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Awakening human potential: Developing people and driving performance in the new world of work

June 25, 2021 - 18 min read


The status quo is over. In its place, we have the opportunity to create something better.

Even before the pandemic, broad forces — from technological acceleration and globalization to ubiquitous connectivity and changing societal expectations — had been dramatically reshaping the world, often faster than our company policies and processes, our own mindsets and practices, or our social institutions could keep up. More recently, rising inequality and climate change have further strained those systems.

The pandemic amplified the impact and visibility of those trends and fast-tracked fundamental shifts in the way we interact, learn, work, and consume. The status quo was already broken. The pandemic made it official.

We aren’t going to “get back to normal.” Instead, with business-as-usual shaken to its foundations, across the board we’re experiencing a massive shift toward a new world of work.


Change is hard at any time — on people and on organizations. It requires open-mindedness, flexibility, agility, trust, optimism. Frankly, it also takes a lot of energy and hard work. Openness, trust, energy? These much-needed traits spring from the individual — our mental health and sense of stability and security at any moment have a significant impact on their strength. Yet, broadly, our mental health and sense of security are low, weakened by the months-long pandemic, economic upheaval, polarization, and the visibility of social injustice and consequent unrest, uncertainty, and fracture. 

At the same time, the “changes” for organizations are significant, more than just implementing a new digital tool or switching up the org chart. Companies face an array of pressures that point toward more fundamental changes in the way they create and deliver value. Today’s business environment is more complex, ambiguous, and unpredictable.

Dramatic technology-driven changes can lead to the obsolescence of business models or entire industries.  Customers expect more — and differentiated — value, yet their needs also change more rapidly. Talent has greater expectations for aligned values, meaningful work, and development, but also often needs basic support and skills to stay relevant. Meanwhile, shareholders have higher expectations for growth and financial performance. 

To survive and have a future, businesses need constant innovation, growth, and agility.

A world of work shaped by technology, powered by people

Paradoxically, in our tech-driven world, that innovation, growth, and agility depend in large part on people. People pulling together to learn faster, see more possibilities, and get better and better at addressing changing conditions. People taking on new systems and tools, connecting with new partners and collaborators, and developing new ways of serving the customer despite obstacles and setbacks. People using their capabilities in the hundreds of moments—ambiguous, complex, stressful—throughout the day to make a decision, interact with a team member, or act with integrity in the absence of certainty. 

Paradoxically, in our tech-driven world, that innovation, growth, and agility depends in large part on people.

In this new world of work, companies must be more creative and agile than ever before — that means innovation driven from the bottom-up rather than residing with senior leaders. Frontline workers and enabled managers, using their human capabilities, are the lynchpin for this type of agility.

Consider how an empowered store employee might have first noticed an uptick in shoppers looking for yeast and flour and made a connection to social media posts from friends doing home crafts and thought to test out bundling together other types of baking kits for the newly homebound. A department manager gives guidance on pricing, secures a front-of-the-store placement, and suggests additional advanced kits. After a few days of experimenting, they brief the store manager who provides additional guidance based on the latest vendor updates and quickly passes along the idea to other stores in the region. In this scenario, enabled managers have an outsized impact on the organization.

Everyone is in a constant learning mode —learning from each other, partners, and customers. Competitive advantage hinges on learning faster, integrating new learning into work and products, and letting go of whatever no longer fits the environment.

We’re asking more of our workforce in these uncertain and dynamic times.

Yet, the same conditions putting pressure on companies are also making it uniquely difficult for individuals to adapt, innovate, and perform. It’s fair to ask: how will the workforce we have today become these continuously learning, empowered and engaged, collaborative, resilient people that organizations need? Research shows that even pre-COVID, the workforce was low in the psychological resources we need for this new world of work.

The current events wreaking havoc in our personal and professional lives make it that much harder in some ways. It has always been easy to misinterpret an email or get thrown by an offhand comment in a meeting — that doesn't get better when everyone is more emotionally exhausted, sadder, more irritable, and not sleeping

Competitive advantage hinges on learning faster, integrating new learning into work and products, and letting go of whatever no longer fits the environment.

Without support, the workforce will struggle to be the adaptable, resourceful, open to new ideas and diverse perspectives, innovative or even dependable workers we need. The good news is that times of great change are also the times with the greatest potential for great growth.

