How Much Change Can Your Inner Child Take? Why We Need To Grow Into Adulthood As Leaders Of The 21st Century

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Have you ever sat across a table from a group of business professionals and thought “How in the world are we expected to consume the amount of change presented?” No, right? You have no idea what I am talking about…

We used to talk about “21st century leadership” and “21st century skills” as if they were the cutting edge of business but the 21st century has arrived, bringing along with it huge transformations in the way we work and ironically, we find ourselves lacking the skills necessary to cope.

There is constant flux in and across our businesses. There have emerged prominent roles for artificial intelligence and robotics. There are an outrageous number of smart technologies at our fingertips. Then, there is the “always on” work cultures which feels like it is often competing with our ever-increasing life demands. These trends aren’t the things we imagined when we were being taught future skills of teamwork and collaboration in school—they’ve truly outstripped even our wildest imaginations. While some of us want to experience work as a source of purpose and inspiration, finding that experience has become increasingly difficult for many.

According to Gallup employee engagement surveys, only 13% of our global workforce is truly engaged at work and according to Conference Board, only one out of two are satisfied in their work current experiences. That’s either you reading this article or me?! For those of you lucky enough to have access to the advanced world economy, our work experiences really don’t support our hopes and dreams.

In fact, during our recent research over the course of last two years, we witnessed many employees in the global workplaces regularly describe their cultures as “cut-throat, ruthless environments, where people genuinely struggle to exist.” On tens of occasions, we became part of environments, where we found people were truly stretched for their physical and emotional capabilities. We listened to stories of management practices, where people were treated as cogs, rarely being tapped for their true voice and/or unique contribution—sometimes with awe, other times with deep sorrow. Majority of the people we spoke to felt compelled to “be” a certain way, simply to get by. Whether we aimed for it or not, we became witnessed a number of leave of absences due to stress-related illnesses, many times triggered by long work hours, pressure to deliver, often coupled with incompatibility of productivity tools. Together with our science partners, we recorded about 70% of all employees across 120 organizations reporting to be “absent” in their holistic experiences and 25% reporting to have no one to turn to in times of stress and suffering.

I want to take a moment here to recognize how this picture perfectly coincides with the decline we see in global productivity levels. According to OECD Compendium of Productivity Indicators 2019 report, both the short term and long term labor productivity remains considerably weak. It is true we have progressed in society and advanced our ways of working; however, it seems we have also brought upon humanity independence, rationality, and pace that has and continues to make us feel isolated, anxious and exhausted.

It is almost like we have grown our cognitive capacities to co-exist with technological advancements and forgotten to care about our beautiful hearts, souls and bodies. Further, to cope with the demands and to survive the stresses of our modern-day lives, we are unconsciously choosing to wear a mask and to put ourselves on auto-pilot function.

The New World Of Work Requires New Ways Of Being

“Being” is a way in which our existence comes to life. In a number of disciplines, being as a concept encompasses objective and subjective features of both reality and perception.

As an I/O psychologist, I think of one’s holistic “being” in terms of how they show up physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally in their work environment.

Social psychologist Eric Fromm once said, “Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton.” Looking at the majority of our lives and pulling from our research anecdotes, I find it difficult to argue against him. We do operate from a place of automation.

The workplace statistics clearly point to the brokenness of our policies in systems and they also point to our individual contribution to the creation of an unfair playground and building barriers against completing our human developments. Every time we inquire for a shirt that’s cheaper, for example, every time we inquire for delivery of goods to our door faster, every time we inquire to have the latest of technology in our hands, every time we chose to claim we are “busy,” we are each contributing to the extension of current systems and ways of working.

As long as we choose to overlook philosophies, procedures and policies that work against us reclaiming our humanities and as long as we continue to overlook the progressive individual growth required for us to become whole in our experiences, we will never achieve our goal of having more meaningful, more inspirational work experiences. What’s worst? The more we mislead each other in reflection of our current way of “being,” the more we delay the gain of the different attitudes and skills required to be successful in the future of work.

Expanding On Our Current Capacities

One of the main philosophies we need to evolve as a way of initiating personal transcendence and in reach of expanding our capacities is our relationship to belonging.

All living souls—not just human beings—share a need to belong. All of us have an innate requirement to share our reality with others. That said, belonging is not and should not solely be a refuge to side with your peeps; we need to refine our definition of belonging to acknowledge when it comes to human beings, we all have a need to be seen, heard of, cared for and appreciated for their unique contribution. 

