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Arm Wrestling or War: The Power Dynamic Between Leaders and Employees

June 26, 2023 Misti Aaronson

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Great change typically brings opportunity; it also brings turmoil, especially when it comes to workplace dynamics. 

The employer-employee relationship has done a giant pendulum swing from pre-pandemic times. Remember the Great Resignation or the Great Re-shuffle right at the beginning of COVID when employers were doing everything they could to hold onto employees? 

It was a time where employees had all the power and realized the opportunity to “vote with feet," which they did.

Employees got used to working from home, benefiting from the integration of life and work. Whether it was avoiding 2 hours of a commute each day, being able to run errands in the middle of the workday, or folding laundry while on calls - employees experienced a newfound freedom that became a way of life.

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Fast forward to now, the pendulum has swung again.

COVID is over (for the most part, yay), but economic uncertainty has plagued most industries and companies. As big companies laid off extra employees like Amazon and Facebook, jobseekers wanting to make a move of their own volition are seeing open positions dry up and competition for open roles climb. 

There are clear benefits to hybrid and remote structures, especially from the perspective of the employee such as better work/life integration, freedom, flexibility, and productivity. 

But while employees enjoy their freedom, leaders are struggling and it’s showing up in ways like: questioning productivity, micromanaging, surface-level relationships, trust issues, and dismal cultural energy. And for some leaders, control is one thing they feel they don’t have but need because, and at the end of the day, they’re responsible for the results. 

So, whether it’s a knee-jerk reaction or methodically planned out, many are pointing at the office door and saying, “Back to the office we go…and if you don’t like it, go work somewhere else.”   

Amazon, Disney, YouTube, and Starbucks have recently dictated a return to the office with “feel-good” explanations as to why, promising time to make the shift. And since working from home is working for the employees, they’re starting to put up a fight by joining internal employee groups drafting petitions, and even going on strike, in opposition to these top-down decrees.


So here we are with a power dynamic between leaders and their employees

Even for employers who haven’t mandated employees back to the office, hybrid work continues to be difficult and damn near impossible at times. 

Most of the challenges stem from the rapid change and the inability of both leaders and employees to evaluate how the change can be handled most effectively or sustainable long term. 

Just last week, we had a meeting with our team of consultants who spend day-in and day-out helping CEOs and leaders with their biggest problems, and the main challenges right now boiled down to a few themes: 

Employees not “owning it” (which I wrote about last week): Symptoms of not owning it show up as little discretionary effort, blaming others for mistakes, and a lack of accountability, to name a few. How to solve it? Start with defining what “owning it” means to you, share it with your team, and call them out when they fall short.

✅Issues with managing and driving performance: So much about performance depends on having a clear role along with clear expectations. For the most part, people want to perform and do well at work, they don’t have what they need to do so. Andrew Freedman wrote an entire book on it called THRIVE, which you can order here!

✅A lack of motivation and a change in inspiration: This is probably something much larger and deeper than what we can dig into here, but there are a few factors at play. The purpose of work and the level of aspiration seems to be changing. One trend we’re seeing is people want to go to work, do their job, and collect a paycheck. Nothing more, nothing less. 

✅Over-focusing on the people that can’t get onboard: Most leaders have asked the questions (whether it be a survey or otherwise), gotten feedback, and implemented solutions based on that feedback. After all of that, they still can’t get people to buy-in and oftentimes, these are their poor performers. And to fix it, they focus all of their attention on the "D players", unintentionally ignoring the "A players" causing them to lose their best employees.

✅Feeling as though employee expectations have increased and gratitude has decreased: “It feels like they don’t care” or “I feel taken advantage of” are common sentiments from leaders who feel as though they’re constantly adjusting to the needs of their people without getting anything in return, much less a thank you. The reality is a truly healthy and sustainable employee-employer relationship needs to be a two-way street. 

These aren’t challenges that will just solve themselves, and the solutions depend on a variety of factors that differ from business to business. 

If you feel you’re in an arm wrestling match or even at war with your team, you’re not the only one. Here are a few tips we’ve seen work in the hybrid working world we find ourselves in today:

1. Set clear expectations - Be clear with your expectations and outcomes and give your employees the flexibility to “get there” in the way that works for them. 

2. Remove the barriers - If your team isn’t “owning it,” ask yourself why not? Is there a reason they’re not stepping up? As a leader, your job is to remove their barriers - and if you don’t know what those barriers are…asking them is a great start!

3. Model the way In the time of change, employees adapt to that change based on how they perceive their leader is managing it. If you’re burnt out or frazzled, they’ll take that lead.

4. Lean into asynchronous - Provide asynchronous opportunities for your team to plug in, and stop believing more meetings and emails will solve the problem. PS: if you haven’t checked out Latch yet- take a 4-minute zip through here.

5. Make it worth it - If you’re going to bring your team together in person…or require them to be in person, make it worth it. Here’s a company of 2000 people that did it well.

6. Focus on the good - Stop focusing on what’s not working. What we focus all of our energy on will become our reality. More “lack” or “frustration” will inevitably lead to more lack and frustration.

7. Leverage AI - Find new hacks and ways of working by leveraging AI - it’s where the world is going (whether you like it or not).



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TOPICS: Change, shift, Employee Engagement, Workplace Innovation, Leadership Development, leadership, Remote Work, Company Culture