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Leadership in crisis - why Return to Office mandates are just a symptom of a much wider problem

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett June 4, 2024
Many senior leaders are struggling in a world that has shifted beneath their feet. So, the key question is now can they take the heat, or should they get out of the kitchen?


Many leaders these days are in denial. Whether we are talking about return to office mandates or their own mental health, all too many senior executives are not facing up to the reality of their current situation, believes Dr John Blakey. He is an Executive Coach and author of Force for Good: How to Thrive as a Purpose-Driven Leader.

In wellbeing terms, Blakey’s views appear to be backed up by a global study conducted by talent services provider LHH. It revealed that 65% of US leaders across all sectors are experiencing burnout. Some 36% of UK bosses are considering quitting in the next year or so. The situation among tech professionals at all levels, meanwhile, appears to be getting worse not better. Blakey explains:

Many of my clients aren’t thriving. They’re surviving. In my coaching work, if we look at the topics that senior executives are talking about now compared to pre-pandemic, the focus is on motivation, resilience and purpose. And behind that lies a general disquiet and anxiety about whether it’s still worth it. It’s a question that’s looming in many conversations. So, the burnout is partly because they’re drained after what they’ve been through over the last five years. It’s stretched them to the limit, and they’ve not had the chance to recover or recharge.

A very different leadership landscape

Another factor though is the “very different leadership landscape” in which leaders are now operating. As Blakey says:

Some feel they may not have applied for the job if they’d known how it was going to change over recent years. The things that come into their inbox now, especially from their teams and people they manage, cover a much broader, diverse and bewildering set of issues and concerns today. People are bringing much more into the workplace at a personal level, which includes troubles and concerns both in and out of work. Leaders are expected to have a magic wand to solve issues that can be quite deep and personal. So, they can feel quite helpless in terms of the volume and variety of people management issues they’re having to cope with.

Andrew Neal, Chief People Officer of digital services consultancy Nash Squared, agrees that the pressure is on for many leaders:

If you look at the macro-economic and socio-political environment, unpredictable markets, the pace of technological change, and the way everyone is leaning into executives in a way they didn’t five or 10 years ago, it’s all contributing to burnout. These are unprecedented levels of change, so it’s no surprise people are feeling under pressure. The pace of change in tech is more acute than ever and there are seismic shifts happening. AI is probably going to change all our lives and business leaders are looking at the tech function to explain, make it happen and unlock future benefits, so the pressure there is acute.

Trying to weather the storm

While HR colleagues are trying to help, Blakey also points out they are operating against the same backdrop as senior executives, feeling drained and uncertain over “how the world of work is going to settle down”. This is particularly true in the context of the contentious debate over return to office (RTO) mandates. He explains:

People had hoped to find an equilibrium between individual autonomy and the needs of the organization, but the issue isn’t going away and won’t any time soon. Hoping it’ll settle down if you wait long enough isn’t the right strategy as it won’t settle of its own accord.

Blakey shares the analogy of the Choluteca Bridge in Honduras, which local people call ‘The Bridge to Nowhere’. After being rebuilt in the 1990s to withstand any natural disaster, Hurricane Mitch caused the river beneath it to carve out another path, half a mile away. But as Blakey says:

The same happened with leadership. The storm of recent years has moved leadership requirements in such a way that many people feel they’re ‘The Leader to Nowhere’. They’re in a position where what they were trained for and what was expected is not what’s needed now day-to-day. There’s been a dramatic shift in requirements and expectations. It’s not that there’s anything’s wrong with them. It’s just the need has moved in such a way they have to think everything through again from a different starting point.

While an initial reaction is often to believe the situation is limited to your organisation and that switching jobs will be the solution, Blakey points out that it is a cross-organizational, cross-industry phenomenon:

So, there’s an element of denial and hope. But hope’s not a strategy. If you look at the landscape more broadly, you’ll see that moving to a different organization or role is a short-term reaction rather than a medium-term answer. Training, coaching and other interventions can help, but first leaders need to understand the nature of the problem. As Einstein said: ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.’ But many leaders haven’t stopped long enough to ask questions and listen and understand what’s happening in people’s minds.

The controversial RTO debate

Nowhere is this more true than in relation to the controversial RTO [Return to Office] debate, which has garnered significant column inches in a tech sector context. Interestingly though, according to a recent poll by Gartner, it is executives rather than their employees who appear on the surface of it to set more store by flexibility.

While only 19% of non-executives said they would leave their employer in the face of an RTO mandate, the figure jumped to one in three for executives. Caitlin Duffy, Senior Director of Gartner’s HR practice, explains:

For the past few years, we’ve seen that flexible work is a highly valued experience for all talent segments, and executives benefit from work-life balance as much as anyone else. But they’ve been working for longer, so many have had time to build confidence that they know the right mode for them to perform at their best. They don’t necessarily have a stronger preference for flexible working than other employees, but they do have more flexibility to pursue other options. It’s the same with high potential talent – they’re more likely to say they’d leave if given an RTO mandate too.

Such a situation does leave them open to accusations of double standards by their teams though, even if they are not the ones issuing the mandate. As Duffy says:

If you’re asking employees to be on site rather than be more flexible, it often speaks to a lack of understanding of what people on the ground are experiencing…and it could appear to be double standards if you’re not happy to do it yourself, but you require your employees to do so. The potential implications are less engagement and a reduced intent to stay, especially right now when we’re seeing a growing lack of trust between employers and employees anyway.

Moving beyond kneejerk responses

Blakey agrees. He believes RTO mandates are often “kneejerk responses” when, in reality, senior executives would benefit more from taking the time to listen to what their employees think and feel. That way they could design new ways of working that solve real problems “rather than force-fitting people into situations that don’t work”. As a result, he says:

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there are double standards at play. You’ve got a board that’s under pressure from stakeholders, such as investors, to establish greater control over the situation. Most RTO mandates come from the top. But there are potentially many layers between the top and line managers, who don’t necessarily agree with the idea and turn a blind eye. It’s they who have to communicate the mandate to their teams who all moan, so it isn’t enforced or monitored. Middle managers know the tensions as they’re trying to manage them every day. Members of the boardroom don’t as they’re too removed. If more research was done into this, I’m sure you’d probably find that middle managers are being squeezed in the middle. They don’t necessarily believe in RTO mandates and don’t want to work that way themselves, but they’re under pressure due to diktats from above.

Another factor is that most senior board members tend to come from the older Baby Boomer generation. This means they often have quite different attitudes to younger generations. But the problem, as Blakey sees it, is that:

There’s a general trend towards people wanting more autonomy and flexibility as a result of the pandemic…So, the core of the challenge for me is denial. Many leaders are not yet facing up to the new reality of the workplace and kneejerk, short-term measures are being used to avoid the underlying issue. And that is that they need to rethink the world of work in a more radical way than most organizations are prepared to do. But it starts with having the right conversations to work out the best way forward. If they don’t, they’ll continue to live in a false situation, with everyone getting by but knowing things aren’t quite right.

My take

Many leaders are experiencing a difficult time, with polarized views over things like RTO mandates only making things worse. But Blakey doesn’t believe things will get easier any time soon and, in fact, are likely to be stirred up again further by AI. As a result, his advice is this:

Find ways to thrive rather than divide or get out of the way. It’s time to ask yourself serious questions about whether this is the environment you want to take on as a challenge. Or is it time to hand over the baton to other with the appetite and skills the coming world needs?


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