There is a tension between humane leadership, which seeks to extract value by leveraging employees’ natural capacities, and the devaluation of work, a trend that is being exacerbated by remote working.
About the Interview
In December 2021, PRISM’s Johan Gott and George Coe sat down with Olivier Aries, the co-founder of Thrive Collective, a consulting firm that helps organizations achieve the full potential of their talent optimization practice. We were excited to sit down with Olivier to discuss the future of work given his background in understanding what companies need to thrive and how they are looking to adapt for the future.
The Great Resignation may be temporary; labor scarcity benefits undercut by economic and migration shifts.
Remote work contributes to dehumanization; lack of connection to employers and colleagues; offshoring as an example.
Humane leadership leverages employees' skills and traits; mismatch contributes to burnout; data aids assessment.
Good leadership: self-awareness, awareness of others, and clear goal communication; drives positive outcomes and optimizes outputs.
The conversation below has been edited for clarity and style.
PRISM: So, if we can get started with a bit of background about yourself and your work, I think that would be a good way to kick this off.
Olivier Aries: Great. Well, I run a company that is training people on talent management using a specific methodology, and these days, a lot of my work is about using those skills for coaching leadership and talent management.
PRISM: Great. So let’s right into it. I think the best spot to get started is to talk about the Great Resignation and dig into what is going on with that.
OA: Well, from my point of view and my experience, this Great Resignation that everyone is talking about isn’t so much driven by inadequacies in the current workplace, but instead it’s more about a psychological attempt by workers to relieve the pressure and duress that they have been under since the start of the pandemic. It’s very much in line with the many ways that people have sort of rediscovered themselves and re-centered their own activities since the start of the pandemic. So, my thinking on this is that the Great Resignation is driven by this hope that the grass is greener at the other organization. That there is a better place to work or that another job might be more fulfilling. I think it has a lot less to do with dissatisfaction at one organization than a psychological attempt to try to get back to some sort of normalcy.
When you think about it this way, it makes a bit more sense and the reality of changing jobs is a bit more reflected in what is happening. Sure, some people are going to move organizations and find a better match. But most of the time, the new organization is going to be relatively similar to their old one; it’s going to have the same dysfunction and challenges with making people feel appreciated and engaged.
This is an idea that I am trying to communicate to clients. While losing talent may seem like a challenge, in many ways it’s also an opportunity to rethink the talent in your organization. At first, everybody was scrambling to try to tamp down employees’ urges to change jobs, but I'm in a different camp and I am sort of encouraging clients at this point to not encourage the trend but to also not bend over backwards to try and fix compensation, improve benefits, and things like this. I am doing this because I don't think that's the issue at the end of the day. My view is that these factors aren’t driving people to leave, but that employees are motivated by a desire for change, so really at the point that people are thinking of leaving for this reason, there is little that can be done to keep them. Instead, I am advising clients to let their employees leave on good terms, encourage their people to find their true north, and if those employees think they will find a better fit elsewhere to let them explore that. What I am seeing now is that clients have had all these employees leave and they are calling back up and saying: “Things with you weren’t really that bad, and I don't know whether I really found what I was looking for by leaving.”
So, I think it's important to encourage people to explore, but I also encourage clients and companies to use this moment where people are looking to leave as an opportunity to rethink the type of people they want to have on their teams, their culture, the types of jobs, and so on. Every time someone leaves, that’s an opportunity to bring in someone different onboard. We do a lot of work in succession planning for leaders and business owners who are in transition, and we always have to say: “When there is transition, that’s an opportunity to rethink what you're doing rather than cloning the previous person.” When you think this way, you can ask if there are things that you haven't done yet that you should. So, I encourage clients to do this with the Great Resignation, too, rather than just look at it as a risk. It’s really an opportunity to refresh their thinking around talent.
And to answer your question about my thoughts on what the Great Resignation is: I think it's a temporary thing. I don't think it denotes any kind of long-term trend in how people think about how often they will leave their jobs. I think this moment has purely arisen from the context that we are currently living through.
PRISM: It is very interesting, and it feels like part of your hypothesis is that companies typically are really bad at talent management and getting what they need out of people. My sense is that it goes both ways in terms of productivity and that employees feel satisfaction to be productive. So, maybe this is a temporary thing, but how should we look at it if we are thinking about the future so that things get better in the future?
