Digital Age Leaders: Saving the World from Workplace Dystopia?

This post is written by Ellen Foley, Executive Consultant for AchieveForum.

Is dystopia too harsh a word?  I’m not saying we’re living in The Hunger Games, but let’s face it, in the disruptive, turbulent, uncertain, fast-changing world we do live in, people are suffering.  From the entry-level to the C-Suite, people tell us they’re feeling change fatigue, confusion, and constant stress because things that were once clear are now fraught with uncertainty, and getting things done just keeps getting harder and riskier as very nature of work becomes more and more complex.

Just the other day a client described it this way, “We’re not just dealing with episodic change anymore.  Change is like the ocean – it surrounds us, we’re living in it all the time, and it’s exhausting!”  She’s right.  In most workplaces, change has become the natural habitat.  Yet, our multi-millennia-old brains and bodies – not built to adapt at the warp speed – are struggling to figure out how to survive and thrive in this new environment.  Maybe dystopia is appropriate after all.

Our research over the past six years has focused on the question of how to thrive in turbulent times, and more specifically:

What does leadership look like in turbulent environments?  Should how leaders lead today look different from how they’ve led in the past? 

Leadership Success Looks Different in the Digital Age

As you might imagine, we’ve found that leadership success does look different today.  Our research points to three leadership capabilities that provide the greatest chance for a company to survive and thrive in these turbulent times:  Influencing Behavior Change, Fostering Collaborative Co-Creation, and Integrating Discovery.

These three capabilities stand on the shoulders of, and even encompass, many of the aspects of leadership we’ve been teaching leaders for nearly 50 years – what we call conventional wisdom – however there are important shifts in mindsets, skills and actions – unconventional approaches – required in response to the turbulent seas we’re all swimming in.


From Conventional Wisdom To Unconventional Approaches
Engage Millennials Teach Next Generations to Lead
Cope Build Resilience
Build Alignment Build Trust
Focus on Hierarchy Focus on Team
Get it Right Embrace Experimentation
Change Behavior Influence Behavior Change
Foster Coordination and Cooperation Foster Collaborative Co-Creation
Apply Strategic Planning Apply Discovery-Based Planning


Here are a few examples of what we mean by these shifts.

From Cope to Build Resilience.  Much of the focus of coping with workplace stress has been about providing people with ways to refresh, renew, and re-energize.  Efforts to take people away from workplace stressors, like increased or unlimited PTO, while helpful, are not sufficient, and they can even exacerbate stress if time away is overshadowed by laptops, devices, and meetings that “just can’t be missed.”  Or the alternative, returning from a work-free holiday to the stresses of hundreds of unanswered emails and unfulfilled requests.  Building resilience is more than renewal, it’s about building in people and teams the antibodies they need to respond to workplace stressors differently.  That requires working with the stressor, not avoiding it, and leveraging the learning – making it part of how the team operates – so the team is stronger when the next stressor comes along. Download our point of view on Building Resilience.

From Build Alignment to Build Trust.  Yes, alignment – on purpose, on goals and outcomes, on how things will get done, and so forth – is critical, but again, not sufficient, for today.  The pace and frequency at which people and teams are being asked to shift and turn, sometimes 180-degrees from one day to the next, simply can’t happen without a strong foundation of trust.  Alignment is a cognitive state, trust is emotional.  Alignment can exist without trust, but warp-speed change needs both.  Distrust causes even intellectually aligned people to second-guess, hang back, question – all devastating when rapid response is critical for survival.  Turbulent environments require people to move quickly, jump in and try new things, without the fear of failure – the very nature of adaptation and learning requires some degree of failure, which, in turn, requires a large degree of trust.

From Get it Right to Embrace Experimentation.  The importance of getting things right, whether that’s a process or a product or a customer experience, is still critical to businesses in all industries.  But with the pace of change today, how you get to what’s right requires experimentation.  As one of our clients puts it, “You have to be comfortable working at 80% and iterating to 90%.”  The implication?  Don’t wait to get to 100% because by the time you get there, the game will very likely have completely changed.

We’ll be exploring all of these unconventional digital age approaches in future blog posts.

Thriving in Turbulent Times is a Team Sport

Are Digital Age Leaders superheroes who can save us from workplace dystopia?  Probably not.  They are after all, mere mortals – mere mortals that we ask way too much of already!  Digital Age Leaders need support from all of us, every employee at their side, and that’s where teams come in.  That’s what the shift from focusing on hierarchy to focusing on teams is about.  It’s about developing Digital Age Teams with digital age capabilities – to collaborate in ways that result in the co-creation of new ideas and ways of working never conceived of before; to define and implement and monitor their own behavior change; to drive accountability for their own performance, their own resilience … the list goes on.

With the dynamic duo of Digital Age Leaders and Digital Age Teams, workplace dystopia won’t have a chance!

Click here to read more of our research on Leading in the Digital Age.