Unlocking Today's Workplace: Can Inclusive Leadership Be the Magic Key?

Unlocking Today's Workplace: Can Inclusive Leadership Be the Magic Key?

Effective leadership hinges on including and valuing the insights of ground-level employees, ensuring coherence between words and actions, and building genuine human connections.

Steffan Surdek: Unleashing the Co-creative Leadership in Executives. President, Surdek Solutions Inc. Author of The Way of the Co-Creative Leader. Connect with Steffan on LinkedIn.

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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

Steffan: I think the biggest thing is including people and having a work environment where the leaders don't feel they need to have all the answers. They don't feel they need to know all the problems, but they can lean on the people on the ground. Because I think that's one of the biggest challenges in organizations.

People on the ground know the problems; they have ideas for solutions, but we don't bother to stop, ask, and work on those ideas with them.

And what that prevents is people from essentially being able to take ownership of the business.

And once people start taking ownership, it helps you with retention, it helps you with employee morale, it helps you with engagement, it helps you with motivation, it helps you with all sorts of stuff. And it's so easy, but it's so hard, too, at the same time.

Bill: I love the clarity of that response, Stefan. Almost everywhere I worked, that aspect seemed invisible to leaders. It seems so simple, and you often would see them go off a cliff somewhere while you had the answers. And they're not including the people who know it could have helped them.

Steffan: The challenge it creates is that sometimes leaders don't do this on purpose. We don't collaborate in school. We don't always learn to collaborate in business. And sometimes these leaders are afraid that if they don't know the answers, if they don't bring answers to people, they're afraid they're going to look bad, they're afraid they're not going to be viewed as good leaders. So they bring their ideas. They inflict is a better word. And then the problem with that is that people will say, "Well, that's Bill's project. It's not my project. I'm just doing it because Bill told me to do it."

But it's a balance to find because you don't want to seem as if you don't know any answers anytime and have nothing to contribute, because then people wonder, why are you the leader? At the same time, it's finding the balance between the two. It's finding the space to ask your employees good questions. You can start initiating the right conversations with your employees and the right people to get ideas going and things moving. And that's a form of leadership, too.

More than having the answers, being able to generate stimulating conversations is a great skill to have.

What does it take to get employees' full attention and best performance?

Steffan: I think it takes some coherence between what you say as a leader and what you're doing because if you say we want to include people, and I'll leverage what we were just talking about.

If you say yes, I want to leverage people. I want to leverage their ideas. I want people to feel included. And you just do it kind of as a pretend thing where you're asking, but you're not really listening. You're not really doing anything with that.

People will figure out you're a fraud quickly enough, and people aren't going to be interested in playing that game with you for very long.

So, the biggest thing as a leader is that your actions must follow your words. It's okay to say, I don't know. It's okay to make mistakes, apologize for your mistakes, and step up and try something different if you're making a mistake. But as a leader, if you're always incoherent between what you say and what you're doing, your people will pick up on that fairly quickly, and they will start disconnecting with you.

Bill: I think that's a wonderful insight, Steffan. I've interviewed over 80 people and asked them that question, but that specific insight has never come through, and I think it's so important. Very good.

What do people really lack and long for at work?

I think a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging. Often, we join a company, and what happens is we're super excited to join the company and join this team. But essentially, the team is just a group of people that are thrown together and need to deliver Project X or Y or whatever.

And what happens is we never learn to play together. We never learn to build those team dynamics together.

And I think people yearn for doing work that matters, and they yearn for feeling a sense of when I'm going at work, I'm like at my second home type of thing to a certain extent. I know the people. I can be myself. People can be themselves. They're comfortable with each other. Everyone is comfortable with each other. As imperfect as we may be.

But that sense of belonging is something that in the corporate world is very hard to create because we consider the financial side, consider this, consider that, layoffs here, layoffs there.

So it's hard sometimes to build that sense of belonging because it's not how it was before, where we'd start working in a company and spend our whole life there. The world isn't like that anymore. There's still people like that from my generation, probably, but it's not what we see now with the younger generations at work. They're looking to fill their needs, to meet their needs. And I think that's the biggest thing.

Bill: As you talked about that, Stefan, what came to mind was this whole dynamic now of working at home versus leaders wanting the people to return to the office. How does that play into your response to that question and building that team dynamics and being able to work together?

Steffan: Well, for the team dynamics, what I feel is happening right now, what I see with the clients I work with, is people want a reason to be at the office. There are a lot of companies that mandate two days a week at the office. But why? Because if you're at the office and you're on Zoom, or you're on Webex, or you're on Microsoft Teams, meeting with people who are all over the place, what's the added value for you to be in the office?

