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What Employers Need to Know About Suicide Prevention



Between 1999 and 2018, the rate of suicide deaths in the United States increased by 35%. Each year, approximately 47,000 Americans die by suicide, which equates to approximately 130 deaths each day. The majority of suicide deaths occur among working age individuals, and statistics show that the number of suicides enacted at work have reached record highs.

As the world continues to battle an ongoing pandemic, more individuals are at risk for experiencing decreased mental health as well as increased suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Now, more than ever, it is critical for organizations to evaluate the role they play in preventing suicide deaths, as well as strategize about ways to aid those considering suicide and effectively support suicide survivors after the death of a coworker.

Workplace Predictors of Suicide

Suicide is a complex phenomenon that is influenced by several intersecting life factors, including individual attributes, environmental conditions, and access to lethal means. As a result, identifying employees at risk for dying by suicide is a complicated process. Our research has shown that one important piece of the puzzle involves employees’ work experiences, including characteristics of the job itself (e.g., meaningfulness, autonomy, variety) and social interactions with coworkers. Take, for example, the suicide deaths or attempts of 13 employees at the Chinese manufacturing company Foxconn in response to extreme working conditions, or the suicide deaths of 35 employees at the French-based telecommunication company Orange as a result of managerial bullying. These situations underscore the very real and adverse effects that the workplace can have on employees’ psyches and behaviors, which can ultimately result in suicide.

We conducted a review of more than 500 studies related to work and suicide to uncover the work-related factors that predict employees’ suicidal thoughts and behaviors. At the core of the review, we identified social and psychological pain to be the central causes of suicide-related behavior. According to the interpersonal theory of suicide, social pain occurs because individuals are unable to establish meaningful connections with others or perceive themselves to be a burden to others. On the other hand, the psychache theory of suicide focuses on psychological pain that is akin to mental suffering or extreme anguish. Individuals who experience either type of pain may enact suicide to end their suffering, especially when they perceive their situations as unchanging or hopeless.

Workplaces are inherently social institutions. While they can provide a sense of community, they can also engender feelings of both social pain and psychological pain. Our review of the literature uncovered a multitude of factors that predict suicide-related thoughts and behaviors among employees, including interpersonal relations, work-family conflict, unstable employment, unemployment, burnout, fatigue, job demands (e.g., workload, stressors, scheduling), job characteristics (e.g., meaningfulness, autonomy, variety), and the physical work environment (e.g., ergonomic and safety features).

As apparent from this varied list, the predictors of suicide are not limited to a single industry or occupation; any job can engender suicidal ideation. Indeed, suicide develops from experiences of social and/or psychological pain, which can develop from detrimental aspects of any workplace. For this reason, all organizations must be cognizant of their influences on employees’ mental well-being, as well as actions they can take to reduce suicides. Additionally, organizations must be prepared to respond to an employee’s suicide death — actions known as postvention strategies.

Organizational Prevention Strategies

In light of the relationship between workplace factors and suicide, organizations have an obligation to prevent suicide-related deaths. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) is federally funded and uses research to create infrastructures to prevent suicide deaths. The SPRC recommends that organizations can use three primary strategies to proactively address suicide: 1) create a respectful, inclusive work environment, 2) identify employees who may be at risk, and 3) create a plan to respond to take action.

Create a respectful work environment and foster social inclusion.

Social connectedness is essential for fulfilling employees’ belongingness needs and helping them to feel part of the work community. While important for all employees, fostering social connectedness will become increasingly important as more employees engage in telework or work in isolation, both due to the current Covid-19 pandemic and changing technological innovations. Thus, inclusion should be a key component of a workplace suicide prevention program.

Organizations can foster a sense of connectedness by establishing mentoring programs and encouraging team-based work projects that allow employees to share ideas and collaborate to reach goals. Providing opportunities for employees to informally engage with another can also build social bonds and has been shown to predict job satisfaction and affective well-being. In providing such opportunities, it is important for organizations to create workplace social norms that favor respectful communication and behaviors.  Research has demonstrated that incivility and bullying are on the rise within workplaces. Such deviant behaviors not only degrade social bonds but also isolate employees at work, therefore making possibly at-risk employees more susceptible to experiencing suicide-related thoughts and behaviors.