Breaking from the rigidity and control of the workplace and upending the entrenched processes at the core can be disorienting, but it can also be liberating and energizing. We’re discovering the potential to distribute work and power much more broadly. With support, the workforce can develop the mindsets, skills, and practices to grow in this environment and to continuously develop and adopt new skills and tools, and ways of being in the new world of work. 

Moving forward: A paradigm shift for the new world of work

Organizations will have new priorities to orient around supporting and elevating the potential of their people as a competitive advantage. Some are newly relevant, but most (e.g., becoming more agile, embracing diversity, engaging employees) have been with us for quite some time. Yet, we have failed to prioritize them until now. Why? 

The new world of work requires a paradigm shift in how organizations approach people and growth. This stems from two recognitions: 

  • First, a transformation of the organization cannot happen without the transformation of the individual. That means shifting mindsets and behaviors to break with traditional notions (e.g., of control, power, and value) that no longer deliver results — starting with the idea that transformation is solely top-down. Companies transform when their people do. Employees in the middle- and frontline have more influence and power to shape what companies do and how they do it. Real transformation occurs when the bottom-up transformation of the frontline and lower-level managers meets transformed leadership from the top.  
  • Second, we are humans first, employees second. Each worker who needs to take on a new responsibility or figure out the best way to use new technology has a whole range of hopes and fears, goals and insecurities, and experiences and blindspots. The same applies to leaders. Personal growth and professional satisfaction are interconnected. In fact, our research on meaning and purpose found that “personal growth” was the highest determinant of work feeling meaningful — ”professional growth” was much lower-ranked. This rich interdependence can create obstacles, but it is also the source of innovation and drive. 

Organizations navigating change ignore the whole person at their peril. When we optimize for human growth, performance and innovation follow.

The 5 new realities

The paradigm shift toward a new world of work embraces five new realities: 

  1. Human potential is everywhere. Agility and bottom-up innovation depend on every employee’s commitment and contribution. Empowered employees adapting to new challenges every day amplify the innovative potential for the organization. Companies can’t afford sustained disengagement and productivity dips. Pragmatic action can support the resilience, wellbeing, and development of individuals, protecting against some of the negative effects of change and uncertainty and increasing readiness to learn, grow, adapt, and contribute. 

    The new imperative for organizations: Shift from assessing the potential to increasing readiness to grow into potential.

  2. Every manager matters. Managers are the primary connectors between the empowered employees at the frontlines of change and senior leaders. Leadership at all levels matters more than ever. Organizations need managers to lead their teams to rethink work around new tools, model and support new behaviors, and support the day-to-day development of their teams. Further, studies have shown that the direct manager has the most direct influence over an employee’s experience. Resilient and inclusive managers have a positive “ripple” effect on their own teams’ resilience, innovation, and productivity. Yet this group of managers is largely unprepared to lead and inspire through the challenges of navigating constant change. 

    The new imperative for organizations: Shift from developing senior leaders and selected high-potentials to developing the leadership potential of all middle and frontline managers.

  3. Continuous learning is the new competitive advantage. Because of the pace and fundamental changes to how we work, we have to be energized by learning. The most important learning for individuals will be how to learn and unlearn faster. That means learning in action, with others, with openness, empathy, and humility. Developing new ways of interacting with the world and unlearning what is no longer relevant takes time, continuous awareness-growth-reflection, and accountability — it is transformative and highly personal.

    The new imperative for organizations: Shift from set curriculum and episodic skills training in “how to do” to hyper-personalization and sustained growth training in “how to be.” 

  4. Well-being underpins performance. Amid constant change, the types of work and learning that drive performance are attuned to, rather than in spite of, uncertainty. But navigating the degree of change and unpredictability in our lives now is stressful and often, actually hard. The strain can interfere with people’s ability to lead or contribute.  Mental health supports learning, cognitive agility, adaptability, and the ability to work with others. Individuals can be trained in the practices, tools, and mindsets to maintain their mental health and improve their well-being.

    The new imperative for organizations: Shift from supportive intervention for the at-risk to proactive support for mental health and well-being for all.

  5. Meaning, purpose, and belonging awaken potential. Our research shows that, above salary and job title, supporting the development of meaning for individuals leads to job satisfaction and commitment and protects against toxicity, stress, and burnout that eat away at performance and productivity. A feeling of belonging is even more important to engagement, long-term development, and contribution to teams. Companies that promote belonging through inclusive cultures, as described by BetterUp Science Board member Robin Ely, value and harness diversity and become more attractive places to work.

