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Better Angels at Work

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In his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined , Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that the world is becoming less violent because of an increase in intelligence and education. He demonstrates multiple data points to prove his case that statistically significant adjustments have occurred in human behavior to create more tolerant and humane societies. Other similar studies concur with his conclusions that the world is embracing it's better angels.

We can look at the contemporary experience of the workplace to see similar trend lines. You don't need to watch Mad Men to know that office behavior has changed radically in the last fifty years. Generally, in the past, leaders were more autocratic in decision making, forceful and commanding in managing people, separate and aloof from the larger population of employees, hierarchical in their relationships, insistent on compliance to their views, and indifferent to employee concerns. Managers managed a staff, not a team. And, there was little attention to diverse voices and career development.

Today, leaders who are aloof autocrats will have more difficulty in rising to key positions within an organization and obtaining top levels of performance from their people. As an executive coach, I find these types of individuals are often placed in coaching programs to assist them in learning how to improve at building enduring relationships, communicating persuasively instead of authoritatively, and developing openness to feedback from others at multiple levels within the organization. Leaders today need to act more like "first among equals" and work within team structures to experience heightened levels of success. Not only focusing on the job at hand, leaders also need to place consistent consideration on building career opportunities for the individuals on their team.

The evolving workplace has made this way of leading a norm for their senior executives. Companies even go to the trouble of clearly defining the behaviors associated with advancing one's better angels if given the responsibility to lead and grow teams. When I work with companies to help them articulate what leadership means for their organization, they typically communicate disdain for ego-centric notions replacing them with leadership that has a service orientation and basic authenticity.

Pinker finds that discrimination against minorities is also adjusting significantly as we become more intelligent. I find it fascinating that it is almost universally the norm for companies to be committed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. While not perfect by any means, the Fortune 500 is ahead of the general society when it comes to embracing difference and creating inclusive communities. Yes. these efforts may have been initially born out of legal defensiveness. But, companies have learned that diversity and inclusion provide significant benefit to their relationships with employees and the marketplace at large.

Similarly to the decline in violence and discrimination, the evolution away from aggressive autocracies at work is better for all constituents. It encourages better work done in better ways. Our growing intelligence and education can only serve this end better. The more we learn how to lead effectively, the more companies will see benefits in employee retention, satisfaction and productivity. I think the message is pretty clear: If you want to be a great leader today, embrace your better angels.