Updated: Oct 11, 2022
This is one topic which is important to both a manager & an employee. Although I have been managing people for over 14 years, however my own experience of my reportees mindset post 2011-12 has been very different from prior to 2011. I remember when I used to be an individual contributor, all my colleagues & age cohorts aspired to be a manager or a leader one day. When I was promoted to a first level manager position in 2007, I could see that same aspiration in the eyes of my reportees. There used to be celebration & parties when someone was promoted to a management position. People wanted to get out of individual contributor level work & so there was intense competition to get that coveted job. Post 2011-12 my experience started changing. I could see a trend emerge irrespective of industries & teams that the new generation of work force was content being an individual contributor & there was a disinterest towards getting promoted to a management role. People wanted perks & increments & bonuses & great salary but not willing to climb the vertical ladder.
THE CAREERBUILDER SURVEY
In 2014 a survey was conducted in USA by CareerBuilder, the online survey polled a nationwide sample of 3,625 full-time workers in government and the private sector, across salary levels, industries, and company sizes. It’s the first time CareerBuilder has asked about leadership aspirations in a worker survey.
Of the thousands surveyed, only about one-third of workers (34%) said they aspire to leadership positions – and just 7% strive for C-level management. This meant that 66% workforce were unwilling. The reasons provided were many, some said the long hours that managers have to put in will hamper the work life balance while others spoke about more workload & stress associated with leadership role. The only silver lining of this survey was that millennials showed more willingness to take up leadership roles in future so for me & you that serves as beacon of hope. Our problem still remains though for the next 10 years at least since we still have to deal with the midlevel & frontline workers who have developed this mindset & millennials are not coming to executive or leadership positions before 2030.
I had several personal interactions with other managers & leaders on this topic & trust me all of them had similar experience. Many managers these days literally struggles to identify & coach their next line since rarely someone expresses interest to take up a leading role for the team. So the CareerBuilder survey is not only a reality check in USA but I believe it is a global reality. There can be many reasons behind people developing this mindset, some may lack of inspiring leaders or corruption at top or more stress associated with the job or long hours or organizations becoming more skill focused & flatter. As per me there are 2 prominent reasons for this mindset,
Individual contributors can earn a fat pay check these days without having to move up the corporate ladder as long as you have the latest skills. Companies are willing to pay more to skilled workforce. This trend might continue with advent of high demand for new skills like AI, machine learning, Data science, cloud & edge computing, Big Data etc
A perception among employees that management or leadership role comes with more responsibility, long working hours & hence more stress. Stress has adverse effect on health so why to risk our lives.
For the 1st reason, there is no escape from the job market reality. It is a fact that we are moving towards skill focused future. I firmly believe that if you are absolutely passionate about work whether it is painting or sales or engineering or surgery or even a barber you must do that work till death if it brings fulfillment in your life. However we must remember that majority of workforce does not work for passion, they work for a living.
Many studies & surveys have been done on this topic, one of them being in 2017 when a Deloitte survey revealed that only 13 % of U.S workforce are passionate about their work. Now we are talking about 13 % workforce of a developed country which is economically the most powerful in the world, where we have more affluence in society, are not working for their passion. It goes without saying that this number will be a minuscular factor in developing & under developed countries. So if you are not passionate about a work which you are doing simply because it pays you well, you will not experience less stress. Chances are you have to force yourself to constantly update your skills & knowledge to keep your market value high & that drill might make you mad or give up one day since you will not be enjoying the journey & suffering from insecurity.
For the 2nd reason, we have to validate whether the perception that higher ranks bring in more stress to your life is correct or not. From a high level it seems to be true, It is true that managers & leaders have to bear more responsibility, they have to put in long hours everyday, they have to sacrifice a lot of their family time, sometimes they might get paid less than a lot of individual contributors after putting in more hours. All these are true. However the crux of the whole matter is " stress". Does all these things causes more stress in the lives of managers & leaders ? Let us find out.
THE WHITEHALL STUDY
There was study conducted by group of scientist in Britain to understand the relationship between stress & a person's place in the social/ corporate ladder. The studies, named after the Whitehall area of London and originally led by Michael Marmot, The first Whitehall study was conducted in 1967 for a period of 10 years, sample size was 18000 men from British civil service aged between 20 to 64 years. The results were both surprising & revealing. It concluded that people of lower ranks are more likely to die prematurely than people of higher ranks. The 2nd Whitehall study was conducted from 1985 to 1988 and examined the health of 10,308 civil servants aged 35 to 55, of whom two thirds were men and one third women. The 2nd Whitehall study was conducted to follow up & understand the reason of results the first Whitehall study.
The study revelated that the level of stress hormone cortisol is higher in lower ranked employees than higher ranked administrators & leaders. As we know that higher & longer duration of cortisol in our body causes lot of health issues, like spike in glucose level, blood pressure, heart diseases, diabetes, anxiety & short temper, cognitive ability impairment etc & all of these has it's impact on our social relationships as well.
The study revelated that stress is being caused by a combination of high demand & low control. Let me explain, in today's world whether you are an individual contributor or a manager or leader, high demand in your work life is common. A manager or leader might at time faces more challenges, get more work, have to take more responsibilities & put in long hours however since they are in a leadership position, their sense of being in charge or being in control is much much more than anyone down the ladder.
They feel that they have more autonomy than the rest to make certain decisions. This feeling of being in control reduces cortisol & hence stress. For lower ranked employees or individual contributors the sense of being in control in terms of autonomy or let's say job security is much less or not there at all, so high work demand generates more cortisol in them & hence explains the high mortality rate.
THE STANFORD-HARVARD STUDY
in 2012, a report published by Stanford on a similar study conducted by Stanford psychology Professor James Gross and Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, suggests that leadership positions are, in fact, associated with lower levels of stress. Stanford even went on to investigate the same results in baboons. Stanford biology professor Robert Sapolsky's measurements of the stress hormone cortisol in baboons showed lower levels of the hormone in high-ranking troop members. The critical element seems to be a sense of control once again. The connection between power and tranquility was dependent on the total number of subordinates a leader had and on the degree of authority or autonomy a job conferred. Announcing the results, Max Mclure of Stanford News Service wrote that,
"It seems that feeling of being in charge of one's own life more than makes up for greater amount of responsibility in higher positions"
It is very strange that only now with so many resources at hand, so many scientists, professors, modern amenities, medical equipment, sampling & modern techniques, funding etc. the sense of being in control is being looked at. In our Indian civilization, more than 3000 years back, saints & yogis used to preach & practice the same thing & that too without books or funds or technologies or modern equipment. It is good that research is proving the concept which existed for long since otherwise people do not trust & it is simply left on who believes & who doesn't. Anyways, coming back to the topic, my take on this is, it definitely busts the myth that exists in lower ranked employee's mind, unless you are absolutely in love with your work ( which is very rare ) you have no reason to believe that staying in your current role & doing what you are doing is good for your health in the long run, it might be your comfort zone but nothing gets achieved staying within comfort zone for lifetime. I would also look at this study from a leader's perspective & say this to myself that if I can give a sense of autonomy at work to my employees their stress levels inspite of high demand can be controlled, thereby employees will experience fulfilment & lead a healthy life.
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