Identify employees who may be at risk.

Managers and HR professionals are important gatekeepers for recognizing individuals who are at risk of suicide and aiding those who need help. In addition to workplace specific factors, prior research has identified the following as risk factors of suicide: 1) health conditions such as mental illness, alcohol and substance abuse disorders, as well as major physical illnesses; 2) negative life events including unemployment, job loss, and loss of key relationships; 3) a personal history related to suicide such as a family history of suicide deaths, previous suicide attempts, and a history of trauma or abuse; and 4) access to lethal means, which includes accessibility to means to enact suicide such as a firearm and other weapons or lethal medications.

Tackling these risk factors may be extremely challenging for leaders, however. Directly asking employees about certain topics may be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as asking employees to disclose mental illnesses. It is important to refer to continuously managed resources, such as those provided by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Job Accommodation Network, to determine whether it is legal to ask specific questions.

Despite this challenge, it’s important for managers to understand these factors so that they can provide employees with adequate social support and access to resources — even when an employee has not explicitly indicated suicidal intentions. For instance, when organizations undergo restructuring or have to make layoffs, these changes in employment status could contribute to suicidal ideation or behaviors among the affected employees. Thus, an important component of any organizational change or severance package would be access to mental health resources and health care.

Additionally, while a manager is restricted in the types of questions they can ask employees, employees may voluntarily disclose information that would indicate their potential risk for suicide. As an example, a person might reveal that they own a gun. While this information on its own isn’t alarming, it would be important knowledge to have if that employee were to experience a serious negative work event such as being written-up or passed over for a promotion. In this instance, if a manager felt concerned about the employee’s safety, they could take actions to contact the appropriate individuals (e.g., the police or a mental health professional).

Keep in mind that, although the factors discussed above are risk factors to suicide, not all employees who meet these criteria will be affected by suicidal thoughts or behaviors. For instance, having a mental illness does make one more vulnerable to dying by suicide, but not all individuals with a mental illness die by suicide. Rather, knowing this information can be vitally important in certain contexts or in the presence of other concerning behaviors.

Because of this, it’s also essential for employers to pay attention to employees’ language and behaviors that might indicate someone is experiencing distress, such as withdrawing oneself, acting anxiously, or experiencing extreme mood swings, or talking about being a burden to others, feeling hopeless, or having no reason to live. For example, if an employee has recently undergone a divorce and has been very withdrawn at work for several weeks, managerial intervention would be valuable. Intervention could include checking in on the employee and referring the employee to available mental health resources (e.g., employee assistance programs, local psychological service providers, support groups).

There may also be times when a manager perceives an employee to be at risk, but the employee is not – even in these instances, no harm is done by reaching out and offering extra support. In other words, managers should not be fearful about getting it “wrong.” Equally important, it is necessary to develop a climate within which employees feel comfortable reaching out to others rather than relying on others to notice their risk factors or behaviors to receive help. Practitioners can refer to previous HBR articles that provide guidance on how to create these inclusive and supportive climates.

Create a plan to take action.

Recognizing that an employee is in need is not enough on its own. Managers and HR professionals need to be prepared to help individuals get help. This preparation includes training managers about mental health concerns, creating strategies for having difficult conversations, and developing an action plan that can be enacted should a crisis arise. To act swiftly and appropriately in these situations, organizations should prepare a decision-making flowchart that outlines who and in what order to contact should an immediate risk arise (an example of what such a flowchart might look like is on page 17 of this report). Managers should also compile a list of available resources and make these publicly available to employees, including contact information for EAPs, local mental health providers, and community resources such as support groups or treatment programs.