OA: I think this is a really interesting question. Right now, there is this struggle going on at work, and that struggle is that up until a few years before the pandemic – maybe one or two – a lot of work was governed by the principles of Frederick Taylor, who in the late-19th century invented the principles of modern management and began thinking about work through two lenses: the productive capacity of an individual and the incentives that can maximize that individual’s production. For around 100 years, this thinking governed how organizations were built and functioned, and over that period, organizations said how can we pay workers the minimum amount that still maximizes their productive capacity. That's the system that killed craftsmanship and agency in the workplace. It’s the system that basically made individuals cogs in a machine. It’s not the same for all organizations, but a lot of them were governed by this thinking.
Right before COVID-19, I think we were starting to see this shift toward this recognition that mental state, happiness, and fulfillment play a role in productivity and how engaged workers are. That's around the same moment that McKinsey started to focus on leadership more, and you started to see this shift towards a more humane approach to management. Then the pandemic happened, and it intensified these struggles because people have suffered from a mental and physical health perspective, because uncertainty increased, because livelihoods were impacted, and because of other factors, too. So, from that we start realizing: “Oh yeah, we are all humans, and in times of crisis, we do have to pay attention to what’s going on around us.” So, because of the pandemic, we kind of rethought a lot of these things, but at the same time, I think that virtual work has moved us back toward Taylor principles, unfortunately. When I hear people get all excited about working from home, I think they’re crazy because in my mind, that’s just another illustration of our human desire for instant gratification, which in this sense comes from the improved work-life balance, the fact that there’s no need to commute, that it became easier to squeeze personal stuff into the workday, and whatever else. But I think that you are starting to see a growth in the idea that actually maybe all of this remote working isn’t going to be that great in the long term since it doesn’t deliver on fulfillment and the development of employees in the same way that being in an office did.
The benefits that we have seen from virtual work are short-term benefits: convenience, lifestyle changes, maybe higher productivity. But what we’re not seeing yet are the longer-term issues that come with virtual work, and I think the big one of these is returning to only seeing workers through the lens of their productive potential. Why? Because when you’re working remotely, despite the efforts to create these social linkages and stuff, you lose the interstitial work – all the work that you’re not necessarily paid for but that you perform by having informal conversations and what not. All that connective tissue is lost, as is the physical proximity to bosses, and mentors, and other people that help workers perform better. So ultimately, when you’re working remotely, you end up only performing the core parts of your work. And this all makes it feel like we are moving deeper into something that I had hoped was disappearing: this kind of gig economy work, where workers are reduced to only what they are good at.
So, the future of work in my mind could go one of two directions: We could maintain a focus on humane leadership, where we focus on the idea that workers are human beings and create welcoming working environments, or we might see the dehumanization of work, where because of virtual work, people are only valued at what they can deliver, how quickly they can deliver it, their costs, and whatnot. In the latter case, we lose all the connective tissue and what I call social momentum, which is what used to bring people together in organizations. That’s the struggle that I see coming.
PRISM: We generally understand the idea of the gig economy quite well and what that means, but the part that isn’t so obvious is what humane leadership is at its core. I think everyone for the last 100 years would say that they’ve been doing humane leadership, but in your mind, what does that actually mean in practice? What is the paradigm shift there?
OA: I think I might have a biased perspective, because I see this through the lens of what I'm doing, which is using data to improve leadership. What I am doing at the end of the day is helping companies have the same degree of objectivity and access to data in talent management as they have in supply chain, in finance, in manufacturing, and so on. So, my bias is to say that human leadership is actually not about feelings and emotions, but really it is about the scientific application of data to managing people.
From that perspective, there are only three things in my mind that define good leadership. First, is self-awareness: Do you know exactly who you are as a person and as a leader? Do you know how others see you and how you engage others? Do you know your strengths and blind spots? Second, is: Are you aware of others? Do you have data and information that allows you to understand what makes other people tick? As a leader, you have to meet people where they are. That's what that's what we call in our business, the platinum rule. The golden rule for leaders is “You treat others the way you want to be treated.” In my mind that’s wrong. My response is the platinum rule, and that’s: “You treat employees the way they want to be treated.” To be able to do this, you need to know your people; you need to have information and data to understand who they are. In my world, who they are is defined by their behavioral profile: their appetite for risk, how they like to engage socially and process information, the speed at which they do so, and so on. When you have this information, you can be a good leader, not because you are an amazing person, but because you're making the effort of meeting people where they are from a behavioral standpoint, and you’re going to keep them in the zone where they perform at their best. Finally, the third element of good leadership is being very clear and aware of your goals: If you know what those are, you can share them and help people reach them with you. So for me, humane leadership is not about motherhood and apple pie, it's actually the rigorous application of data to make sure that people know themselves, know others, and are very clear about what they all need to be doing together.
PRISM: Interesting. And I like where you went with that because I think a lot of the time when you hear things like humane leadership, people think of this quite fuzzy, unspecific idea, where in reality what you have presented is very specific. So, I guess the question that follows is: how do you get this data? I am sure there are self-assessment tools, but what else are you looking at?
