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From Upper Hand to Joining Hands: How Workplace Power Dynamics Are Changing

Article Source: SmartBrief


If you’re of a certain age, you may remember a Seinfeld episode during which George struggles with dating power dynamics and laments, “I have no hand. No hand at all. She has the hand. How do I get the hand?” While it’s funny to see the battle for the upper hand play out in a sitcom, it’s not been so amusing to see the same dynamic in today’s workplace.

Looking back at the history of business, there have been minor ebbs and flows but in general, organizations and leaders have had ‘hand’. They’ve been able to control the relationship, set the terms of employment, and define the experience of work. Sure, the labor movement shifted some control to the hands of employees in some sectors. But overall, business has enjoyed the hand.

Enter COVID and the Great Resignation and everything changed. A tight labor market meant that suddenly employees had considerably more influence to affect their experience in the workplace. It played out in everything from flexible working arrangements to sizable salary bumps to significant signing bonuses for entry-level roles. The hand shifted – at least for a time.

More recently, however, we’ve seen employers attempt to return to previous power dynamics and practices as they settle into a new (ab)normal. Return-to-work mandates, layoffs, and bulging workloads have spawned a variety of responses from employees. Quiet quitting. Bare minimum Monday. Conscious quitting.

And all of this has spawned the question: Who’s got hand in today’s workplace: employers or employees? In the Seinfeld episode, things didn’t turn out well for George as a result of assuming the upper hand, and the same probably applies to leaders in general.

Maybe it’s time to move beyond an upper-hand mentality to a mindset that encourages joining hands to deliver sustainable business results.

Joining hands means coming together as partners – with each giving and getting value from the experience. The value for the employer is clear: high-quality, timely, innovative work. But what about for employees? Paychecks are table stakes. Today people want more from their relationship with work. Workhuman’s recent research highlights the importance of making workers feel seen and valued. Nearly 1/3 of those polled share that they feel ‘unheard’ at work, inspiring 8.8% to begin looking for new jobs as a result.

Feeling seen, heard, and valued are highly motivating experiences and needs that most of us share. And when these needs are met, the struggle for the hand fades away. The good news is that leaders are in a unique position to engineer experiences that satisfy these needs through:

  • Attention – Employees see how busy their leaders are and recognize how precious their time is. That’s why facetime (whether in-person or virtually) is so appreciated. Investing even a few minutes of this scarce resource with others sends a strong message and leaves others feeling seen.
  • Involvement – When employees are included in or consulted about matters that affect their jobs, they feel heard. They feel like valued partners who can make a positive difference at work and in their lives. And leaders are positioned to make better decisions themselves with this sort of in-the-trenches intel.
  • Appreciation – Recognition that moves the needle is unique to the individual, focusing on contributions, strengths, and outcomes that are meaningful to them. This sort of tailored specificity lifts others, leaving them feeling valued. (It also helps them understand what you value and encourages more of the spotlighted behavior.)
  • Development – There are few more powerful ways to communicate, ‘I’m not trying to control or thwart you’, than to invest in the growth of others. Identifying what an employee wants to learn and creating a plan to make it happen simultaneously serves the individual (with more skills and greater options) and the organization (with a more highly developed workforce.)

These four strategies build productive, sustainable relationships – not the sitcom variety that are measured by who’s got hand. Rather, they build long-term, reciprocal partnerships that don’t fall prey to shifting power dynamics – where the only time ‘hand’ comes into play is when they’re shaking to celebrate shared success.