Managers should perform routine check-ins with employees (especially those at risk) to gauge their well-being and to listen to any concerns without passing judgment. These conversations provide opportunities for managers to inform employees of available resources as well as to remind the employee that they are supported and cared about in the workplace. Although managers are often important gatekeepers who can monitor changes in employees’ behaviors, their primary role is to provide employees with information and resources for help-seeking — the managers themselves are not expected to counsel or solve the employees’ struggles. Maintaining this boundary is important for protecting the well-being of the manager as well.

Finally, organizations should invest in suicide and mental health training that builds employees’ and managers’ efficacy for having difficult workplace conversations and reduce the stigma associated with suicide. By making mental health a priority in organizations, individuals may feel more comfortable reaching out for help if a need arises. Most importantly, managers, and HR professionals should err on the side of caution and intervene anytime they believe someone is at risk for suicide – a quick response is critical, as once a suicide occurs the window for prevention is permanently closed.

Organizational Postvention Strategies

Unfortunately, organizations may not be able to prevent all suicide deaths, and they need a plan for postvention — psychological first aid, crisis intervention, and support offered after a suicide death.

First and foremost, recovery from a suicide death is a process that should be handled with intention and sensitivity. In the immediate aftermath of suicide, managers’ responses fall into the acute stage that requires protecting the privacy of the deceased, communicating quickly and clearly to quell rumors or misinformation, and offering practical assistance to family members. The short-term response involves identifying affected employees and providing them support through EAPs and other resources. Importantly, not all employees will be impacted the same way and grief can manifest differently. In this time frame, it is necessary to be flexible and patient as employees come to terms with the loss, and to allow time and space for employees to grieve (which likely necessitates changes in expectations for productivity).

Finally, in the long-term response, managers should be mindful of important milestones or anniversaries that may be difficult for suicide survivors — and to honor those who have died by suicide in a respectful manner. This process involves continued investment in suicide prevention programs and policies to minimize the likelihood of future suicide deaths.

While many companies are embracing the importance of well-being, few have focused specifically on the role of suicide. To be effective, policies and practices must specifically target suicide, as conventional well-being programs (e.g., mindfulness, yoga) will likely fail to identify employees who are at the greatest risk. Most importantly, organizations can support employees in crisis by investing in suicide prevention programs. If even just one person is helped, the investment will pay dividends many times over.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please use the resources below to seek help.


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Distributed work is here to stay — how your business can adapt



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It’s no secret that the business world and working environments have changed drastically since 2020. With fierce competition in recruiting for skilled labor becoming a critical issue for businesses, having employees in varied locations around the U.S. or even internationally has become an increasingly common solution. It looks like this distributed work model is here for the long haul, so it’s time to get your business on board.

What is distributed work?

Distributed work is defined as a business that has one or more employees who work in different physical locations. This can range from having different in-person office locations, remote work or a blend of the two — often termed “hybrid work.” Large companies having a distributed workforce is nothing new, as having multiple locations allows companies to meet more of their customers’ needs.

The difference now, though, is the massive increase in remote work triggered in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic, ramped-up competition for skilled workers, and how those factors have combined to impact smaller businesses.

If you’re struggling to keep up with today’s workforce demands, take heart. Distributed work can provide some solutions.

Millennial and Gen Z workers strongly prefer flexible working environments and a distributed work policy fits into that preference nicely. Additionally, distributed work structures have the benefits of increased access to international talent, more productive employees and higher job satisfaction.

How to adapt your small business for distributed work

Making the leap to a distributed workforce can feel daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Software solutions tailored specifically for supporting a distributed work environment can help ease the transition and make your business run efficiently.

In this guide, we’re going to take a look at important adaptations needed to bring your small business up to speed for distributed work and how to accomplish them.

  • Get your business security up to date.
  • Tap into global talent pools.
  • Maintain quality communication between employees.

Let’s take a closer look at each point below.

Get your business security up to date

When remote work exploded in early 2020 due to COVID-19 office closures, it quickly became obvious that improvements to business security protocols were necessary. Now with many businesses planning how their company will operate going forward, security continues to be a crucial consideration.

