Workplace cultures have been deeply impacted by pervasive uncertainty, isolation, perceptions of inequity, and leaders who seem oblivious to employee doubts and concerns. Leaders can’t afford to ignore the powerful forces that are impacting the attitudes and emotions of their employees in 2024.

“I made the mistake of asking my team to tell me how they were really feeling about our company and work environment,” a sales manager recently said to me. She was asking me for advice on how to handle the cynicism she was experiencing from her sales team. “I have worked with most of them for a long time, and I was expecting a few complaints about our sales targets for the coming year, but I was surprised by how critical and negative and emotional they were.”

While she did receive a few complaints about sales targets, most of the conversational energy focused on doubts about senior leadership (“Sometimes they seem clueless”), annoying client demands (“Is ANYONE loyal anymore?”), challenges with colleagues (“Everyone assumes our jobs are SO easy.”), and frustrations with the general working culture (“I feel like I always have to watch my back.”)

“To be honest, I don’t think any of their comments were totally wrong,” she said to me. “We definitely have room for improvement, but it was the intensity, the harshness, the deep emotion of it all that really surprised me. And because I wasn’t really prepared for it, I know I didn’t handle it all that well.”

Which, of course, was why she and I were talking. A few years ago, she read my book “Workplace Poker” and we corresponded occasionally about some of her career challenges. And while her experience felt unique and unusual to her, the truth is that many leaders are experiencing the same thing in today’s world. Or maybe worse, they AREN’T experiencing it only because employees aren’t sharing their deep doubts and feelings of uncertainty – maybe they’re just resigning instead.

Based on recent employee engagement survey results (Including Inopro Learning’s Unlock Engagement Survey) along with numerous conversations with leaders and employees, the major forces driving employee cynicism appear to be:

  • Pandemic Response– The inadequacy and inefficiency of government leaders and bureaucracies have been on display for all to see. Two years of missteps, false hopes, and declarations of success while family and friends fall ill, with some perishing. Crisis reveals character and competency, or in this situation, a lack thereof. So, of course, many people are feeling uncertain and doubtful about, almost everything.
  • High-Profile Leadership Failures– Widely praised leaders (Theranos, WeWork, Uber, Weinstein, etc.) have been revealed to be frauds and/or friends. Our media loves to obsess over unique and powerful leaders, lauding them as someone to admire, a role model to emulate, whose advice we should all follow. When these leaders are revealed to be frauds, friends, or both, it prompts many to wonder “Is there ANYONE we can really trust?”
  • Social Media – The snarky, hyper-critical, and bombastic tone of many social media influencers has impacted our conversations in the real world. In ancient Rome, the most popular form of entertainment was watching gladiators tear each other apart in the Colosseum. Today we have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and hundreds of other places online where we can not only watch, not we can all BE gladiators. Is it any wonder that we are treating each other harshly?
  • Mundane Work – Most people would love to do interesting work that builds their capabilities while making the world a better place, but this ideal is often at odds with the reality of our day-to-day “grunt” work. And sometimes the work itself can grind us down, particularly if we feel that everyone else is doing amazing, socially impactful work that inspires them (thanks again, social media) while we are forced to do the lame, often boring work. Add to this an unstable work environment with minimal job security and you get a workforce that is apathetic, listless, and paranoid.
  • Income Inequality – Exceptional wealth and grinding poverty are both highlighted in media, driving a perception of extreme inequality. In centuries and decades past, the super-wealthy tended to keep to themselves, but today we all have easy access to photos of Zuckerberg’s massive Hawaiian estate, the opulent lifestyles (and rocket launches) of corporate celebrities, along with the massive wealth (real or fake) on display from numerous social media “influencers.” Of course, this extreme wealth drives a feeling of inequity, unfairness, and yes, envy.
  • Tiresome Leaders – Where have all the great leaders gone? Even the most cynical employees still yearn for leaders who inspire their trust. But that trust has to be EARNED. They want leaders who are functionally competent, and who can be a reliable source for guidance. They want leaders who genuinely care about them. And they want leaders who truly inspire them. But at work (and everywhere else), we often experience leaders who simply do not impress us and sometimes cause us deep concern as we question their competence. This has a corrosive effect on our energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to the work we are doing.
  • Micro-Exclusions – Organizations often unintentionally telegraph their disdain and/or disrespect for lower-level workers. When senior leaders operate in a way that feels like a “private club” to which no one else is welcome, it creates a feeling of exclusion. When major decisions are made with no input from the impacted employees, of course, it is perceived as an exclusion. Who gets promoted and why? Who gets the best project assignments and why? If the answers to these questions are murky and unclear, it reinforces a perception of exclusion for many.
  • Zero Tolerance for Inequity – The good news is a positive trend toward DEMANDING equity, fairness, and inclusion is driving impatience and frustration when these are lacking. The bad news is that many organizations are not keeping up with the acceleration of expectations. Some leaders express frustration when making progress, but the immediate employee response is “not enough.” But the bottom line is that even the perception of inequity will drive employees away, so leaders are going to have to do more.
  • Reading through this list can feel foreboding and depressing, but there is truly a reason for hope. Employees want to make valued contributions to businesses and leaders they admire. Even the most cynical employees still yearn for leaders who inspire their trust. But that trust has to be EARNED. They want leaders who are competent, caring, and committed to helping them work in a way that’s productive and fulfilling.

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