OA: Well, the fundamental data is the behavioral profile: who a person is. When you engage with someone one on one, that is going to give you all the information that you need. You need to know yourself, you need to know how they are going to process information, you are going to need to assess how to communicate your goals, and so on. All of this can be done on the fly, but you can also use tools that better enable you to script the conversation and optimize the interaction.
That's it at the individual or one-on-one level. When you start to look at teams, you have tools that allow you to understand the structure and behaviors of teams. These are things that help you understand the strengths of this team, what its blindspots are, and how to deliver goals with that team. Once you understand these things, you can ask how well equipped a team is to deliver on tasks and goals. If you look at most finance organizations, the name of the game is stability, repeatability, and consistency of processes, so the tendency is to find people who have the behavioral traits that don’t favor innovation or things like that. This isn’t because they don’t see the benefit of innovation, but because it's hard for them to think in terms of risk, in terms of creativity, and in terms of letting go of certainty. So, when you look at goals of teams and their behavioral makeup, you can start to identify gaps or strengths that will make or break a strategy. This is in spite of their best intentions, because people struggle to do things that they're not wired for unless you coach them and give them the necessary mechanisms to succeed. We're all different: We're good at certain things and terrible at others.
PRISM: Is there also an opportunity here to use data to support workers to be better? Is there a way that all of this information that we have can be used in a benevolent way?
OA: I'll tell you this: Self-awareness as a gift. If you know yourself, the sky's the limit, because now you can have more agency and control over your life and placing yourself in situations where you will shine and avoiding those in which you won’t – or at least managing them. So, once you have self-awareness, you can free up your inner potential. When I see people stressed and burned out, sometimes it's the circumstances but often it's because they're trying to do things that they're not wired for. This means they end up doing things using brute force. That's a waste of energy. They should apply their greatness to the things that match their natural abilities and focus. We could really improve society if people would have these honest and transparent conversations with themselves so that there is a good faith effort to always be in that zone of happiness and fulfillment. And we can always go out and do things that we are not wired for and get them done. But when we are honest about how far off we might be, you can manage the challenges and minimize the negative parts. It’s just like dealing with risk. I think there's this amazing untapped potential in the idea that we should be more transparent about who we are. If we did that, it would make things better. And this extends to a lot of our relationships, including with our communities and our families. There's really no limit to the power of self-awareness in my mind.
PRISM: Just to push on that a little bit. The gig economy trend has manifested itself in this dehumanizing way, but theoretically, the idea behind the gig economy idea is not that far off from what we are talking about here. Really the only difference – at least this is what it feels like – is the organizational layer. In that sense, there is this humane leadership world where you have a traditional organization, that organization measures data, decides what track is best for you to be on, and then you end up being brought into that mission. Or, under the gig economy idea, there are more options and everything is very expansive, so you can end up doing the same thing, but you are given more agency to decide what units of work you want to contribute rather than have an organization decide for you.
OA: So, if we look at it this way, I think it ends up being useful to look at the past of work to understand the potential future of work, which is what this conversation is all about. For decades, work has been characterized by this information asymmetry between companies and employees, and it often exists in subtle ways, but in reality the organization has the data and understands the benchmarks, the opportunities for development, and so on. The employees on the other hand only have their resume and their own drive to sort of compensate for this inequality.
I think at the beginning the idea of the gig economy was to give more agency to workers and to create more flexibility, but ultimately when I look to gig economy jobs – when I look to Uber – I struggle see a model that actually gives more agency to the people that work for them – I don’t want to call them contractors, I guess you could say partners.
I don't want to make too much of self-awareness or focus too heavily on behavior, but I think the more you equip workers with data about themselves and their potential positions that they could be in, the more you give them agency and transparency. In my ideal world everybody would have enough self-awareness and every position would be defined in terms of behavioral requirements so that you know when you look at a job if you are going to sink or swim. My point is that you should know enough about yourself to know exactly how much effort you will have to sink into something, and when you have the right fit, it gives you more energy to do things. If the fit isn’t right, then you have to sink additional energy into it every step of the way. That’s going to translate into burnout, poor relationships, and whatever else, because you have to spend so much of your drive and grit into your job. So, I think the more you give people visibility into who they are, the more you enable people to be successful in their position.
PRISM: This makes sense. I can kind of see this future where the gig economy approach leads to the same humane work outcomes, but in a sort of decentralized way rather than a centralized way that comes with traditional work. But, based on what you’ve said and reality, it seems like that’s not happening in the near- or medium-term future.
