In a world of relentlessly rising demand, great leadership requires a delicate balance between challenging and caring for employees. Most leaders continue to pay far more attention to the first, at the expense of the second.
It’s critical for leaders to create a compelling vision of the possible, and to challenge their people to exceed their current, often self-imposed, limits. But it’s equally critical to nourish and nurture them, so they have the internal capacity to deliver on their potential.
The same is true when it comes to organizations and their expectations. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard senior leaders in the past few years talk about becoming more customer centric and better at meeting client needs, or improving execution and efficiency. They’re all legitimate goals in a fiercely competitive era.
But what I hear far less frequently is, “How do we systematically better meet the core needs of our employees, to help them meet our rising expectations?” That omission is a function of the way we’ve long viewed work. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the prevailing model for how to work has been the machine — and more recently, the computer. More, bigger, faster remains the prevailing mantra in most organizations.
Machines have no interior life and they can run continuously, for long periods of time, on a single source of energy. Human beings are designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy. In addition, we have multidimensional needs — physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. We also have multidimensional capacities that machines don’t have, including introspection, reflectiveness, empathy, care, collaboration and growth — all more important than ever in a complex world.
I feel this especially vividly whenever I speak with female leaders. I spend a lot of time speaking with male executives, and the atmosphere with women is usually palpably different — still businesslike, but also warmer, more intimate and informal, and more soulful than I’m used to encountering with men.
Wherever I go in the working world, the issues of overload, exhaustion and burnout are a primary topic of conversation.
But here’s what most men still don’t fully get: It’s not a level playing field. I’m not referring to opportunities for women at the highest level in companies or equal pay, both of which fall far short of where they should be. What I mean is the demands that working women face compared with men.
When I talk with women, I often share a set of facts, most of them culled from a wonderful book by the Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has Time” Here are a few of them:
On average, American women still do twice the housework and twice as much child care as men.
The higher their education, the more time women spend on mothering, and working mothers spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960s.
Women are two and a half times more likely than men to interrupt their sleep to care for others, and they stay awake longer when they do.
In short, women still spend considerably more time taking care of others than men do, and not surprisingly, it takes a toll. Adult women, for example, are the fastest growing group being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but a growing number of researchers believe it isn’t really the neurological disorder, but rather that they’re so overloaded.
The cost to companies should be obvious. Employees who feel depleted can’t deliver their best work, and on average, women experience disproportionate demand in their lives. Even so, there’s evidence that women are nonetheless perceived as better leaders than men — by both genders.
In 2012, the consulting firm Zenger Folkman studied 7,300 leaders and found that women were rated higher in 12 of 16 crucial skills — among them developing others, building relationships, collaborating and practicing self-development, but also in taking the initiative, driving for results, solving problems and analyzing issues. To put it bluntly, women in the workplace are often more wholly human than their male counterparts.
Why women still only represent 5 percent of chief executives in Fortune 1000 companies is grist for another column. In the meantime, it’s in the self-interest of the men who remain at the top of most companies to take better care of all their employees, but especially of women.
The vast majority of American companies, for example, fail to offer any paid any paid maternity leave for new mothers, forcing many of them into an awful “Sophie’s choice” between caring for their infants and returning to work quickly and full-time to help support their families.
In countries ranging from Uzbekistan to Sweden to Austria, maternity leave runs a year or more and is 100 percent paid. Only a handful of companies, including Bank of America, offer as much as 12 weeks paid. (Ernst & Young offers far and away the best leave of any American company: 39 weeks paid, and six for new fathers).
And why should companies make this bigger investment? When Google increased maternity leave to five months from three and made it fully paid, the attrition rate for new mothers dropped by half.
At the same time, we need to make it more acceptable for all employees, especially women, to regularly renew their energy, and take better care of themselves.
Working mothers I talk with consistently tell me their highest priorities are their children, their work, their husbands and their aging parents — and often in that order. They put care for themselves last on the list. Flexibility is critical if they’re going make themselves a higher priority. Meanwhile, companies need to make it matter less where and when people do their work, and focus instead on what value they create.
Think of it as a new win-win proposition. Take better care of employees, so they can take better care of business.