What are some security considerations important for businesses with distributed work environments? Here are a handful of important security features you’ll want to think about:

1. Avoid losing business documents with automatic saves

The stress from losing hard work or entire documents altogether is something most people have dealt with at some point. Having to backtrack and redo lost work is tedious and unproductive.

The best way to avoid that ordeal? Automated saves.

With Microsoft 365, your Office documents are automatically saved for you. Whether it’s a document in the company Sharepoint or in your own OneDrive account, your hard work won’t go to waste.

Additionally, Sharepoint allows your company to collaborate on documentation without having to worry about whether the current document is the correct version. An average of 83% of the current workforce loses time daily due to document versioning issues. Microsoft 365 makes it easy to avoid lost time and frustration, with the added benefit of simplifying collaboration.

2. Maintain business security across all user devices

In the United States, 68% of organizations reported being hit by a public cloud security incident when polled in 2020. Attacks like these can cripple your business’ productivity and lower public perception of your company as a whole.

Both Sharepoint and OneDrive offer multiple layers of security to keep your business documentation safe on the cloud servers themselves, including:

  • Virus scanning for documents
  • Suspicious activity monitoring
  • Password protected sharing links
  • Real-time security monitoring with dedicated intrusion specialists
  • Ransomware detection and recovery

With these built-in protections, you can keep your company safe no matter where your company’s distributed work happens.

3. Adopt company-wide security policies

Effective company security policies protect your organization’s data by clearly outlining employee responsibilities with regard to what information needs to be safeguarded and why.

Having clear guidelines set ensures that both your company information and your employees are safe from security threats.

Items to include in your security policy might include:

  • Remote work policies
  • Password update policies
  • Data retention policies
  • Employee training guidelines
  • Disaster recovery policies

This list obviously isn’t exhaustive, so we’d recommend using a security risk assessment tool to pinpoint specific areas your business should address.

Note: Social engineering and phishing are major security threats for businesses of all sizes. To avoid becoming a target, your company must implement strong security practices for your users. For example, using a secure two-factor authentication setup can help prevent unauthorized users from accessing company documents.

4. Ensure communications are secured

Having a distributed work environment tends to mean that most (if not all) communications occur digitally. As such, keeping digital communications secure should be a top consideration.

Using Microsoft 365, you can ensure that your communication remains encrypted.

If video calls are a major part of your business needs, Microsoft Teams offers robust encryption for your calls. Additionally, email through Microsoft 365 offers top-tier anti-phishing protection for your business.

To learn more about available tools for secure business communication, refer to the Microsoft documentation here.

Tap into global talent pools

world map on a computer

The pandemic triggered a drastic reshuffling of how workers view their jobs, leading to what has been dubbed the Great Resignation. In the United States, more than 11 million jobs were sitting unfilled as of January 2022. With jobless claims on the decline, the domestic labor pool is small and competitive.

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed as a small company attempting to attract talent in the current labor market. You’ll want to ensure that you’re offering competitive wages and benefits, but it can be difficult to go toe-to-toe with large corporations.

However, this is another instance where distributed work can help. One solution? International talent.

The distributed work model makes employing remote workers worldwide more seamless than ever before.

A few considerations here to keep in mind, though.

  • You’ll need to apply for certification from the U.S. Department of Labor to hire outside the country.
  • Be aware of additional taxes that might result.

For more information, review the official documentation for this process.

Note: The same standards do not apply to international contractors, but there are special considerations for contractors as well. Read this guide for more details.

Maintain quality communication between employees

Successful businesses rely on open communication for everything from keeping employees up to date on company information to maintaining morale. Let’s go over a few ways to implement quality communication in a distributed work environment.

1. Cultivate a healthy work environment

Company culture can feel like an afterthought when your teams work separately from each other. However, cultivating a strong company culture is vital, especially for distributed work environments.