OA: Maybe, but I still struggle with this idea, and I think this goes into the idea where people embraced virtual work so quickly. At first, it was great, people didn’t have to get in their cars and commute, so there was instant gratification. I think it looked easy, particularly because a lot of us went into virtual work with the social momentum from being in an office. Many of us had been working and had all the connections from the office still, so it was easy to work virtually. But the longer we are working virtually, the more that that momentum subsides. One day, you might wake up and realize that you don't know the people that you're working with and that you don’t have any connections with them nor any shared experiences. We know that the best way to build connections with someone is to find things in common.
We're a social species, and in my mind that means we need connections that go beyond simple, transactional interactions. So, I really struggle to see how individuals can feel fulfilled when there is no consideration of the economic value that comes from non-transactional social connections. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe now because teenagers spend so much of their time on their phones and interacting that way, virtual work will be fine for them, but I think realistically there is going to be a cost to it. I'd be happy to be wrong, because the future I'm envisioning is pretty bleak. But, I think we're only starting to discover the upsides and downsides of virtual work.
It is also important to recognize that most of us are experiencing it for the first time, but remote work is not new. When I was at Kearney, I worked on outsourcing and offshoring, and that’s really just virtual work. At the end of the day you take your finance department and ship it somewhere in India. There were real implications of doing this, and some of those things should be taken as cautionary tales. Sure, we found that processes worked better. But there were also challenges. At the end of the day, the people who were doing the jobs were far away and we would literally forget people were doing the work. It just got reduced to a function and a weekly report. There used to be physical spaces in buildings and people in them, but when you move work like that, you don’t see it anymore, and it just gets reduced to metrics and whatever else. We had no idea who people were or anything like that. So, I think that kind of presents some of the downsides of virtual work.
PRISM: So, that's actually the model for the track that we are on now is what you’re saying right? Like, we might not be there yet because it will take time to catch up since a lot of us know each other from working together in the past, but as time goes on, people change jobs, whatever else happens, those connections will be fewer in number. Offshoring on the other hand was a bit of a clean break and shows us a bit of what the future could hold.
PRISM: I know that we have spent some time talking about the organizational aspect of work, but I was wondering what your thoughts are on the content of work. Is that changing already? You mentioned Gen Z being on their phone more and that maybe that counts as a form of interaction to them that the rest of us aren’t accustomed to. But there is this idea that Gen Z are creators and that creative work is what is going to become more valuable. Is that trend something that we're actually seeing, or is that still a future thing?
OA: I am not really sure where we are going on this topic. It is an interesting one. The bottom line for me is that I am increasingly seeing artificial intelligence doing more things that a few years ago we would have considered to be impossible, and that makes me worried for even the creative parts of work. Several years ago, I was thinking that there would always be room for high-value consulting, advisory services, and creativity. Now I am wondering how long that is going to be true since things are advancing so quickly. I think a lot of this depends on the future that we will want to create for ourselves, but everyone is always going to try and make things faster, cheaper, leaner, better, and so on. Even creative processes may change. I'm sure you will find machines and AI in the future that will do creativity better than we can – even factoring in all the biases, uncertainty, and the random things that we come up with as human beings.
PRISM: I thought before this interview that the outlook was going to be quite optimistic, but it came out more negative. So it’s very interesting.
OA: Well, I did frame this as a struggle. I said there were two trends that were in conflict: humane leadership and the devaluation of work. I don't know how it's gonna come out at the end, maybe we will find a new equilibrium.
I am hoping for the case where there is balance, people get to go to the office but they also have the flexibility to work from home. I think we need the mix for there to be a sense of common purpose, and I think that’s hard to build when you're working virtually.
PRISM: I feel like there is almost a bifurcated workforce where there is one class of workers who get to work at their potential and then another where it’s not about fulfillment but just about being managed to maximize productivity.
OA: I would have thought that would be the case, too. But when you look at how things are, it looks like things are changing a bit. The service industry is starting to change in terms of compensation, benefits, and so on. So many people are thinking, “I’m not going back to that.” So there is actually some hope that maybe we can get out of this with a little less bifurcation in the workforce.
My concern if that happens is that it would only be temporary. Especially as the expanded social safety net shrinks back to its original size, I find it hard to envision that things will actually change for good. This is especially true once you add other factors like an influx of climate refugees, undocumented immigration, and whatever else. All of these people will be willing to take low-wage jobs and drag compensation down again.
PRISM: I think this has been a really interesting conversation and very far from where I thought it was going to end. In my mind, that’s a success, because we are always looking to challenge our assumptions.
Thank you for speaking with us.
OA: It was a pleasure to see you again. Thanks for the chance to talk. Speak soon.