Workplace leadership: no meaning, no work…

16 August 2016
4 min read

Our leadership approach to ‘being an employer’ hasn’t changed significantly in decades. Managing people in a work environment involves seeking to gain their best efforts, in exchange for reward – but is it time we redefined reward?

As barriers to mobility between projects, companies, countries and industries disappear – a ‘job for a decade’ let alone a ‘job for life’ is now a thing of the past. Money may make the world go round, but as a new generation of employees come to the workforce, it is clear that it doesn’t always buy happiness. Enlightened organisations are realising that it certainly doesn’t buy job satisfaction either for their new experience-hungry workforce.

If an organisation doesn’t show their employees they are valued – they’ll move on to the next one who does. With employees increasingly working in project delivery environments, how do project managers apply the change needed in organisational leadership to project leadership in order to engage and retain their teams?

Within today’s rapidly changing business environment, creative thinking and collaboration in order to achieve differentiation have taken pride of place. “Companies are focusing on innovation and unique differentiation – and almost exclusively are looking at people, not machines, to provide it,” writes The Digitalist. In addition to employees becoming critical to an organisation’s success, their expectations have changed.

Successful organisations in future will be those who pay their staff more than just a salary, but also pay them their attention.

Gen X and the Millennials (born between 1982 and 2004) are at very different points in their careers (with some yet to start theirs!). It is clear that: The Millennials’ definition of prosperity encompasses far more than just money. Interestingly, many Gen Xers seem to have reached a similar conclusion – as their careers have progressed, they find themselves looking for greater meaning in their roles. This combined workforce craves shared values, ones that take into account the well-being of others, ones that are underpinned by a sense of worth, consideration and ‘togetherness’. In short, it turns out that as a workforce, they are starting to ‘care’.

For today’s project teams, money alone has ceased to engender loyalty as it once could. With so many projects and opportunities, being paid equitably simply isn’t enough. Increasingly demanding project delivery environments mean that growth and development opportunities on projects are key; staff want to feel valued, appreciated and do work that has significance.


Sceptics might ask: but what’s the cost in terms of project productivity? Will the ‘warm and fuzzy’ impact on output?

The good news is that all evidence points to soft skills translating to commercial success stories. A person who feels appreciated will always do more than is expected – and isn’t this the most basic definition of a high performing team? It turns out that truly valuing staff is not just a ‘nice to have’, but an essential element of successful project delivery.

Project leaders need to move from delivering monologues to engaging in dialogues. Open channels of communication will ensure greater understanding of what matters to the people who work in their team. It takes a confident leader to listen to the project team first without jumping in with direction from on high. This form of respectful project leadership leads to a relationship built upon mutual trust. When staff feel ‘heard’ and they have jointly shaped their project’s vision, they’re more likely to stay and do their best work for the project.

Taken a step further, project initiators, including governments, financiers and mega corporations, need to think about replacing dictating the brief and then microscopically scrutinising compliance. Successful project outcomes should be more important – allowing informed and intelligent project staff to use their passion and intellect to define the problem, and then co-create the pathway to solving it, may result in a shared commitment to achieving the project’s success more than any end of project bonus could instil.

By this yardstick: Tomorrow’s most successful organisations and projects won’t only be highly profitable, but also highly engaged with their teams. By listening to the needs of their workers, they will be able to create a culture that allows employees to succeed and grow. A project and the people who make up the project shouldn’t be mutually exclusive – rather, they should form a symbiotic relationship which draws on and feeds off one another, enabling better outcomes for both.

Systems-based management will become meaningless in the future unless we are able to overlay these inflexible systems with ones that take into consideration the human needs of a workforce that is smart enough to know if they are viewed as a cog in a money-making machine. In fact, you can have as many systems in place as you like, but if the people operating within those systems feel unheard, undervalued and unappreciated, you will never get the right results – no matter what any graphs tell you.

In today’s project landscape of KPIs and KRAs, the value of keeping your staff happy is immeasurable.

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Georgina Mahony
Written by
Georgina Mahony

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