Human-centered leadership: Five actions for the new paradigm

The pandemic has created a new paradigm of work. Embrace human-centered leadership as we create the new social contract between employees and employers.

COVID-19 created a new paradigm for the way we work—and organizations across the globe are stepping back to redefine what work means for their employees and culture. There has never been a more urgent call for human-centered leadership.

Human-centered leaders must recognize and create a new social contract between the employee and employer that balances the organization’s needs with the needs of its employees, customers and community. The result? The ability to attract and retain top talent, foster productive and engaged employees and achieve sustainable and thriving businesses.

Being a human-centered leader in the new paradigm challenges us to be constantly attentive to the changing needs of our employees as well as the organizational goals we must achieve. Here are five actions that can help you and the leaders in your organization achieve balance and “do the right thing.”

  • Create and model virtuous cycles of well-being. Set new norms for leaders and employees that navigate between periods of rest and activity, simultaneously achieving organizational goals while recognizing the individual’s needs to rejuvenate. Model resilience behaviors yourself, focusing on physical, emotional, mental and social resilience practices and ensure team members are encouraged and supported in their well-being practices. There must be a deliberate move away from rewarding “always on” behavior that ultimately leads to burnout and high turnover. Clarify that the organization understands productivity is negatively impacted when employees cannot rest—and that hurts the resilience and growth of the organization.
  • Radically rethink the hybrid work model. It is unrealistic to imagine returning to the same office we left. We have learned teams can connect and accomplish goals working virtually when we are intentional. We learned flexibility is priceless—and in a competitive job market, many employees demand that roles not require being in the office five days a week. So how will work take place—and how can we radically transform how work happens? Perhaps “the office” becomes Teams or Zoom and the physical office becomes the “offsite” experience where employees purposefully gather for special training or events. Plan for what supporting a hybrid workforce might require, including increased demands on IT teams to provide technology and support.
  • Walk your EDI talk. Make the corporation’s intent to be equitable, inclusive and diverse real. Avoid a “check-the-box” mentality; offering training on unconscious bias is not enough. Intentionally changing an organization’s culture begins with courageous dialogue, revealing the opportunities in your organization to reflect deeply on lived experiences of power and privilege at all levels of the organization. Reconsider prioritization of equity and what it means to be equitable when societal factors do not create a level playing field. Are your organization’s decisions creating or reducing equity? Recognize, celebrate and leverage the wonderful and diverse perspectives of employees in creating a vibrant culture. Interrogate policies, informal ways of interacting, written communication and access to opportunities with a critical eye so you understand what an inclusive culture looks like.
  • Manage through networks—not hierarchies. Collective leadership requires a dynamic and emergent social process of influence that can occur up, down and across the organizational hierarchy. Seeding and leveraging networks across your organization can speed the ability to achieve organizational goals, helping teams engage in systems thinking, communicating more effectively and collaboratively. Take time to map existing networks to help you see the dynamics within teams and across teams, such as communication norms, potential facilitators, inhibitors of cultural change and team diversity—then work to improve the breadth, depth and diversity of connected leaders.
  • Develop your emerging leaders. Emerging leaders need equitable opportunities to lead. Even though 97 percent of managers believe leadership development should be offered before age 21, organizations may be myopically focused on developing high potential leaders. Consider how to scale your leadership development initiatives to emerging leaders who will fill critical positions throughout the next three years. Deliberately identify ways to ensure emerging leaders are confident their voices are heard, are involved in making decisions and have opportunities and recognition of work that positively impact their teams and the organization.

The pandemic has created an entirely new paradigm for the world of work. Focusing on human-centered leadership will proactively shape what that world will look like as we create the new social contract between our organizations and the individual humans who bring them to life.