The first step here is to clearly define the company culture that you want. By setting the company standards early, your employees will be able to benefit from a solid starting point.

Second, reinforce the culture that you’d like to create. Setting goals, establishing performance metrics, fostering accountability, building trust with employees, and being open to feedback from workers all help reinforce a healthy company culture.

And third, it’s important to prioritize the mental and physical health of your employees. Encourage vacation time, allow for flexible working arrangements, and make mental health support a priority.

2. Foster open communication

Digital communication is key for distributed work environments, so keeping open and transparent channels for communication is imperative.

Email and chat tools are communication fundamentals, but fostering communication itself can feel a bit daunting.

Here are a few suggestions on building healthy communication for your distributed work teams:

  • Make empathy a priority.
  • Greet employees every day.
  • Create a virtual water cooler to encourage socialization.
  • Announce company updates directly.
  • Give recognition and feedback regularly.

By encouraging clear, focused — but also fun — communication, your teams will grow to trust each other and interteam collaboration can flourish.

Distributed work is the ‘new normal’

Building your business toward a distributed work model is a solid investment in growing your company in the future. Tools like Microsoft 365 offer an all-in-one solution to take the pain out of transitioning your business, so take charge of your business’ future today.

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Managing people

How to Build a Culture That Honors Quiet Time



If you could travel back in time to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to visit the legendary meeting hall where the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were doing their work, you’d find something rather strange.

The street in front of Independence Hall was covered with a giant mound of dirt.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution had ordered the construction of this earthen sound barrier because they were concerned that the noises of horse-drawn carriages, street vendors, and conversations outside would disturb the intense concentration that would be necessary for completing their task. The delegates weren’t going for total monastic silence. The historical records show that there was plenty of vocal debate and disagreement. But there was an underlying recognition that the group needed a quiet container for doing their extremely challenging work. That was the point of the big dirt mound.

Fast forward about 240 years, and you’ll find that lawmakers in the United States have a rather different attitude toward noise. One of us, Justin, worked for several years as a legislative director in the U.S. House of Representatives, and he consistently found that it was too noisy to think. With cable news blasting, Twitter notifications dinging, high-decibel alarms signaling votes, to say nothing of the informational noise that pervades Capitol Hill: endless time-sensitive emails and the constant pressures of networking, politicking, and media management.

The example of this radical shift over 240 years illustrates a simple fact: An organizational culture can be noisy, or it can be quiet.

A World of Noise

There’s empirical evidence that life is noisier than ever before — there are louder and more ubiquitous TVs, speakers, and electronic device notifications in public spaces and open-plan offices. Across Europe, an estimated 450 million people, roughly 65% of the population, live with noise levels that the World Health Organization deems hazardous to health. All this has serious implications for our mental health, our physical health, and our ability to generate creative work.

The meaning of noise can sometimes be subjective. One person’s symphony is another person’s annoyance. We define “noise” as all the unwanted sound and mental stimulation that interferes with our capacity to make sense of the world and our ability to act upon our intentions. In this sense, noise is more than a nuisance. It’s a primary barrier to being able to identify and implement solutions to the challenges we face as individuals, organizations, and even whole societies.

So, how do we transform norms of noisiness? On our teams and in our broader organizations, how can we build cultures that honor the importance of silence?

If we want organizational cultures that honor quiet, there are a few general principles we need to apply to make the transformation. The first is that we have to deliberately talk about it; we need to have clear conversations about our expectations around constant connectivity, when it’s permissible to be offline, and when it’s acceptable to reserve spaces of uninterrupted attention. These conversations can get into deeper cultural questions like whether it’s possible to be comfortable in silence together rather than always trying to fill the space, or whether it’s OK to be multitasking when another person is sharing something with you.

We’ve found that, across different settings and situations, answering the following three questions can help teams begin to honor quiet time.

In what ways do I create noise that negatively impacts others?

