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Leadership in an Age of Adamant Individualism

Businessmen Bowing to Each Other

Today’s workforce prizes individuality or at least autonomy. How can a leader in a field with demands for technical precision and accountability lead when feedback itself can sometimes be interpreted as oppressive?

Discussion about workplace “culture” left business schools in the 1980s and entered the world of business jargon, reaching a peak in the late 1990s. In many ways, it was the new buzzword, especially important because entirely new industries arose with the age of the Internet. Younger founders formed companies right out of college. Younger but more adaptive in relation to the information age, the new executives brought new ideas about the workplace environment.

There were employees who sought jobs based on the number of foosball or ping-pong tables in the break room—and that statement is only a slight exaggeration. With competition for employees rather than jobs the norm, those workplaces were essentially extensions of collegiate values. Some companies hung onto that break room culture in one way or another but for the most part, it disappeared as it came to be seen as part of the immaturity and lack of business focus associated with the Internet “bubble.” Nontraditional perks began disappearing as quickly as dozens of companies with nothing more special than dot com after their names also vanished.

In many ways, though, companies threw out the baby with the bathwater. A profound result of the experience was a recognition that employees seek more than a paycheck from their employers. While the number of companies offering catered breakfast and arcade game rooms may have diminished, the environment available to employees still plays a large role not only in recruiting them but also in holding onto them.

Of course, the culture also has a dramatic impact on the productivity of a workplace. For many years, the business approach to this had to do with finding problems with the culture and eliminating them. The idea of creating a culture that promotes productivity and positivity got a lot of lip service but was really relegated to books on leadership that trained managers to become the gurus of their own cults of personality rather than developing an environment that met the needs of the employees. Open door policies, for example, offered employees the chance to communicate and management a chance to react. Proactive management for culture because it makes good business sense really hadn’t been explored.

While all of this happened in the world of business, the culture of society as a whole changed.

I am one of those people with the unpopular opinion that young people today aren’t really all that different than young people when I was their age. For that matter, I don’t think young people are all that different than they were fifty or a hundred years ago. Ultimately, society’s culture changed in a way that allowed a platform to previously underrepresented opinions. This was the primary impact of the information age on people in general. Is there any wonder that countries who want to deny voice to alternative opinions start by restricting the Internet? The change in society made a change in business.

One of the previously unrepresented segments is young people. They grew up using their voice far more than earlier generations. I don’t believe younger people today have better or worse opinions than people their age thirty years ago. They just have an audience. This isn’t to say there isn’t an impact. Your younger employees are far more emboldened when it comes to sharing their opinions. They are also far more reactionary when their opinions are dismissed out of hand. I cannot tell you how many articles I have read in business publications that call out millennials as whiny, entitled and spoiled.

I just don’t believe that is true. I don’t know that millennials whine any more than forty year old salespeople. I don’t know that millennials feel any more entitled than any employee feels. As for spoiled; I believe we define spoiled in our society so loosely that it has come to mean anyone who isn’t easily convinced when given a negative response. Calling millennials spoiled isn’t that different than talking about how you had to walk two miles uphill both ways to school when you were a kid. Ultimately, employees a few decades ago would tolerate management simply saying, “No.” Employees today believe their opinions deserve more. So, does that mean they’re harder to manage?

I just don’t think so. Employees today expect to be able to express their opinions. They are adamant about their individual right to have a say in their lives. This includes a resolute demand that feedback be presented in a way that doesn’t demean them as people. Some managers confuse this with being unable to hold employees accountable, something almost impossible to consider when employee actions can have business consequence. That isn’t what it means at all. It means clearly delineating an issue of work performance with an issue of self-worth or value. Employees expect to be treated with respect. They expect to participate in idea sharing. They expect to participate in discussions about compensation and benefits. I think another way to put that is employees today actually expect management to be good at management.

I could easily have written this article from a different perspective, a leadership perspective. I could have suggested being a good leader, giving your employees the opportunity to express themselves on issues affecting the company and their work satisfaction. I could have said, ensure you not only respect them with the way you speak to them but also in the substance of what you say. Be ready to convince instead of dictate.

None of that would have been controversial at all. I think I know why. When it is presented as an article about how to be a good leader, it can be accepted as an option, something to do to make you a better manager. It is often presented as these tips can make you a superstar leader. The tips can do that, if you implement them well. The truth of the matter, though, is superstar is still optional. The unspoken part is what hurts. You don’t have to implement them but these tips can make you a superstar leader. Maybe the reason so many managers move from one leadership book to the next is that leadership is always presented as optional, even when there is a plain sentence calling it critical.

In an age of adamant individualism, what might have seemed extraordinary twenty years ago is just expected now. It is square one. Today’s adamantly individual employees will not stand for anything else. Not too long ago, engaging employees as a leader would have made the employees stand up and take notice. Today, it represents the starting point. It is as expected as a paycheck.

Does this make the job harder? I don’t think it does. Sure, we have to spend time telling employees why we expect something. We have to spend time hearing what they think and believe. We have to learn to be persuasive, convince rather than to dictate. We have to present feedback in a collaborative manner. Sure, we have to treat employees as people first and human resources second. Really, though, isn’t that what we should have been doing all along

Written by Tom Fedro.
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Tom Fedro
Tom Fedro is the president and CEO, of Irvine, California based Paragon Software Group Corporation. Founded in 1994, Paragon Software Group offers a wide range of software tools, solutions and technologies. Tom Fedro has specific expertise helping technology firms based outside of the United States launch their products in the Americas and other global regions through various partnership and joint venture vehicles. Tom Fedro is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.