Seven “Old-School” Workplace Strengths That Are Now Weaknesses

If you want to thrive in the new world of work, you’ve got a lot to learn-and a lot to unlearn.
Ed Hess identifies some skills and attitudes that once served leaders…but now undermine us.

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Oakland, CA (September 2020)—The times they are a-changing…and so is the nature of our work. And as our familiar world crumbles around us (thanks, COVID-19!)—and technology continues snapping up more and more of the tasks humans have always done—we’ll need a whole new set of skills. If we want to stay employed and viable, we must reinvent ourselves. Leaders. Employees. Everyone.

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And it’s not like adding new rooms onto an old house, points out Ed Hess. It’s more like tearing it down to the foundation and rebuilding.

“The new world we’re entering has flipped everything upside down,” says Hess, author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, September 2020, ISBN: 978-1-523-08924-6, $29.95, edhess.org). “The skills, mindsets, and ways of being that were once prized and sought after have actually become liabilities.”

To greatly simplify Hess’s message, we must all be able to continuously learn, unlearn, and relearn by adapting to the reality of the world as it evolves. This is not easy, considering our inherent ego-driven need to defend what we think we know. It requires a whole new way of being and a whole new way of working—which, in turn, requires a whole new way of leading.

Seven Skills And Attitudes That May Get You Fired

Here, Hess identifies seven skills and attitudes that not long ago might have gotten you a corner office—but may now get you fired:

Command-and-control leadership style

Expecting people to “follow orders or else” works well when you’re running a factory. In that setting, you expect people to be cogs—to do rather than to think, problem-solve, and connect. In the Digital Age, though, you’ll need to lead people whose jobs require innovation, creativity, and emotional engagement. You cannot coerce or command people to do these things. Instead, you must create the conditions that enable them.

Motivation by fear

In the old command-and-control days (think Industrial Revolution), this worked. Fear is an effective motivator when you need people to simply (mindlessly) comply. The problem is, if employees are afraid of negative consequences (from verbal abuse to being fired), they won’t take risks, suggest new ideas, report problems, critique others’ thinking.

“When people are motivated by fear, they won’t bring their best selves to work,” says Hess. “They won’t be able to engage in Hyper-Learning. And a company that allows this style of leadership can’t become an ‘idea meritocracy’ where the best data-driven idea or judgment wins, regardless of rank, compensation, or power.”

Being a smarty-pants (all-knowing)

Pre-Internet, the more you knew, the more valuable you were. In school, the higher your grades and fewer your mistakes, the “smarter” you were. That is old-school “smart,” and it is actually a liability in an age that requires constant learning, unlearning, and relearning. You’ll never be able to store in your head as much information as a computer, and you will not have fast, perfect recall like a computer.

“Instead, you’ll now be valued for your ability to think differently from a computer when there is not a lot of data or knowledge,” notes Hess. “You will have to excel at going into the unknown and figuring stuff out. Leaders and employees alike need to be good at not knowing rather than knowing. That takes humility, which is the opposite of a big ego.”

Hard-driving Type-A work style

In less complex times, such leaders thrived. Needed results were clear, and leaders could push (themselves and others) until they were achieved. In a global economy rife with uncertainty and ambiguity—and never has that been more the case than it is right now!—nothing is clear. Rather than driving results, leaders must slow down and foster engagement. It’s the only way people can work together to find solutions. If this is to happen, leaders must exist in a state of inner peace—and help employees do the same.

Focus on quick decisions and efficiency

In the past, when the leader’s word was law, being able to make decisions quickly and enforce them was a strength. Not anymore. The best leaders are able to slow down, engage with others, and really listen with a nonjudgmental, open mind. They know that the kinds of high-level conversations that need to happen take time to unfold. Innovation and exploring the new is a process where the answers change as you learn.

"Winner-takes-all" mindset

Back when companies were military-style hierarchies, it made sense to compete for the boss’s favor. Leaders often encouraged such internal competition because it drove individuals to compete against each other. It was a survival-of-the-fittest environment, pitting people against each other and believing that would produce the best results. In the Digital Age, work will happen via collaboration in an “idea meritocracy” setting.

“High-functioning teams will trump individualism,” says Hess. “This means leaders will need to create environments that result in caring, trusting teams where employees are naturally motivated to work together and help each other.”

"All-business" mentality

Back when employees functioned as human machines, emotions were unnecessary. In fact, they were liabilities. Employers expected people to leave their humanity (certainly their messy emotions) at the door. Today, the opposite is true. Positive emotions are at the heart of learning, connecting, collaborating, and creating. They’re the building blocks of caring, trusting relationships. Great leaders will have to “get” and value the power of emotions. And they’ll need to make a point of showing employees they see and value them as unique human beings.

In the Digital Age, our human uniqueness will be highly dependent on our emotional capabilities and how we manage our emotions, notes Hess. It will not be “all business.” It will be all about people and enabling the highest levels of performance in concert with technology.

“Becoming a Hyper-Learner isn’t easy, but it is doable,” says Hess. “It’s all about unlearning skills and behaviors that no longer serve us. Actually, many of these are relics of the Industrial Revolution, so they haven’t served us in a very long time! I think most will agree that creating workplaces where people can thrive, grow, and become their best selves is worth the effort.”


About the Author:

Edward D. Hess is professor of business administration, Batten Fellow, and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business and the author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change. Professor Hess spent 20 years in the business world as a senior executive and has spent the last 18 years in academia. He is the author of 13 books, over 140 articles, and 60 Darden case studies. His recent books and research have focused on Human Excellence in the Digital Age: A New Way of Being; A New Way of Working; Humanizing the Workplace; and Hyper-Learning.

For more information, please visit edhess.org. 


About the Book:

Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, September 2020, ISBN: 978-1-523-08924-6, $29.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.