Changes are constant in the business world, especially with technological advancements driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and those that inspired — or forced — managers to find new solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even organizations not known for their sparkling innovation found themselves meeting new needs with improved strategies. They adopted remote or hybrid workforces, for example, and shifted collaboration to virtual platforms. However, simply making those types of adjustments won’t enable companies to thrive in the current era of extraordinary change. For many, the answer is agile leadership.

“If It Ain’t Broke…or Is It?”

For signs that a more agile approach is needed, consider a company’s hierarchy of departments and duties. Many organizations are structured to manage work and processes with rigid adherence to an organizational chart. Yet the work environment in which they operate is dynamic, as they face evolving demands and expectations from both customers and employees. In this environment, solutions are unlikely to emerge from a list of departmental duties, or from a competency model or “roadmap” that’s been gathering dust since some committee adopted it. It’s good to have goals, but an approach that is fixed rather than flexible will stifle innovation and flounder when challenges arise.

Chief among these challenges is the difficult issue of employee engagement amid persistently low unemployment in most sectors and regions. Gallup reported that in a survey of 57,022 full- and part-time employees, the percentage of those who felt engaged in their work declined in 2021 for the first time in more than a decade. Barely one-third (34%) reported feeling engaged, while 16% were actively disengaged in their jobs and workplaces.

Gallup notes the impact of the pandemic, with tensions over vaccine requirements, mask mandates, “quiet quitting” and related issues. Research from Dale Carnegie shows that while employees are somewhat satisfied with their jobs, their organizations lack the drivers needed to connect with them, hence the disengagement. In many cases, employees are rejecting workplace cultures they perceive as indifferent to or out of touch with their needs and goals — and leaders who are not helping them find meaningful engagement in their work.

Another challenge is the practice of assigning specific job titles and responsibilities, then guiding an employee to “stay in your own lane.” This boxes people in, stifles teamwork and replaces collaboration with frustration. Again, there’s an impact on engagement: employees who are free to make the most of their talents, perhaps expanding beyond the work defined by their job titles, feel that their impact matters.

What Agile Leadership Looks Like

Agile leadership is about flexibility — an openness to experimentation rather than an attitude of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” The core of agile leadership continually adjusts methods and structures to reach key performance indicators. As Amazon executive chairman Jeff Bezos puts it, agile leadership “creates multiple paths to yes.” Additional aspects of agile leadership include:

  • It requires a positive attitude toward new information, and confidence that an innovative, flexible approach will succeed.
  • Agile leadership thrives in an environment of trust and psychological safety, and one where key drivers are used to solidify an emotional connection with employees — people feel empowered, engaged and connected to a customer-centered purpose.
  • Performance and progress are not just discussed annually but are continually evaluated and tweaked.
  • Leaders acquire tools and embrace processes enabling them to build agility and innovation into every aspect of their business.

Randy Street explain in their book, “Who: The A Method for Hiring.” In the context of the agile workplace, this means making it clear in job requisitions, during job interviews, and onboarding that the focus will be on a flexible approach to achieving outcomes, not just performing a list of duties.

Adjusting to an Agile Mindset

A leader who wants to shift to a more agile management style might encounter some bumps along the way. Case in point: Zappos tried doing away with managers entirely and ended up with what one report called “a wacky work experiment gone wrong.” In fact, employees who feel their personal worth is tied up in their defined title and authority might be leery of looser, more flexible definitions designed to encourage different types of teamwork. Additionally, others in a company’s management structure might fear a loss of power within a less rigid system.

It’s important for those who want to move toward agile leadership to acquire tools and establish approaches that spur engagement and make change happen. One example is to embrace Dale Carnegie’s “throw down a challenge” principle, by which leaders engage employees in creative problem-solving. This strategy empowers employees to see themselves as having more influence on the people and processes around them.

While the impact of AI looms as an explosive issue, it’s social intelligence that helps create organizational agility. Social intelligence is a focus on “soft skills” that good managers have always emphasized: encouraging collaboration, building trust, supporting appropriate risk-taking, and encouraging all team members to share feedback. These skills will help establish an atmosphere in which people ensure that AI and other emerging technologies are used appropriately and with the desired results.

In the agile workplace, employees should feel that it’s safe to suggest new or even controversial perspectives. If an initiative fails, it’s important for leaders to be careful about ascribing blame. Rather than saying “this was your fault,” they can say “it’s an idea that just didn’t work out, but we learned a lot” (as with the recent SpaceX explosion) As Dale Carnegie urged, “Give people a fine reputation to live up to.”

Takeaways for Managers

What sets agile management apart from those fleeting trends that are forgotten on the flight home from the conference where someone expounded on them? An agile approach is uniquely applicable to the changing realities of doing business today. It empowers teams to interact virtually, create flexible work schedules, deal with the gig economy, and embrace workplace diversity.

To create a more agile organization, managers can paint a clear picture of the culture and mindset they want to build. Incorporate flexibility and a focus on outcomes into job descriptions, performance reviews, and training. Exercise strong leadership by stepping in and countering toxic, rigid mindsets. Celebrate the successes of colleagues who are operating with agility. They’re on track for personal success and contributing to making their organization better.