific response, compared to working on something important but open-ended and vague. Thus, although important and urgent work are both necessary for organisational success, many employees get the message that urgent work is more valuable.
How can you as a leader help employees accomplish their urgent work tasks without neglecting their important tasks? One way is to encourage employees to create temporal boundaries within their work hours – time to do deep work – to focus on important tasks. In two six-week field experiments, one at a global consumer goods company and one at a multinational HR consultancy firm, my colleagues and I found that time crafting increased productivity. What could that look like for you?
Here is an experiment you could try in the New Year: Have your employees carve out a 30-minute session at the start of each week for six weeks. During this time, have them look across their upcoming week and make a list of their important, non-urgent work tasks, and then block two hours per day in their calendars for the remaining four days to work on these important tasks that are not urgent.
Each block should contain only one important, non-urgent work task, and no unrelated meetings should be scheduled during these times. Finally, encourage them to turn off or remove any digital tools that could distract them during their two-hour blocks. They could even add an out-of-office message. See what difference this makes to their productivity – both in terms of how they subjectively perceive it and in terms of measurable outcomes.
"However selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it" – Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)
Organisations and customers alike tend to hunker down when faced with uncertainties such as recession, persistence of inflation, existential threats of climate change, and the sabre-rattling and wielding of major nations, to name a few. Within this bleak outlook, leaders are facing a motivational crisis among employees exhausted by the effects and after-effects of a lingering pandemic, in addition to facing internal pressures to reduce costs and prop up reserves.
Periods of gloom and doom are particularly effective for leading from the outside in, namely, by bringing customer empathy to the fore. The idea of a prosocial focus on the customer for driving task performance is well researched and nicely summarised by Adam Grant and Marissa Shandell (2022) in the Annual Review of Psychology. A prosocial customer orientation means employees are autonomously (rather than obligatorily) motivated by their contribution to the benefits their work provides to the customer. The results are that people not only work harder, collaboratively, and smarter – being more creative at responding to customer needs – but that this can improve their own wellbeing and job satisfaction. What is there not to like?
But how can leaders authentically inspire a prosocial customer orientation in their people? Research shows that leaders would do best to stay away from abstract slogans and lofty speeches. Employees tend to be suspicious of secondary motivations, especially if these types of messages deviate from leadership-as-usual. Instead, the task is best outsourced to customers themselves; it is most effective for employees to viscerally be exposed to beneficiaries and benefits of their work efforts.
John Deere does so by bringing customers to the factory floor, Medtronic by having patients tell their stories at events, and others by sharing customer videos or letters. The more real (and less slick) the better. Doing so humanises and personalises one’s job and viscerally demonstrates the value created for others. And when external customers are too far removed to allow for someone’s work to be causally connected to external customer benefits, then doing so for internal customers can be equally effective.
My tip for this year is taking a more critical stance to any leadership advice – including this one. The world of leadership advice deals in generic commands. We are told never to eat alone, to set clear goals, to have a growth mindset, and stop micromanaging. But all that advice can be taken too far.
Eating alone can be exactly what we need on some days, so we can relax and reflect. The goals we set ourselves with great clarity may not be the right ones for us. Sometimes, what we need is to postpone setting goals until we gain a better understanding of ourselves and the situation. A growth mindset may sometimes prevent us from switching our efforts to an endevaour where our efforts will be more fruitful, given our natural advantages.
And while micromanagement is a widespread leadership disease, it is sometimes the right approach. When a subordinate is inexperienced and needs hand-holding or when time is tight and mistakes are unaffordable, we shouldn’t shy away from micromanaging.
Advice can turn misleading if we assume it is valid for all people under all circumstances. Good advice is aware of its own limited applicability and it will point to these limits. It will tell you when it might not work, and when it may run you into trouble. Bad advice does not acknowledge any such boundaries, it reads like timeless edict – to be blindly obeyed.
I now need to point to exceptions to my own advice, so I won’t be accused of dispensing bad advice by my own criteria. In all likelihood, some leadership advice is valid for all times and all people. It’s hard to see how you could go wrong with “adapt to change” or “communicate team goals clearly.” Yet, even if some advice is timeless truth, the onus is on us to figure out if any piece of advice belongs to this category, or if it is unsuitable for our current circumstances.
Any leadership advice we encounter should be a point of departure for our own reflection, and not the final word on the matter.
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