Elizabeth Bille, JD, SHRM-SCP

3 Leadership Skills for Today’s Evolving Workplace

Today’s leaders are struggling. 

Leading people, teams, and workforces has never been easy, but the challenges faced by managers and leaders now are tougher than ever before. Today’s leaders are tasked with managing increasingly diverse teams, keeping employees engaged, supporting their physical and mental health, and guiding them through tough organizational changes. To add to the challenge, many teams no longer work together in the same location. The ground has truly shifted under the feet of today’s leaders, with no sign that the degree and pace of change is letting up.  

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that more than half of tech CHROs are reporting that managing a workforce is more difficult now than it was just a year ago. Many managers and leaders are struggling to adapt their leadership practices to the rapidly evolving world of work—and they are asking for help. 

According to a recent survey by Gartner, since the pandemic, 55% of HR leaders have received more requests for assistance from managers on upskilling, DEI, and remote/hybrid work arrangements, to name a few. As a result, CHROs have identified “manager effectiveness” as the top priority for the year ahead, ranking higher than change management and workplace culture.  

Here are three key skills that today’s leaders need to be successful.  

Managing Workplace Conflict 

Conflict at work is more prevalent than ever, and leaders are increasingly being tapped to address it. According to a recent study: 

  • 36% of people said they dealt with conflict at work “often, very often, or all the time” in 2022, compared to 29% in 2008  
  • Managers spend over 4 hours every week addressing workplace conflict 
  • The majority of HR professionals spend between 1-5 hours each week mediating conflicts 

Because workplace conflict is such a drain on work time and resources, it carries a painfully high price tag. From lost work hours alone (i.e., excluding costs of lawsuits, increased health costs, and other effects of serious conflicts), unhealthy workplace conflict costs U.S. companies hundreds of billions of dollars. 

Unresolved conflicts also can stifle productivity and collaboration by causing breakdowns in working relationships. For example, 46% of employees say they “have avoided talking to, or working with, a co-worker because of their political beliefs.” In contrast, healthy conflicts—where employees disagree but express their perspectives in a positive, constructive way—should be encouraged for their creativity- and team-boosting effects.  

Unfortunately, many leaders struggle to navigate all types of workplace conflict, enabling unhealthy disputes to fester or escalate, while failing to encourage the healthy debates that drive innovation. Given that approximately 1 in 4 people say that their managers handle conflict “poorly or very poorly,” this is a key area for skill building among today’s leaders. 

 Leading with Emotional Intelligence 

Employee expectations of their leaders’ emotional capabilities have also dramatically changed in just the past few years. Today, organizations need leaders and managers to proactively support employee mental health and wellbeing, foster employee work-life balance, resolve work conflicts, authentically embrace conversations about diversity, and manage inclusively 

Leaders must utilize emotional intelligence to meet these critical needs. This involves demonstrating empathy for others, exercising self-awareness, regulating their own reactions and responses to different situations, and deepening their social and relationship skills. Although these competencies involve dealing with one’s emotions, teaching leaders how to be emotionally intelligent is not so much about changing leaders’ hearts and minds as it is teaching them how to engage in emotionally intelligent behaviors in everyday situations.   

The ROI of investing in people leaders’ emotional intelligence skills is significant: about 50% of workers have left a job to get away from a bad manager. In contrast, employees who have managers with high emotional intelligence are four times less likely to leave their company. 

Engaging Employees (and Preventing Quiet Quitting) 

Leaders and managers are also struggling to retain key employees and keep them engaged—and data indicates that things are not going well on this front. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace Report, 6 out of 10 employees are not engaged at work and over half of them are looking for a new job right now. This is a big concern for employers, given Gallup’s findings that “[c]ompared with disengaged teams, engaged teams show 24% to 59% less turnover, 10% higher customer ratings, 21% greater profitability, 17% higher productivity, 28% less shrinkage, 70% fewer safety incidents and 41% less absenteeism.” 

Employee engagement is not the sole responsibility of HR. While many factors can lead to disengagement, leaders and managers have an outsized impact. Indeed, team performance is more influenced by managers than any other factor. 

Signs of disengaged employees:  

  • Decreased idea sharing  
  • Distracted, bored, or disinterested in work (“I don’t care, whatever you decide…”)​ 
  • Late to work, increased absences​ 
  • Decline in performance or work quality, missed deadlines​ 
  • More frequent disagreements, becoming impatient, rude behavior​ 
  • Looking for other roles 

Organizations looking to improve employee engagement should focus on managers’ and leaders’ skills and behaviors as a key part of the solution.  By educating people leaders on the warning signs of disengagement and teaching them how to have conversations with employees that uncover both the root causes and effective solutions to disengagement, organizations can turn the tide on quiet quitting and reduce turnover. 

In summary, today’s workplaces need leaders and managers with critical leadership skills to confidently navigate new challenges and changing employee expectations. By prioritizing leadership training, organizations can cultivate the skills and competencies leaders and managers need to foster a positive work environment and inspire their entire workforce to achieve its full potential. The rewards can be significant: increased employee retention, performance, engagement, collaboration, productivity, satisfaction, and more. Upskilling your leaders is truly mission-critical for business success. 

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