Has Work Gotten Grimmer?

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman explains why many managers aren’t happy, and what executives can do to rectify the problem. 

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

Since 2020, Future Forum has conducted quarterly surveys of workers and managers across the globe, asking a series of questions related to the employee experience. Their recent survey – which included data from close to 11,000 workers across the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K. – reported a significant drop in how executives are experiencing their work. overall satisfaction scores in the C-suite dropped 15%, with executives reporting a 20% worse work-life balance and 40% more work-related stress and anxiety. Across the many levels of leadership, some of the lowest scores on the survey came from middle managers. Stress and anxiety was particularly chronic among those in “enterprise” organizations with 1,000 employees or more.

While burnout is prevalent across just about every faction of the workforce, leaders are currently suffering from what some experts cite as “late pandemic fatigue.” Furloughs, layoffs, the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, transitions to remote work, and the economic downturn have taken a toll and for some, a prolonged sense of urgency has delayed the onset of chronic exhaustion.

When assessing what organizations need most right now, Korn Ferry hears two things from many of the leaders they work with: organizational agility and engagement. Agility measures how quickly an organization can pivot and remain resilient in the face of unforeseen challenges. Engagement refers to the trust, effective communication, and shared sense of purpose it takes to stay motivated in the face of adversity.

Turns out, many of the same ingredients that make for agility and engagement also combat burnout. Purpose—the North Star that orients companies in times of change—bolsters engagement and  improves employee well-being. And emotional intelligence (EI) – including competencies such as self-awareness, adaptability, empathy, teamwork, and emotional balance – helps people navigate volatility, embrace complexity, and manage anxiety while acting on behalf of their values.

Organizations have turned to executive coaches to help leaders connect to purpose and cultivate emotional intelligence. But as Korn Ferry points out, most individual coaching engagements run the risk of being siloed – disconnected from the context and larger goals of the organization. Korn Ferry advocates for what they call “connected coaching,” equipping people at scale, and across an organization, with the critical EI skills it takes to navigate today’s world while at the same time thinking about how each and every coaching engagement connects around a singular mission.

“If the coaching is just general, then you don’t get to a tipping point — you just get increased performance,” explains Dennis Baltzley, global head of leadership development solutions at Korn Ferry. “But if the coaching is directed and all of these individuals and teams are now focused on agility, then you actually create a more agile organization.”

As the Harvard Business Review recently pointed out, it takes a lot of emotional labor to lead right now. “As a leader today, you’re expected to attend to your employees’ mental health, demonstrate sensitivity and compassion, and provide opportunities for flexibility and remote work,” writes HBR, “all while delivering results.”

This can lead to what the World Health Organization describes as burnout, a state “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

According to Future Forum’s research, people who are burned out are three times more likely to look for a new job in the coming year. For organizations to retain people, particularly their executives, one-off coaching might not be enough. What companies seem to need right now aren’t just leaders who can perform better as individuals, but also those whose growth and well-being are part of a wider cultural transformation. What the times seem to require is a cohesive, organization-wide approach to developing emotional intelligence and defining what matters.

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.