As systems thinking and complexity specialists, we know that disparate topics often have important connections that aren’t initially obvious, but when those connections emerge they may yield important insights. Sometimes we select a few interesting and seemingly unrelated articles to see what we can discover as the emergent connective tissue between them. Today we explore 3 articles on young people’s climate anxiety, the power of empathy, and the future of in-person meetings.
Article 1 – Young People Are Suffering from Climate Change Anxiety
According to a recent CNBC article, nearly half of young people worldwide say climate change anxiety is affecting their daily life. A global study (conducted by the U.K.’s University of Bath and the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, among others—still under peer review) found that “young people are suffering ‘profound psychological distress’ due to climate change and government inaction on the crisis.” Of the 10,000 young people surveyed across 10 countries, 45% said “anxiety and distress over the climate crisis was affecting their daily life and ability to function”, and three-quarters of 16-25 year-old respondents felt that the “future is frightening.”
If you lead an organization that employs young people, engages them, sells products or services to them, or expects to in the future, those are numbers worth paying attention to. How can you better serve them, attract them, retain them, and help them realize their full potential? How can you help to alleviate their anxiety?
Article 2 – The Effects of Empathic Leadership on Experiences at Work
Another recent piece reports on the results of a survey of 900 US employees conducted by Catalyst (a global nonprofit whose mission is to “accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion”) to understand the effects of “empathic leadership” on experiences at work. Its reported findings suggest that empathic leaders:
- Are a force for productivity, life-work integration, and positive work experiences;
- Boost productivity, innovation, and engagement;
- Foster inclusion;
- Lessen the experience of burnout amongst women of color.
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In particular, senior leader empathy is linked to reduced intent to leave: “Leading with empathy allows senior leaders to play a unique role in employee retention in a way that direct managers do not.”
These findings offer important insights on the importance of empathy as a key trait in your leadership arsenal. We wrote our own thoughts on empathy and other such traits last October. How do you stack up when it comes to these traits? Are you an empathic leader?
Article 3 – Do We Really Need to Meet in Person?
In a third article, this one from the Atlantic in October, Ed Zitron asks the question “do we really need to meet in person?” and shares that “as we approach something like a return to ‘normalcy’ in 2022, I believe that the white-collar future will be dominantly remote not because it’s ‘better,’ but because it’s ‘good enough.’” In arguing this point, he highlights these and other advantages of fully remote meetings:
- They get the job done and allow more people to participate in more activities;
- They simplify the task of getting people together for a meeting; and
- They create a better meeting culture by advancing inclusivity (for workers with disabilities, for people with nonverbal communication issues, and so on), by lessening aesthetic judgment, and by removing the physical intimidation of the workplace.
Where do you stand on remote meetings? What will your organization decide about using them going forward?
Each of these articles are thought provoking in isolation, but what might they suggest when you consider the not-so-obvious threads that connect them? Here are a few thoughts:
By being empathetic to the wants, needs, and anxieties of young people, you will reduce their intent to leave (and increase their intent to join)
There’s already been a lot written about the benefits of empathy before and during the pandemic, and the Catalyst report makes the specific point about the role senior leader empathy can play in employee retention.
One example of that is taking seriously and being empathetic to young people’s wants, needs and anxieties related to climate change. But while that’s one stressor that may affect retention of younger employees and thus merit your attention, it’s obviously not the only one. For example, many young people are dealing with the exhausting dual stress of excelling at a job while also starting a family (see our May interview with Daisy Dowling, author of Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids). For young working parents, action on climate change might be a little further down their list of wants and needs.
The point isn’t that you should be empathetic to young people’s climate anxiety and parenting needs only, it’s that to be successful and compete for young talent, you must take steps to understand what makes your young employees and prospective hires tick, and use that understanding to take action that signals a sincere desire to attract and retain them.
By embracing remote meetings, you can tangibly demonstrate your empathy for those anxious about climate change
Remote meetings are good for the environment. They eliminate the need for participants to travel—whether that means less driving within the city, flying across the country or around the world. They tend to be paperless (or relatively paperless) and they may also reduce the need for catering, cleaning, laundering and all of the other services associated with hotel stays.
If you’re on the fence about making remote meetings the norm—or see that as a necessity as opposed to an opportunity—flip your perspective. Take action on climate change by encouraging remote meetings whenever possible. Be outspoken about it. Let your customers, partners and staff know that you’ve heard their concerns about the environment and climate change and won’t waste another day forcing people to travel in for meetings when remote is good enough.
And by embracing remote meetings, you can offer people the flexibility they need
Remote meetings don’t just represent a step forward for the planet, they also provide much needed flexibility to meet young people’s (and other’s) hopes and expectations about work in general. According to Bankrate’s August 2021 jobseeker survey, “flexible work arrangements were the top priority for Gen Zers (62 percent) and millennials (60 percent),” which matters a lot when you also consider that the same survey revealed that “among the more than half (55 percent) of Americans who say they’re going to be looking for a new job in the next 12 months, those were predominantly younger Americans, lower-wage workers and minorities.”
Key segments of your workforce are pleading for flexibility. Making remote meetings a standard practice in your organization demonstrates that you’ve heard them.
Finally and most importantly, you will need to unshackle yourself from the constraints of the past in order to lead your organization into the future
In looking at these 3 articles, we are reminded once again about how increasingly difficult it is to be steering the ship (so to speak) these days. Did they teach you about dealing with young people’s climate change anxiety in business school? Do you have decades of experience running and participating in remote meetings? Did somebody hand you an ‘empathy playbook’ that gives you step-by-step instructions on how to closely listen and appropriately respond to the vast array of wants and needs coming from up to 5 generations in the workforce?
There is no ‘normalcy’ around the corner that will allow you to fall back on what used to work. You will succeed only by recognizing that everything has changed and is changing, and that has to include you. Engage with and listen carefully to the young people around you. Recognize that empathy isn’t something you do, it’s something you feel. Re-imagine your long-held traditions and practices related to meetings, work, and workplace. Re-express your organization’s vision, values and mission if they’re out of date and/or have lost meaning for people, and then show that you intend to follow-through with deliberate action.
You are the leader, and if you’re feeling constrained by those around you, the culture of your organization, and the way things have always been done, what chance does your company have?