My spouse, where she works, is mandated to be in the office at least once a week. But what they do as a team is talk about it on Monday and say, "Okay, which day do we want to be there?" And they make sure that they're all there together to sit in the same space. They can talk, and they know that's not the most productive day of the week for them. Sometimes, they'll talk, they'll catch up, they'll reconnect. But that's their sense of belonging. That's their sense of bonding together. And they're very happy to go to the office. I'm sure they wouldn't be too worried about going there a second day because they're going there and they feel they're doing something. They feel that they're connected.

So I feel that when we mandate employees to go back to work, if we're mandating it to mandate it, but we're not making sure people have an added value to go, what's the purpose?

Because you can't tell people, "Oh, well, it's for team bonding. It's for team building." That's not true. Sometimes, if you're in one city and the team is spread across the world now, what's the value for you to go to the office?

And it's fun because from what she tells me, some days they meet in the morning, they do work, and the afternoon is team building. So they go off somewhere, they do some team building activity. And the company supports that. The company just wants them to be together.

What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?

Steffan: Oh, that's a hard one. I think right now, when you look at everything the pandemic created, when you look at the sense of disconnection that's been created, the sense of sometimes the teleworking, the sense of not being as close to our people, I think the best question is, "How are you doing and how are you doing in life? How are you doing as a person? What's going on right now for you, and how can I support you?"

It's about building connections. When you're remote, connection building is so important.

I used to work at IBM, and I worked at IBM remotely with the team for about three years. And my pet peeve was when one of my colleagues would ping me and just say, "Hey, how are you doing on this issue? And my answer would be, good morning. How are you?"

And then I wouldn't answer until they interacted with me at a human level. And I learned, three years of being remote, that that connection is important. When I spoke to my colleagues in India, I used to ask them how they were doing, and I used to keep little mental notes. And then, if someone told me, "Oh, we just had a baby," I'd ask, "So, are you sleeping? How are you doing?" And people appreciate that sense of attention.

I think getting to know people and people feeling that you care as a leader creates a relationship where people will tell you if something is going on. They'll tell you before they make any attempt to leave. They'll give you a chance to address things. But if you don't build that connection, why should they stay?

What's the most important question employees should ask leaders?

Steffan: kind of the same question applies. How can I help you? How can I support you? Sometimes, we see leadership as the leader doing all of these things, and the leader is pushing them all, but sometimes it's a lot of water to carry, and it's a lot of wood to chop. And sometimes, it's good for leaders to have people around them who take care of them and can help and support them.

If I look in my business, my assistant, who's also my director of operations and who does a whole bunch of stuff on the back end of the business, knows that I can get overloaded and always makes sure, are you okay? What can I do? Sometimes, it's funny because she's planning my personal appointments in the background, so I don't need to worry about making those calls. I can worry about being with clients. I can worry about developing business. So I find sometimes just having the people you work with come and ask, how are you doing? How are you holding up? What can they do to support you? It is also good and healthy for the leader.

And then it's up to the leader to choose how vulnerable I want to be. Do I want to open up and say, "I'm really struggling with this these days, and I'm not sure how you can help, but this is a struggle." So, just talking about it is helpful to me right now to sort through this type of thing.

What about the most important question we can ask ourselves?

Steffan: Oh, this is my favorite. What does your leadership create? I have two answers to that question. The first one is, what is my leadership creating right now? So when I look at how I'm working with my team, the way I'm leading my team right now, the way I'm working with my people, or if I'm a team lead, or if I'm someone on the ground and I try to step up and be a leader on my team, what is my leadership creating right now?

Is my leadership creating a better environment for the team? Is my leadership creating a mess in meetings because I'm not asking the right questions or not acting appropriately, or I'm the one making the little sarcastic jokes, and I'm being disruptive? Being able to notice what my leadership creates is a great thing.

Another question that I love. If I could sneak in, would you choose to follow yourself? When I'm looking at myself right now, and I'm looking at my leadership, would I choose to follow this version of Steffan right now? And it's okay to say no, and it's okay to say yes, but sometimes it just gives us a little checkpoint. Whether we treat people the way we would like them to treat us type of thing. And if we don't, well, what should I be changing? How should I be tweaking things to be a better version of myself for people?

Coming Soon

In part two of our interview, we'll explore and dive deeper into Steffan's new book, "The Way of the Co-Creative Leader."