Humanize the workplace to achieve sustainable growth: Insights from leadership expert Hamza Khan (podcast recap)

Humanize the Workplace Hamza Khan Podcast Recap
Prioritize your employees and the rest will follow. It sounds simple — but this human-centric approach to leadership lights the way forward in the increasingly complex landscape of work. We must break through leadership paradigms that are holding us back and humanize the workplace to achieve sustainable growth.

So says leadership expert Hamza Khan, two-time TEDx speaker and best-selling author, in the most recent episode of the Cohesion podcast. Scroll down for enlightening takeaways and listen to the podcast for the full story!

The ‘first-mover advantage’ and leadership development

Great leaders lead. Hamza calls the “propensity to act first” the clearest and most elegant definition of leadership. It’s the “first-mover advantage,” determined by a combination of external, internal and behavioral traits that make somebody more likely to act first in group coordination problems, specifically with regards to resource acquisition. “Who’s willing to venture beyond the hill and say, ‘I found something. Come with me.’”

Or, borrowing a phrase from the sports world, whoever’s “got the dog in them” is best positioned to lead. Taking initiative, challenging norms, and inspiring others characterize truly great leadership.

And that’s what it takes to make a significant impact on the employee experience (EX).

‘People don’t quit jobs. They quit bosses.’

Like many of us, Hamza says he’s rarely left a job because of the work — he’s left because of the organization’s leadership. “I quit bosses. I quit the feeling of being disengaged, of feeling like my voice didn’t matter. I quit feeling burnt out. I quit feeling resentful. I quit feeling like I didn’t belong.”

Effective leaders have the “biggest role to play when it comes to attracting, retaining and engaging employees,” Hamza stresses. He cites a compelling stat to illustrate the direct connection between strong leadership and better workplaces: 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores “rests within the purview of leadership.”

The bad news? “Most leaders suck.”

That’s not because they can’t be great leaders — they’ve just never developed those muscles. Hamza says that 60% of leaders never get any formal leadership training; for those who do, the average age they receive their first training is 42.

Organizations must invest in meaningful leadership training as early and often as possible.

This is critical, Hamza says, because leadership training creates a sustainable and self-fulfilling cycle where better leadership fosters better workplaces that attract and retain better talent.

Related: 10 traits of bad leadership

Fighting the mindset of ‘cogs in a machine’

“The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

Reflecting on the evolution of the workplace with references to historical events like the Haymarket Affair and its impact on worker rights, Hamza sets the stage to challenge the status quo:

“The way work is playing out today is fundamentally broken. The modern workplace is broken. Employees are miserable, company longevity is shrinking. The public has lost faith in its leaders and all these institutions to address society’s pressing problems. And we’ve been moving in this direction for a very long time, since at least the beginning of the first Industrial Revolution, which insisted on the mechanization of work, bringing everyone into a factory context to get one thing done, to be cogs in a machine.”

This was the genesis of scientific management. Yet Hamza sees a path forward and thinks we’ve already started on this journey. “We have been moving in the direction of more worker rights, more freedom, more ownership, more well-being.”

Vision for the future of work

Hamza believes the future of work will be centered around doing work that matters to employees and also synchronizes with the organization’s objectives. “But we’ll be doing this divorced from the fear that is currently inherent in the world of work, that would have people make decisions against their best interests and put them in situations where they’re likely to burn out and likely to experience disengagement.”

Related: Why every employee should be a leader

Bridging the leadership-employee divide

There’s one big obstacle in the path to this optimistic vision — the glaring disconnect between how leaders and employees experience their workplace. Hamza says this fundamental tension stems from leaders over-valuing how effective they are and how well they feel in the workplace, compared to the people doing the work. Many studies confirm this disconnect … and it’s growing.

The vast majority of employees (87%) believe they’re more productive working from home, but only 12% of leaders agree with them.

“That shows a very dark chasm that exists between the leaders and their employees,” Hamza says.

When leaders overestimate the effectiveness of their management strategies and policies, and assume their employees share their sense of well-being at work, they’re less likely to recognize and effectively address problems that fracture the employee experience.

Related: The importance of inclusive leadership

Prioritizing people to achieve sustainable outcomes

A recent Gartner CEO survey found that top leaders rank priorities like driving growth and operational efficiencies well above employee engagement and well-being. “Human beings are an afterthought,” Hamza says. “And we know that if you invest in employee engagement and well-being, that turns all of the other priorities into guaranteed outcomes.”

Leaders’ No. 1 priority should be ensuring that their employees thrive.

“We have to change the hearts and the minds of the most senior leaders in the organization.”

That means a leadership education revolution to “produce more human-centric, values-driven, change-friendly, self-disrupting leaders” — leaders who will make human connections in the workplace an organizational imperative.

“The thing that needs to be said out loud is this, ‘Hey leaders, please put your people first.’”

Related: Next in EX — Prioritizing employee experience

Listen to learn more

There’s no denying the need for organizations to invest in leadership development and an employee experience that puts people first. Hamza covers these topics in more detail in the podcast, including:

  • How the least experienced member of an under-resourced team leveraged human-centric leadership principles to build award-winning teams and become a leader destined to create more leaders
  • Why the future of leadership requires casting aside “the shadow of scientific management” and “paradigms that seek to disengage and dehumanize”
  • How AI can help leaders improve the employee experience at scale — but why Hamza isn’t “optimistic that the current crop of leaders will make the most human-centric decisions.”
  • Why forward-thinking leaders must embrace the Light Triad leadership model

Connect with Hamza on LinkedIn, and subscribe to the Cohesion Podcast to hear from other internal comms, HR and IT professionals, providing structured, high-value, quick-hitting strategies and tactics.

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