The last couple of years have changed us, collectively and to the core, when it comes to how we move through this world and how we view our place within the organizations we dedicate ourselves to—as employees, as leaders, and as unapologetic change agents.
While we all sought to navigate our way through the pandemic, and through global economic crises, social upheavals, environmental chaos, and jarring domestic and international disputes—we began to weigh things differently. We began to associate new value with our own mental health. We started prioritizing our larger impact and the necessary boundaries we needed to set for ourselves (and for our teams) in order to stay sanely afloat without dropping any of the plates we continued to spin above us. We were expected to show up at work each day, head held high and mind uncluttered, despite the snowballing barrage of challenges we woke up to on what seemed like a daily basis. We plowed our way through that icy onslaught as though nothing had changed, when actually, everything had.
Then, many of us—especially those Gen Xers, xennials, and elder millennials who were brought up with an almost militant work ethic before and after the birth of the internet—realized something rather profound: Maybe it wasn’t the current state of the world that was failing us; perhaps it was the very systems and expectations we were taught to uphold, to outperform, and to exceed that were killing us.
When it comes to workplace leadership or what it means to be powerful, what it means to be a boss, what it means to work in sports, entertainment, or any high-stress environment, we were taught that if you don’t outwork someone, you will be overlooked and passed by. I had absorbed this “best practice” so completely that, for most of my career, I refused to be outworked by anyone, EVER, and at just about any cost—so much so that I even took my work with me after experiencing my first labor pains and through the birth of my son.
Of course, this bullish desire to be the hardest possible worker served me well earlier in my life, and I am not the only business leader I know who has worked through ambulance rides and heart attacks and horrific family losses. This became the playbook for how you get ahead in business and how you treat those who come after you. We all blindly accepted the false expectation that a junior employee ought to be up earlier and continue working later than their management in order to prove themselves, to learn, to grow, to “pay their dues.” Because, let’s be honest, employees are often not regarded as whole humans by their employers—and a company often views a job description as an ownership deed and a “bare minimum” scope of work, despite the fact that, in any other circumstance, the terms of a contract are honored meticulously within what is stated on paper.
I later learned a fundamental truth that many others around me have concluded the hard way: As one’s scope continues to increase, this level of outworking is simply not sustainable. This whole paradigm must be reimagined, because people are burning out at lightning speed, yet companies still ask—often, demand—not that people do more with less, but that they do the impossible with nothing.
It’s not that this system of thought is entirely bad. I firmly believe that ingenuity and innovation can be bred out of a fierce desire to build, perform, and deliver what no one else ever has without having everything you need to complete the task. Take the incomparable Doug E. Fresh, for example, who discussed how and why he invented beatboxing during a recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. He was able to build an entirely new musical modality—the fifth element of hip-hop, if you will—by seeking to overachieve and create something catalytic with literally nothing but his mind and his mouth. He didn’t accomplish this casually or by accident. He did it by outperforming those who came before him and exceeding any expectation of what it took to make a beat without any traditional instruments. That kind of inner fire and pressure to perform is what makes diamonds out of clumps of carbon, and both its rarity and value cannot be understated. But again, it’s the sustainability over time and the blind expectation across all subsets of people that’s in question here.
In this case, those who are asking this question of sustainability are most often the senior leaders in an organization who might not hold the No. 1 slot, but are close enough to earn the ears of the C Suite and manage the younger generations who now make up the vast majority of teams globally. Largely in their mid-40s and 50s, they are having to lead while having to unlearn, while having to devise solutions, while having to endure and overcome the very same oppression of this crushing system that they are simultaneously trying to fix. Still, they are expected to have all of the answers that can be translated for all parties on each side of the spectrum. They have already proven themselves and achieved accolades in their work, and yet the expectation increases, as do the risks. And the moment they do not meet those preset standards, they are, indeed, discarded.
They are exhausted, and they are finally demanding change.
As the first breed of leaders to live through both the analog world and the digital age, these leaders are uniquely suited to meet new demands and to help implement the change. They understand those that came before them and why they constructed this system as such. They are fluent in the languages of both generations and comfortable measuring according to the KPIs of each. They have had the time to grow into their own, both with and without technology (and are likely now parents guiding new humans through their own existential wanderings). They also understand why the younger generations are so adamant about fighting back against these norms. They share the post-millennium desire to imbue meaning into their work and right the wrongs of days gone by. They feel the truths of both sides, and they wear the scars of both extremes.
They are uniquely adaptable, having earned their stripes and learned their limits through an era marked by hyper innovation, technological advancement, and cultural awakening. They are the in-between decipherers and the unintentional mediators between these two completely separate cultures that are struggling to communicate with each other. And for these reasons, among many others (including the fact that they learned to converse before IMs, DMs, and for some even email, existed and were “the original early adopters”), they are the ones tasked with bridging this divide between the old and the new, in order to usher in a new definition of what going “above and beyond” in business actually means while remaining beholden to the outdated KPIs and systems that formed them.
This new definition is one in which the notion of “outworking” should’t necessarily mean time spent or sacrifices made. It should be measured in thoughtfulness, creativity, solutioning, collaboration, and effectiveness.
It should be about how smart your decision is rather than the number of decisions made. It’s about setting healthy, sustainable boundaries that don’t exploit either the employee or the employer. It’s about being hyper intentional when crafting job descriptions and consulting agreements that enable an individual to make a positive, profitable impact on the organization without the assumption that they owe it more than the scope of work outlined. It’s about holding as true to the terms of that employee contract as the company would any agreement it signs with a third party. It’s about helping more experienced leaders understand, even though they are the bosses, that the old way is no longer as beneficial as it was once believed to be, and there is zero ROI in a burned out, bottlenecked, or belittled employee. It’s also about inspiring younger personnel to meet those seasoned leaders halfway by finding a way to apply their magic—the skill set or passion or personal brand that they uniquely possess—to the business in a manner that elevates their role and their experience at the organization while boosting the bottom line. It’s about proving that this approach actually leads to an infinitely richer corporate culture and more energetic, motivated, committed, and sharper contributions from employees than the old paradigm ever could and thus greater ROI for the company.
As with so many other workplace trends that we see, the pendulum has swung back again. It has swung back on the Black Lives Matter movement. It has swung back on gender equity and inclusion, and it’s also swung back on the importance of giving employees the space they need to bring their best self and most quality work to the office. It’s high time we prioritize giving our team members the peace of mind that their employer knows they are a whole human and respects the value that their individual humanity brings to the organization even without a global pandemic.
This is not only mission critical, at this point—it is the fastest way to unlock the ultimate returns on our investments unapologetically in a time when nothing is certain, but anything is possible.This mission is not easy. In fact, it can be absolutely grueling at times. But we, the “inbetweeners,” your organization’s “X factors,” can execute this vision in ways few others can. You just have to block, tackle, and get out of the way.
Christine Simmons is an accomplished COO, business executive, and board director with 20+ years’ experience devising strategy and leading transformational change for iconic B2B/B2C leaders: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles Sparks, NBCUniversal Inc., The Walt Disney Company, and Magic Johnson Enterprises.