The Strengths-Based Future of Work

I was recently interviewed for an article in regard to “the future of work.” While I don’t claim to be a futurist, I do think that by engaging in the growing movement towards strengths-based leadership TandemSpring has found itself in a unique position to understand an important development as it pertains to the workplace and the future of it.

Specifically, let’s talk about millennials. There have been countless articles trying to decipher the enigma that is the millennial generation. Are they entrepreneurial? Are they just entitled brats? What do they want? How can companies keep them? There doesn’t seem to be much agreement on anything on this group of people who already represent over a third of the US workforce. That number, of course, is growing, and will continue to do so as Baby Boomers, followed by Gen-Xers, continue to age out of the workforce.

I don’t think that there is some silver bullet answer to this, but, at the same time, I don’t think that millennials are really all that different from their predecessors. Namely – they just want to be treated with respect and do work that is interesting and valuable. Same as us – no different. Where the difference comes is from the oft-repeated “entitled” narrative: “…if they always received a trophy for coming in 17th place then they must…” what? They must suck? They must be brats? I don’t see it that way.

If in fact, you received a trophy for coming in 17th place, you could be, what some people call, entitled. But, I would contend that you may have learned something from this: that effort counts. Of course, you still wanted to win, but you tried, and that is, in fact, worth something. Moreover, if you received a trophy for coming in 17th place, the prevailing corporate mindset narratives of “you’re not good enough until you do X” or “only winners are welcome” are simply not going to make any sense to you. The truth is, it never made sense. We Gen-Xers, and the Baby Boomers before us, all knew during those early stages of our career that when we were told we weren’t enough, it was actually BS. It wasn’t hard to look at the leaders above us and recognize that the rules of the game, as they were being explained and applied to us, weren’t always the rules – that plenty of successful, powerful, and rich people got to their stations in life without having to go through each and every hoop being put before us. We all knew something was amiss, the difference is Millennials are finally standing up and pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. Is that entitlement? Maybe – depends on your definition. But, I contend that it is courage coupled with a wisdom that the corporate mindset rules are bunk, and it was the failings of the generations before them that allowed for this ruse to persist.

The Future of Work

What, then, is the future of work? I believe that the future of work will, by today’s standards, look very flexible and even amorphous. Certainly, telecommuting and practical applications of technology will inform some of this. Having to report to a cubicle-farm from 9am to 5pm on weekdays is already going away at an accelerating rate. It is clear that this has long been a vestigial remnant from the early days of the industrial revolution when you actually needed all the workers to show up on the assembly line at the same time. In today’s brain-based economy, this makes far less sense. So, we can fully expect increased flexibility in time, place, and format of work. But, these will be tactical differences – the real differences come in the strategies.

Strategic differences in the workplace will come from the understanding that there isn’t a singular path up the corporate ladder. You don’t have to start at the bottom, prove yourself, climb one rung, prove yourself again, and so on until you make CEO. This mentality is rooted in deficits and is what Millennials are increasingly rejecting. This is where the idea that you aren’t good enough yet to be promoted, or whatever the next step for you is, comes from. That has to go away, because (1) it has always been riddled with problems, keeping talented individuals at the bottom while maintaining less talented individuals at the top, (2) because those flaws are now too transparent to those entering the workforce and will not be tolerated any much longer, and (3) the speed of business has accelerated to such a pace that such inefficiencies will be considered markers of impending failure.

Implications For Today

If this is true, even in part, what can we do to prepare for it? The short answer is that it has become incumbent upon leadership in the workplaces of today to begin the movement away from deficit-oriented management and, in its place, adopt more strengths-based models. This means understanding employees for “how” they do work, not the “what” that they do. When we look at “what” people do, they should always improve until they are the best, or at least an “expert” at it. This is a process that is very long, too full of deficits, and too inefficient for the business world of tomorrow. But, when we change our lens to “how” people work, we recognize that they already are the best and are expert in “how” they operate, as it is completely unique unto them. Nearly all of us aren’t the best at the “what,” but each of us is completely unparalleled in the “how.” Understanding this and leveraging it is the future of work.

Millennials already know all this, because when they were receiving trophies for coming in 17th place it imbued them with this kind of thinking. This is what Millennials are demanding from their workplace leadership that has in turn been misinterpreted and dismissed as “entitlement.” This is a mistake and one that is going to increasingly cost businesses. Now is the time for leadership to heed the call and learn to shed the deficit-oriented ways they were raised with and adopt a more strengths-based leadership style and corporate culture. With one-third of the workplace demanding it, this is no longer “Kumbaya” or the softer side of making a workplace a nice place to be, this has already become a business imperative with accelerating bottom-line consequences.

To learn more about how to Unlock The Corporate Mindset and integrate your own model of success in all that you do, reserve a seat at our Unlock the Corporate Mindset Workshop on December 9th in Chicago. Our accountability is not to your job or your promotion it is to YOU, as a leader with talents and strengths that can have a meaningful impact on the world around you! We can’t wait to see you on the Brighter Side of Leadership!