As the Digital Age advances and technology takes over more jobs, workers must get better at those “human” skills computers can’t do. They must excel at critical thinking, innovative thinking, collaborating, and emotionally engaging with others in the creation and delivery of products and services. Most of all, one must excel at continuously learning…and unlearning…and relearning. Ed Hess calls this last piece “Hyper-Learning.” And he has a question for leaders: Does your workplace nurture these skills and the Hyper-Learning that powers them? Or does it do exactly the opposite?
“You must create a workplace environment that enables the behaviors that will result in the higher-order human cognitive and emotional performance that the smart technology can’t do well,” says Hess, author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, September 2020). “In other words, the workplace must enable people to think, to manage their egos and emotions, to listen, and to emotionally engage with others in positive ways that result in high-quality collaboration. In the Digital Age, people will need to bring their ‘Best Selves’ to work.
“Making this shift requires people to engage in constant learning,” he adds. “And that means your workplace must mitigate the two big individual inhibitors of learning: ego and fear.”
Unfortunately, says Hess, most workplaces are relics of the Industrial Revolution. The leadership model is command and control, and they achieve compliance through fear. In such workplaces, competition, political gamesmanship, and hierarchies thrive. Rather than being team-oriented and collaborative, they promote individualistic, survival-of-the-fittest mentalities. That type of environment in the Digital Age will be the formula for extinction.
Hess says if your company is to survive in the Digital Age, you’re going to have to humanize it. This boils down to four key concepts. Your workplace must be an idea meritocracy and embrace three key psychological principles: positivity, psychological safety, and self-determination. Ask yourself these four questions:
1. In my company, do the best ideas rise to the top? In an idea meritocracy, the best data-driven idea or judgment wins, irrespective of rank, compensation, or power. What determines any course of action is the best idea or judgment, not whose idea or judgment it is.
“If your company isn’t an idea meritocracy, people won’t behave with each other in ways that lead to the highest levels of collective human performance,” says Hess. “The kinds of high-quality conversations you need for real innovation can’t happen.”
2. Are people usually in a positive emotional mood? Leading research by cognitive, social, and positive psychologists, including Barbara Fredrickson and Alice Isen, shows that positive emotions enable and enhance cognitive processing, innovative thinking, learning, and creativity and lead to better judgments and decision-making. Negative emotions like fear and anxiety squelch them.
“There are simple things you can do at the start of a meeting to help people be in a positive mood,” he adds. “Just asking people to smile at each other or make eye contact makes a big difference. So does asking people questions that indicate you care about them as individuals. Truly listening to people is mission critical.” People will feel positive when they feel cared about as a unique human being and when they trust their colleagues and managers/leaders. Work environments that make people feel like a machine or a cog in a giant wheel will not enable the highest needed human performance in the Digital Age.
3. Do people feel it’s safe to speak up to power and to try new ways of working? Studies show that without psychological safety, people will not fully embrace the hard parts of thinking and innovating: giving and receiving constructive feedback; challenging the status quo; asking and being asked the hard questions; being non-defensive, open-minded, and intellectually courageous; and having the courage to try new things and fail.
Google has studied what makes certain teams effective in the search for the “secret sauce” of high performance. The most important factor it discovered was psychological safety.1 Hess says the precondition for feeling safe is trust—and while nobody is “against” trust, many leaders worry about the time it takes to build it.
“Time is a precious commodity when you are running a lean efficiency machine,” admits Hess. “However, every company that I know of that has invested in building trust, giving people time during the workday to build trusting relationships, has found the ROI far exceeds their expectations.”
4. Do leaders meet the self-determination needs of those who report to them? Initially developed by psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, self-determination theory (SDT) says intrinsic motivation occurs when three innate human needs are met: autonomy (e.g., people have input into how they do their job), relatedness (e.g., a sense of mutual respect and reliance with others), and competence (e.g., being able to succeed at optimally challenging tasks).
“If employees feel that they have autonomy, relatedness, and competence at work, they’re more likely to be highly engaged and thus more likely to perform at high levels,” notes Hess.
Hopefully you answered each question with a yes. If not, you’ve got some evolving to do.
“It’s not easy to transform an organization. But, you have no choice if you need human workers to excel in the Digital Age,” says Hess. “You can’t transform a workplace unless the leaders take the lead in transforming how they lead. They must behave in ways that enable the new desired behaviors, and they must role-model those behaviors. Leaders must be enablers, not commanders. In the Digital Age, leaders must liberate their employees to perform at their highest levels, cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally. When people are able to play to their strengths and develop themselves, they don’t just go through the motions or wish away the day. This is the kind of work we all long for.”
Edward D. Hess is professor of business administration, Batten Fellow, and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business and the author of Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change. Professor Hess spent 20 years in the business world as a senior executive and has spent the last 18 years in academia. He is the author of 13 books, over 140 articles, and 60 Darden case studies. His work has appeared in over 400 global media outlets including Fortune, European Business Review, HBR, SHRM, Fast Company, WIRED, and Forbes, Inc.