Artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 3D printing, nanotechnology, and 5G wireless networks are just some of the technological advances set to dramatically change the way we work — and earlier than you might think.
According to the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs Report,” companies anticipate reducing their workforce requirements as soon as 2022. Even the jobs that remain will be changed as automation takes over their basic, repetitive aspects. As McKinsey states, in 60 percent of jobs at least 30 percent of “constituent activities” can be automated, and “all workers will need to adapt” as their occupations evolve.
As new technologies like AI take over many of the tasks that currently require hard skills, we’re likely to see companies place an increasing premium on employees’ soft skills, which AI can’t replicate. As the World Economic Forum’s report notes, social skills like persuasion, emotional intelligence, and the ability to teach others will likely be in high demand.
Fortunately, one category of worker already has the kinds of skills companies will need for the tech takeover: women. But to harness the full capacity of women’s (and men’s) soft skills, we’ll need to ditch our outdated leadership models.
Female Talent: The Most Underutilized Competitive Advantage?
The ideas of masculinity and leadership are still deeply intertwined: Research finds both men and women tend to believe that men are more likely than women to possess the characteristics associated with managerial success. When I surveyed 735 men and women in a professional services firm, 70 percent of respondents described the ideal standard in workplaces today as a white, middle-class, heterosexual male who is willing to commit most of his time to the organization, promote his own achievements, tell others what to do, dominate social situations, and be decisive — even if this means going it alone.
This Don Draper-style ideal is as old as the workplaces itself because management, leadership, and organizational policies and programs have long been designed by men, for men. Despite the persistence of this ideal, it is failing us today — and it will disadvantage men, women, and organizations into the future.
Generally speaking, women managers have been shown to take more democratic approaches to leadership than men. Many women leaders have what is termed a “transformational” leadership style, which is typically more collaborative, participative, caring, compassionate, and inclusive. In contrast, many male leaders take a more “transactional” approach, which is characterized by a task-focused, achievement-oriented, and directive style of management.
While command-and-control leadership styles may have worked in the past, they are simply not effective in the complex work environments created by technological transformation. Today, leaders need innovation, creativity, and collaboration to manage through disruptive changes, develop employees’ capabilities and skill sets, and solve complex problems by engaging different perspectives.
In an additional research study, I surveyed 102 women and men from a professional services firm. When asked to identify the top five skills (out of a list of eleven) necessary for the future, the respondents chose key social skills:
- Adapting to change and managing ambiguity
- Managing people to achieve outcomes
- Achieving results and outcomes
- Demonstrating emotional intelligence
- Demonstrating resilience
Participants were also asked to identify which of these top five social skills are commonly possessed by women and which by men. Both male and female participants stated that women have four out of the five capabilities needed for the future: adapting to change and managing ambiguity, managing people to achieve outcomes, demonstrating emotional intelligence, and demonstrating resilience. The participants also agreed that men have one: achieving results and outcomes.
Given the unique capabilities women have — and the ubiquitous gender gap in leadership positions — female talent remains one of the most underutilized competitive advantages companies have.
The Future Requires Flexible Leadership
It’s true that workplaces need women in leadership positions, but we shouldn’t simply trade one leadership type for another or say that men need to lead like women. No matter how technology transforms the workplace, there will be situations requiring assertive or dominant leadership styles.
Constraining leaders to one model limits their ability to effectively respond to the ever-changing demands of the work environment. The most effective leaders are psychologically ambidextrous, flexing their cognitive, behavioral, and emotional capabilities to meet the needs of any given situation.
But flexibility requires freedom. To ensure they have the innovation and problem-solving capabilities they need to survive, organizations need to ditch the leadership stereotypes and create environments in which all employees can use their identities, talents, and differences to contribute and advance.
Creating such an environment starts with revisiting the leadership attributes your organization values, and then making sure employees have the opportunity to demonstrate these values in a variety of ways.
For example, let’s say transparency is one of your leadership values. While speaking up in public meetings might be a prototypical sign of valuing transparency, women are often ignored and often have their contributions dismissed. To afford employees the flexibility to demonstrate transparency in ways that work for them, leaders need to open up more channels for employee input, such as written feedback or one-on-one discussions.
The aim is to be explicit about what is valued while at the same time providing flexibility in how these values can be demonstrated. This is how we create cultures that truly promote equality, diversity, inclusion, and new ways of working.
The benefits of a truly equitable workplace go beyond more effective leadership styles. Research finds that employees are six times more likely to have innovation mindsets in cultures of equality. That’s because a culture of equality makes employees feel a sense of belonging, and they are confident their unique perspectives will be appreciated, so they are more willing to share their ideas. It’s exactly this innovative thinking that will provide companies with a distinct competitive advantage in the future world of work. So, if you want to future-proof your workplace, start by creating a culture of equality.
Michelle P. King is the director of inclusion at Netflix and the author of The Fix: Overcome the Invisible Barriers That Are Holding Women Back at Work.