How to Deal With the Workforce Challenge

By Jim Whitt, Contributing Editor

I received an email from a reader who said he enjoyed my column (“What Should You Focus on in 2022?,” Dec. 2021/Jan. 2022 CALF News) “This is just what we need to hear,” he wrote. “The new workforce we have is a challenge.”

I called him and we spent some time on the phone discussing the challenges of today’s workforce. We agreed that it doesn’t do any good to complain about it. It’s the hand you’ve been dealt and, if you’re going to stay in business, you’ve got to figure out how to play it.

People my age and older grew up in an authoritarian work culture dominated by managers who had a “my way or the highway” attitude. Since we wanted to keep our jobs, we did as we were told, kept our mouths shut and didn’t rock the boat.

Today’s workforce has been conditioned in a totally different culture. Raised in the most affluent and secure era in history, they have a much different outlook. When presented with “my way or the highway” they’ll choose the highway. And there are plenty of other jobs to be found on down the road. This makes today’s generation a challenge for old-school managers.

To effectively deal with today’s workforce you have to be more than a manager — you have to be a leader. The difference between managers and leaders may best be described by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner in their book, The Leadership Challenge. “The difference between managers and leaders is the difference between night and day. The former honor stability, control through systems and procedures, and see passion and involvement as words not fit to pass adult lips. Leaders thrive on change; exercise ‘control’ by means of a worthy and inspiring vision of what might be, arrived at jointly with their people; and understand that empowering people by expanding their authority rather than standardizing them by shrinking their authority, is the only course to sustained relevance and vitality.”

“There are two ways of exerting one’s strength,” Booker T. Washington said. “One is pushing down, the other is pulling up.”

Managers push down, leaders pull up. Reward and punishment are the traditional methods of motivation managers use. But reward and punishment have limitations. Employees know that they will only be rewarded to a certain degree and they can only be punished until they decide to choose the highway. As Kouzes and Posner observed, “Leaders get others to buy into their dreams by showing all will be served by a common purpose.” Without a purpose, an employee’s only motivation is reward and punishment.

Leaders recognize employees for a job well done and create a sense of belonging through a culture that values teamwork. They help them find their own niche within the organization and allow them to contribute what they do best. The organization fulfills its potential by inspiring and enabling employees to contribute to the common purpose.

Unfortunately, organizations don’t hire leaders, they hire managers. But the most effective managers are effective leaders. To identify what leaders do, Kouzes and Posner asked people to describe their personal best leadership experiences. Their research revealed five leadership practices common to successful leaders. These leaders:

  • Challenged the process
  • Inspired a shared vision
  • Enabled others to act
  • Modeled the way
  • Encouraged the heart

Kouzes and Posner describe effective leaders as pioneers. And dealing with the challenges of today’s workforce means you’re going to have to do something different than you have in the past.

I suggest you use this pioneering strategy. To transform managers into leaders, these five questions should be incorporated into their job descriptions and measured as part of their performance reviews. Do you challenge the process, inspire a shared vision, enable others to act, model the way and encourage the heart? If you do, you’re a leader. You’ve met the leadership challenge. And you’ll be able to meet the challenge of dealing with today’s workforce.

If you aren’t exhibiting these five leadership practices, you’re just a manager. And if you’re just a manager, you’re in trouble.

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