How to build an enlightened workplace

An enlightened workplace is possible if we’re willing to evolve our leadership.

Talent management and learning professionals are feeling the squeeze. Executive teams are demanding rapid transformation to become more agile while simultaneously improving efficiencies and profitability. That combination is challenging in any environment, but it becomes a high-wire act when workers are already struggling with unprecedented levels of burnout, disengagement and imbalance. Complicating matters further are seismic workforce shifts including talent shortages, skills gaps, Gen Z employees pouring into the workforce and Return To Office (RTO) mandates.

In this new world of work, leadership at every level is more essential than ever.

Unfortunately, leadership techniques haven’t kept pace with the swirling changes in our work or within our workers. The way we work today is dramatically different than it was even three years ago. Our work is now hyper-connected and collaborative, and we seek to serve a variety of stakeholders—not just the bottom line.

The personal changes our workers are experiencing are just as profound. Our employees are looking for much more than a steady paycheck. They feel the existential tug of “unspoken” needs, including being able to show up fully as their authentic selves at work, a desire to create strong social bonds with co-workers and a quest for meaning and purpose.

As people leaders, this confluence of workplace disruptions has created an opportunity to teach our business leaders how to adopt an enlightened leadership approach.

Outdated attitudes and beliefs about leadership—those emphasizing command and control over humanistic and empathetic aims—have been relegated to the dark ages of management theory. An enlightened leadership approach puts people first and, somewhat counterintuitively for some, produces outsized business results in the process.

This may sound like a new development, but it’s been 2,500 years in the making. The enlightened workplace of the future is equally influenced by ancient Eastern philosophy and state-of-the-art Western organizational psychology.

An enlightened leadership roadmap unfolds across five progressive waves. Taking an enlightened approach means teaching every leader how to:

  • Lead yourself. We must encourage leaders to develop self-awareness, of course, but also to push further to embrace self-acceptance. There are no perfect leaders, but perfectionist tendencies from leaders often produce devastating consequences for all involved.
  • Lead others. Leaders must demonstrate the levels of empathy and servant leadership that modern workers demand. Fostering trust and recognizing the intrinsic connectedness between all workers and their outputs are no longer nice to have—these have become essential ingredients for effective working relationships.
  • Lead your team. We need to equip our leaders to elevate their influence by becoming better storytellers. We must show them how to cooperate—and concede where needed—by creating psychologically safe environments where team members can perform and thrive.
  • Lead your organization. Leaders need to see their opportunity and responsibility to reinforce alignment with the organization’s mission and culture. We must encourage them to practice self-care and help those around them feel comfortable to do the same.
  • Lead the world. We can’t be content to constrain our attention and efforts to the confines of our organization. We can help leaders expand their impact through positive contributions to their families, communities and beyond.

An enlightened workplace is possible if we’re willing to evolve our leadership. As business leaders adopt the above practices, the ripples they send into their teams and beyond produce increasingly higher levels of performance and engagement. This won’t happen, however, unless you are willing to lead first.

As talent leaders and learning professionals, be prepared to overcome conditioned skepticism on the part of your executives and business managers. It’s not their fault. While our business school curricula are chock-full of technical and operational instruction, people practices are often given short shrift. A large percentage of executives spend an extremely small percentage of their time on leadership development.

To garner executive attention and secure commitment, you’ll need to make a compelling business case. Fortunately, robust organizational psychology literature supports bottom-line drivers such as innovation, job performance, agility, speed and profitability.

As stewards of employee welfare, we can also take comfort in the fact that workers have been found to experience higher levels of job satisfaction, mental wellness and employee commitment among a long list of people-centric benefits of these same enlightened techniques.

With awareness comes responsibility. We can watch as a continuous evolution of our work and our workers erodes organizational performance and worker well-being, or we can equip ourselves to help our leaders adopt the new attitudes and behaviors that will lead to a more holistic and enduring form of success.

Let’s step into the light.