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Workers are saying ‘screw you’ to their leaders. Here’s why and how to fix it

A master executive coach says ‘If you’re calling this attitude entitlement and ignoring it—or retaliating with tighter constraints on where and when your employees work—you’re missing a huge opportunity.”

Workers are saying ‘screw you’ to their leaders. Here’s why and how to fix it
[Source illustration: Marek Trawczynski/iStock]
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Employee engagement is at an all-time low. According to an October 2020 Gallup report, 51% of employees are disengaged in the workplace, and another 13% are actively disengaged. In recent months, YOLO has become their battle cry.

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So stop resisting the unrest and lean into it. Organizations that embrace the real issues beneath employee dissatisfaction will be the ultimate winners.

Many business leaders are scared to provide their teams the freedom to integrate their work and personal lives. We’ve witnessed the results with the recent backlash at Coinbase and Basecamp. Business leaders’ desire to control their employees’ lives and livelihoods is becoming their undoing.

We know that employees (particularly Millennials) aren’t willing to set aside personal needs anymore —especially when it’s perceived that they aren’t appreciated or well compensated by their employer. They are bucking our broken corporate system in record numbers with a “screw you” attitude. They may call in sick (when they’re not) or take time off without caring if they have a job when they return. Or they simply quit without giving notice.

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These employees want to be able to live fulfilling lives that don’t entail working 60-70 hours a week to pay for a lifestyle that leaves very little time for enjoyment and play. “Screw you” is a demand for actual work/life balance vs. lip service on work/life balance.

If you’re calling this attitude entitlement and ignoring it—or retaliating with tighter constraints on where and when your employees work—you’re missing a huge opportunity to transform your team and your company.

My job is to embrace the screw you attitude, not avoid it. I help business leaders ask the hard questions. And then we listen deeply to the sometimes painful answers. In just 15 hours (meeting six times over three months), we witness substantial growth and connection among team members.

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Here are three ways leaders can lean in and meet their teams where they are.

Create a safe space to ask the hard questions

First and foremost, be willing to ask the hard questions. Then, take the answers to heart. Get over your fear of hearing the answers. If you don’t respect your employees’ feedback, you’ll miss the opportunity to use it constructively.

It’s imperative that employees feel safe to share their honest opinions. One-on-one meetings with direct reports is a great start but it’s up to your organization to establish effective feedback loops or systems to ensure voices are heard and action plans to correct the issues are being brought forth. Some companies are shifting away from the old-school HR manager and hiring a Chief People & Culture Officer (CPO) to help create the safe environment required to have these honest conversations.

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Another tactic we use is to set aside time for a group conversation to address issues. We establish a distinct purpose and timing for the discussion with a beginning and end. During this time, we make it clear that there will be no repercussions for sharing honest feedback.

It’s not business as usual. I often conduct these focus group-type sessions off-site. I set up a distinct physical space to demonstrate that this is a unique conversation. Often when I’m facilitating these groups there is no corporate management present, which helps encourage radical honesty.

Then I ask team members what’s most important to them. What do they need to feel valued? What policies should go away and which ones would they like to see? Through this discussion, we find out what’s in the way of their commitment and long-term engagement.

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We also ask questions that reveal if employees have bought into the corporate mission.

  • Do they feel they play a critical role in the operations and mission of the company?
  • Do they care?
  • If not, why are they apathetic?

If people are not a good fit, they should move on so you can find those who are.

Rethink human resources and benefits

What we’re hearing is businesses and organizations need to restructure their human resources from the ground up. How? Let go of what you think you know. Rewrite your outdated policies and cultures. Here are a few suggestions:

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  • Create employee-centric policies, such as a choice of working in the office or remotely from anywhere around the globe.
  • Accept that one size will no longer fit all when it comes to when and where your employees work. No more watching the clock. Your teams may only work four days a week or outside normal hours.

How do you avoid conflict between work-from-homers and those who prefer to work in-office? You don’t avoid conflict. You can’t. Better hear the truths that arise from the conflict and use that wisdom to create a policy that you would have previously never considered. When you create options that are inclusive rather than handed down from on high, you yield a more engaged, satisfied, and productive workforce.

Create a sustainable feedback loop

People don’t inherently resist change. They resist feeling powerless about changes made without their input. This is why it’s essential to have a healthy feedback loop. Once honesty and openness are established and your organization begins to make these needed adjustments, keep the lines of communication open.

Most leaders need to develop emotional intelligence and cultivate direct free-flowing feedback channels. They have to dispel the “us versus them” dynamic. By removing this dualistic narrative and creating a new team-oriented narrative, you can restructure the organization into one that is more holistic and appealing to its team members.

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Creating a new dynamic requires establishing rigorous ground rules for operating and buy-in to those ground rules by all stakeholders. This is a practice best entered into with a skilled, non-biased facilitator.

You want a professional who can remain objective, allow tension to arise without discomfort, ask those tough questions, listen deeply to the answers, and support a culture of honesty and safety. To be highly effective, a facilitator needs to be given permission to be bold or aggressive when necessary. When I’m brought in to help unite a troubled team, I am not doing them a service by glossing over the issues I hear and see.

There are many types of skilled facilitators. My focus is on facilitating growth and transformation within teams and cultures. Other facilitators specialize in developing profitability strategies, or in creating effective systems and project management.

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The best way to find a facilitator who is the right fit for your organization is through referral. You want a facilitator who is aligned with your objectives and has direct experience or transferable knowledge into your industry sector. When you begin working with them, have a specific goal in mind and ask them to clearly outline their plan for achieving that goal.

You may choose to hire a facilitator or to certify people to become facilitators within your organization. When the companies I work with have the objective to create a culture program, they do both. In my experience, this is the most effective way to grow and sustain a culture of honesty and openness.

Leaning into your employees’ realities is not easy, but the results are worth it.

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When we survey teams after they have embraced these practices, they consistently rank themselves two to three points higher on a 10-point scale. Areas of managing conflict, loyalty, inclusion, equity, contribution, efficiency, innovation, collaboration, and satisfaction all see a distinct lift.

Life is short. You can ignore the problem and hope it goes away, or work within the groundswell of discontentment and meet your employees where they are.

It’s time to embrace the desire to have a healthy work-life balance and integrate it into your business’s intention and goals. Honor your people in a regenerative manner rather than objectifying them for the sake of profit. Perhaps your employees know better than you do what will create a more effective, efficient work practice.

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What if you asked them?


Leslie Jones is the founder and master executive coach at SpiralMethod.