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Employees want better, not more, from their leaders: So how do employers give them better?

By Heather Walker | |6 minute read
Employees Want Better Not More From Their Leaders So How Do Employers Give Them Better

In the ever-evolving landscape of global work environments, the echo of TikTok trends like “act your wage” and “quiet quitting” has left many wondering: are these just the late-night musings of the scroll-dependent, or are they signalling a deeper shift in employee engagement?

Recent benchmark data coming from our data and insights, with over 1 billion anonymous data points globally, paints a picture of the state of play, revealing that the world of work is indeed undergoing widespread changes. Employee’s perception of their overall workplaces appears to be faltering and has observed a 3 per cent decline year over year.

And, over the last six months, a seemingly slight 1 per cent decline in global engagement has raised eyebrows.


Considering the size of the data set, this reduction is far from negligible. It signals a response to a year marked by lay-offs, financial strain, disruptive technologies, and geopolitical tensions, not to mention the widespread implementation of pay transparency laws that have employees saying, “See what I could be making!”

The message? Employees across the globe are feeling the aftermath of a tumultuous 2023 and looking for better, not more.

How is this showing up at work?

Employees are pulling back their efforts and beginning to question the notion of going above and beyond in their roles – a trend we’ve now observed in two consecutive benchmark releases. For the moment, about one in three employees are unsure or disagree that their organisation is motivating them to go above and beyond in their roles.

Across the thousands of Culture Amp customers we work with, we’ve noted a not-so-subtle shift in the way employees respond qualitatively to our question on discretionary effort, “The company motivates me to go beyond what I would in a similar role elsewhere.” In the last year, employees have increasingly shared that their motivation to do great work and give that discretionary effort is internal only. Employees express being motivated toward high performance simply because they value hard work. While employers want self-motivated employees, it alone isn’t a good sign when it comes to retention.

These comments often reflect symptoms of broader issues such as stagnation in career growth and advancement, lack of recognition, heavy workloads, constraints within systems and processes, as well as concerns related to wellbeing and burnout.

In fact, short-term commitment to stay has seen the most consistent decline across the benchmark releases since January 2022. This suggests that more employees keep their eyes peeled and monitor the external job market. This could be related to the rising talent shortage, the growing perceptions that organisations are selling employees “short”, or the heavy toll of burnout as employees continue to navigate an increasingly uncertain and tough macroeconomic environment following the COVID-19 pandemic.

That said, we have not seen as sharp a decline in the future commitment question (intention to stay), suggesting that employees, although eager to look for greener pastures, might be cautious about moving in the current uncertain environment. The spread of pay transparency may also be playing a role, encouraging a more informed workforce to explore their worth within and beyond their current roles.

So how do we give employees better?

Being a leader in the 21st century has been a challenging feat. While we grapple with finalising our new normal post-COVID-19, the quiet part we must admit is that our workplace today is different from before spring 2020. The key to navigating these pristine waters? Trust.

Studies have shown that employees are more likely to trust a stranger on the street than fully believe what their leadership does. This is because leaders’ actions don’t always match their words.

We know that various factors are contributing to the erosion of trust in the workplace. Lack of transparency, generational differences and inconsistent policies are the top three.

So what can managers do?

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you go about making trust the main character at work:

  • Create a culture of purpose and growth. Empower your employees to transition from passive consumers of culture to active culture creators. By allowing employees to have a strong voice in shaping company culture, chief executives can ensure that confidence remains embedded in the fabric of the organisation.

  • Prioritise open communication. Create channels where strategies are transparently shared.

  • Understand and respond to differences in generational expectations. Offer tailored training sessions for managers on understanding and integrating the values and preferences of different generations.

  • Ensure consistent and fair policies: Implement cross-functional policy review committees to evaluate the effectiveness and fairness of current policies. Regularly update policies to maintain fairness.

  • Encourage feedback: Cultivate a space where feedback isn’t just welcomed but acted upon. Having a feedback loop in place is foundational to building a trusting and more inclusive environment.

If this drop in engagement and a willingness to leave companies is a response to a year marked by lay-offs, financial strain, disruptive technologies, geopolitical tensions, and the implementation of pay transparency laws, the way to claw back employee engagement is through trust.

Dr Heather Walker is a senior people scientist at Culture Amp.

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack is the editor at HR Leader.