This article was originally published by Chief Executive.
I’ve written for much of the past year about how Covid, remote work and an emboldened workforce have had a hand in shifting office power dynamics. Now many of us are dealing with the backlash.
In the midst of rising interest rates and constant talk of recession, the FAANG giants and many supercharged startups that had been hiring in record numbers throughout the pandemic are now laying people off at a rate never seen before. Media giant News Corp. isn’t just telling its own employees they have to return to the office, its most prestigious outlet, The Wall Street Journal, has warned that remote work is harming many employees’ career prospects.
Sadly, mentees and colleagues from across industries who were once on a fast track to upper management instead are losing their jobs and having to fight for a proper severance. Many companies, whether they truly need to or not, are pushing back hard to regain much of the perceived control they lost during the pandemic and its aftermath.
To say the current situation isn’t pretty now seems an understatement, and it’s likely to remain chaotic for a while. Which is why it’s so important for leaders of all kinds, from those left behind to those starting somewhere new, not to fall prey to the very human tendency to go negative, playing the blame game.
People have a strong desire to portray complicated subjects as something binary. What was once complex is now too easily described as a matter of right and wrong. Yet there’s very little as it relates to leadership, talent, people or culture that actually is black and white. We must resist the binary.
Here’s a situation that happens regularly and is likely happening a lot more often today across sectors and organizations of all sizes: There’s turnover and you are brought in as the new leader. The natural inclination is to judge the past (harshly), to throw stones at what happened prior to arrival and to paint oneself as a workplace savior. That’s a grievous error.
It’s also a common form of toxic thinking I’ve worked to avoid my entire career. Why? Because you can never fully appreciate what the person (and team) before you had to deal with. You can never fully appreciate what that period of time was like—what the market looked like holistically; economic, political, technological and social dynamics; as well as the context for the company, or competition, at the time. Most importantly, there are few decisions and dynamics that solely fall on one person’s shoulders. Toxic leaders who throw stones at the past fail to realize that they are in fact discrediting those still there who have continued to work tirelessly to serve customers and stakeholders while delivering results.
This disparagement of the past is a common technique for so-called leaders who view themselves as change agents. People have made careers out of coming in and asserting that everything was allegedly wrong prior to their arrival. These people rarely inspire loyalty or have a true following because it’s clear that they’re willing to throw anyone under a bus to ensure that they shine. In these cases, you’ll often hear another phrase that helps no one: “The culture was awful.” It’s meant to reflect poorly on the leader who’s left, but it’s really an indictment of the team that’s still around—the very people the new leader needs in order to succeed. That’s because culture is not only one person, but the behavioral norms of an entire group. It’s not leadership behavior in any way, shape or form to trash the former boss or team. It sullies what real leadership is. And this sort of attempt to reengineer the past and assign blame is especially prevalent in moments like the one we’re experiencing now, where once prosperous days suddenly give way to cutbacks with significant impact to careers.
I’m sympathetic for even the worst examples of this kind of nonleadership. No doubt much of this stems from the massive upheaval we’ve all felt over the past three years. These are unique times with a lot of uncertainty, and we find ourselves on a path few would have chosen if given the choice.
Many leaders are struggling with how to balance getting the most out of their workforce while also nurturing loyalty and attracting new talent. Old models of how to measure productivity were based on assumptions of physical proximity and relationship dynamics we can no longer rely on. Most everyone is being forced to find a new way forward, employee and employer alike.
That includes the leaders who are working through strategies and execution plans after large cuts, and amid corporate restructures—especially those brought in to forge a new path—whether it be at the board level, senior executives or general managers. True leaders know that while it’s vital to acknowledge lessons learned from the past, they’d best look pragmatically and purposefully ahead. That’s the avenue to motivating and inspiring a team, and forward is the only way.