    The new imperative for organizations: Shift from point solutions to purpose-built inclusive cultures and work environments that embrace diversity.

awakening 5 realities graphic

awakening human potential josh bersin header

  1. Human potential is everywhere: People are amazingly resilient, and leaders just have to tap into this reservoir of energy. Consider how many companies hired consulting firms to help them with a multi-year “digital transformation.” Well, this year in only nine months almost every company transformed, enabled people to work from home, and set up a myriad of new services, distribution businesses, and digital business models. And people just jumped into action. We’ve seen proof that when the need is urgent and the mission is clear, people will work together and do amazing things.

  2. Every manager matters: For years companies built “leadership pipelines” and asked people to patiently “wait their turn” until it was their time to lead. Well, now we’ve inverted this entirely. New leaders are emerging all the time, and companies are just giving them responsibility and letting them learn on the job. I never felt comfortable with the slow, plodding 9-box grid. The pandemic has taught us that first, line leaders are the kings of the company, and —if we support and empower them — they will lead our growth.

    For new leaders, I remind you that you have entered one of the most important professions of all: helping other people to succeed. My experience shows that the toughest leadership journey is the one to first-line supervisor: from there you learn how to coach, align, support, and motivate your team. And this is not just a new job, it’s a new career — one you’ll grow into throughout your life.

    We need to realign our leadership development spending and allocate much more to new leaders: if they learn their jobs well the employees, customers, and organization will thrive.

  3. Continuous learning is the new competitive advantage: I’m often asked “what drives great organizational learning?” My answer is very clear: creating a culture and set of behaviors that let people learn all the time. Yes, you need great content, learning platforms, and learning in the flow of work. But even more important than this is to build a culture of learning: one where people slow down, ask questions and talk about why we make mistakes.

    In all my research about corporate training over the years, I’ve always found that the most enduring, performing, and admired companies are built around a core of learning. They are curious, humble, and willing to challenge their orthodoxy. This is a problem of culture and one that every manager, executive, and HR leader must encourage.

  4. Well-being underpins performance. The wellbeing industry, which started as a set of benefits and perks in HR, has crawled out of the corner of the compensation and benefits department and landed on the CEO’s desk. Think about Maslow’s hierarchy: when you feel safe and supported, almost everything is possible. Likewise, when you feel threatened, unsafe, or tired — well, it’s likely you won’t do your best.

    In the uncertain, risk-prone, and ambiguous world of the pandemic, we have to help people stay healthy. And this means physical health, mental health, well-rested, and well supported. Many studies show that teams that support each other create a sense of belonging, and this in turn is one of the biggest drivers of success.

    What does this mean in particular? Be patient, forgive people for being late, think about people’s families and personal situations, and give them the time and support to stay resilient. Wellbeing has become a part of leadership, a lens for diversity and inclusion, and a new mantra in the boardroom. It was probably long overdue, but now it’s core to business success. 

  5. Meaning, purpose, and belonging awaken potential. As we’ve studied the pandemic and the highest performing companies this year, we found one other theme in common: they spend a lot of time focused on their purpose. Purpose is like an energy multiplier: when people feel committed to the mission and purpose of the company, they will take risks, push ahead, and flex into new jobs and roles.

    Most companies start with a passionate mission when they’re young, and they often drift into a focus on “growth” or “profit” or “market leadership.” Right now, I suggest you look back and remind yourself why you’re here: the core mission that made your company what it is may be one of the most important tools for growth. Because when people feel inspired and committed to the mission, they’ll do anything to help you thrive. 

Moving forward together

How do we finally deliver on the long-made promises of unleashing our employees' potential?

Great change creates the opportunity for great change, and we are in a period of change that has shaken the foundations of how we work. The concurrent upheaval of the pandemic, social unrest, economic crisis, and climate threats have created an imperative to transform how businesses and workers create value. And, now, this imperative is aligned to the CEO’s agenda. It supports and amplifies the transformative efforts around technology already afoot in many companies. 

Central to that new world of work is shifting how we approach the development and growth of our people. For the first time, the convergence of technological advances and advances in the science of human behavior makes it possible to support personalized growth and transformation at scale. This is a unique time in the world. The status quo is shaken, and we can’t afford not to act.

If we get this right, the potential opportunities to develop our best selves in ways that create value for companies and individuals have never been greater. But to succeed we must create the structures and supports to match the need for new ways of working and learning and creating meaning. Join us in embracing this opportunity to be better, to move forward with work that acknowledges our humanity and puts people first. Together we can help unlock more of the human potential already residing in companies around the world. 

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Published June 25, 2021

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