Where we want to envision a different reality for our global workforce, we need to start imagining work environments, where all people despite their background, education, income levels or demographics can experience feelings of self-knowledge, self-spirit, social-self and self-esteem. Recognize that only when we are heard, we find inspiration; when we connect, we find meaning; when we are seen, we feel safe and when we are cared for, we discover joy.

Secondly, we need a will to connect and be driven by our inner powers to expand on our capacities. We need not only to understand who we are but also to lean into courage to stand up for our own and everyone’s deserved right to dignity, to exist, to exercise freedom and creativity. This is a particularly difficult task as it requires for us to overcome the drama of our inner child’s being and take an active step into adulthood.  

Robert Kegan a developmental psychologist and a former Harvard professor focused on adult learning shows that adults, similar to children, go through five distinct developmental stages: impulsive, imperial, interpersonal, institutional, inter-individual.

He makes the argument that becoming an “adult” means transitioning to higher stages of development. This journey requires us to develop an independent sense of self and gain the traits associated with wisdom and social maturity. It also requires us to become more self-aware, in control of our behavior, as well as increasingly aware of, and better able to manage our relationships and the social factors affecting us.

Interestingly, however, he and other current development psychologists note most of us—about 65% of the general population—never make it to the high functioning ‘adults’ we claim to be. Most of us never make it past Stage 3, which highlights a culture of mutuality. This is primarily because we lack an independent sense of self, we pay unnecessary attention to what others think, believe, and feel and eventually, we become dependent on how we think others experience us.

Let me provide an example: Let’s take play as a concept at work. If you look in the dictionary, there are endless definitions of play and majority revolves around things like “appearing purposeless,” “leading to joy and pleasure,” etc. This is certainly how we view play as adults and most certainly how we view play from a business perspective.

Let me offer you another definition of play, from Stuart Brown, a medical doctor, with a specialty in neurology and psychiatry and author of the book Play: “Anything spontaneously done for its sake!” If we reflect back in our childhood experiences, most of us will find play as an element of our childhood memories. According to experts like Brown, childhood experiences of play, in fact, takes a role in initiation and development of empathic care, openness to imagination and ability to building trust.

Further, play, if leveraged into adult development, supports deepening of compassion, creative thinking and focus on unity across groups—all the outcomes we want to achieve in business. So, why in the world do we view play as “purposeless” as adults or consider it has no place in business as leaders, you may ask?

Because we care too much about what others think and we are deadly afraid to know how others may view us if we stand up for something unlikely.

See, the thing about human development is that our inner sensations form the core of our identity from the very beginning. In an atmosphere of respect and tolerance as children we have an opportunity to separate from the symbiosis of our parents and take necessary steps towards independence and autonomy. Unfortunately, majority of us are not exposed to the prerequisites necessary for us to grow into adulthood. Majority of us are not offered the necessary space for self-discovery and expression nor have been raised in environments of respect and acceptance. The deprived children in each one of us then looks for constant validation from outside and that learned way of “being” drives the numerous ways in which we show up as adults (and leaders). The behavior manifestation follows accordingly in the forms of emotion avoidance, overdrive, competitiveness, ignorance, and/or intolerance, etc. Couple that with the reward mechanisms in traditional systems and there is no way out of current experience.

If we want to expand our capacities and develop traits of resilience, we must discover new ways of being. As leaders of the 21st century, we need a whole new capacity to care, to nurture, and to grow. When we can step out of our traditional roles, we are no longer obliged to our current reality. We are allowed to become who we want to be. From there, we can test different ways of “relation” or “doing” – working accordingly.  

Every human being has a right to flourish, to have dignity and respect, and to thrive. Every organization is capable of growth.

It may be that we inherited a system of illness and a skewed definition of leadership and malpractices; but we do have a choice in how to show up and shape our experiences as do we have a choice in how to contribute to the creation of different environments surrounding us. It may be that we don’t have a lot of role models currently but we most certainly can choose to grow up and start becoming the kind of servant leaders we all aspire to look up to in time.

Sure, there is responsibility for businesses to rethink work and work experiences; but we can certainly contribute to the formation of authentic cultures by choosing to show up truthfully and more holistically.

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