Starting a conversation about shared quiet doesn’t just mean seizing the opportunity to point fingers at other people’s noisy habits. The best starting point for a conversation on group norms is a check-in with yourself. How are you contributing to the auditory and informational noise facing the greater collective?

Maybe you unwittingly leave ringers and notifications on full blast. Maybe you “think out loud” or habitually interrupt others. Perhaps you impulsively post on social media or send excessive texts or emails that require responses. Maybe you play music or podcasts in common spaces without checking in with others or jump on important work calls while your daughter is sitting next to you doing her homework.

Take some time to question whether any given habit that’s generating noise is necessary or if it’s really just an unexamined impulse — a default that needs to be reset. If your self-observation doesn’t yield clear insights, ask a truth-teller in your life for observations about how you could do better.

What noisy habits bother me most?

Susan Griffin-Black, the co-CEO of EO Products, a natural personal care product company, tells us that she made a vow years ago to, “never be on my phone or computer when someone is talking to me, no multitasking when I’m with someone else.” She upholds her golden rule, despite having hundreds of employees, a family, and a lot of social commitments.

Like Susan Griffin-Black’s commitment to not multitask in the presence of others, you can set a golden rule for mitigating noise or bringing in more deliberate quiet. Model what you want to see more of in the world. Stop to consider what you value most when it comes to mitigating noise and finding quiet. What personal golden rule reflects that? Or, alternatively, consider what noisy habits bother you most. What golden rule would address those?

How can I help others find the quiet time they need?

In the 1990s, as an executive with Citysearch (now a division of Ticketmaster), Michael Barton noticed a problem. Workers, particularly programmers and developers, were struggling with noise and frequent interruptions in the open plan office. A young analyst at the company offered him an idea: Give each team member a “red sash” — a three-foot-long/three-inch-wide strip of bright red fabric — to wear as a “do not disturb” sign. There would be no stigma involved with wearing it if everyone knew they could simply open their drawer, take out their red sash, put it over their neck, and be considered “out of the office.” Barton took the idea up the chain, and the company decided to try it.

The red sash was not a panacea. It didn’t eliminate many of the problems of noise and interruption. But it was a start. It led to several other experiments, including quiet phone-booth-sized mini-workstations and a hermetic “tech cave” for coding work. More importantly, however, the red sash intervention raised the issue of noise and distraction and opened an important dialogue.

Where it’s appropriate, and when it’s within your influence, consider how you can be a champion for quiet — not just in the whole organization, but specifically for the people who lack the power or autonomy to structure their own circumstances. Maybe you’re in a position in your company where you can call out the plight of an engineer or copywriter who obviously needs a sanctuary from the workplace din. In the personal sphere, maybe you suspect your introverted nephew could use an occasional break from boisterous family events, and you can gently raise the issue with your sibling.

While you can’t set the overall group norms and culture unilaterally on the basis of what you think is right, you can be on the lookout for new ideas to propose or new possibilities for managing the soundscape or enhancing the ambiance, especially ones that serve the interests of those who lack influence.

Transforming Norms of Noise

The participants in the 1787 Constitutional Convention had norms that honored quiet deliberation. Facilitating pristine attention was a shared goal. That big mound of dirt reminded them — and the public — that the point of their gathering was to get beyond distraction in order to do important work. While a mound of dirt would not solve today’s problems (the noise is so often inside our offices and homes), there are ways, as we’ve seen above, to shift organizational cultures with respect to noise and quiet.

At Citysearch, it was the red sash. For Susan Griffin-Black, it’s adhering to a golden rule. But there are many more ways to help create cultures of quiet. At some organizations, it’s “no email Fridays” or “no meeting Wednesdays.” At others, it’s eliminating the expectation of being available and on electronic devices during weekends or after 5 pm. For some workplaces, a redesign of the floor plan might help specific kinds of workers get the focus that they need. One solution might be authorizing uninterrupted blocks of time during the workday. Another might be giving up on the open floor plan and moving the whole office to a new building. For others still, it’s eliminating email as the primary means of communication and turning instead to a twice-daily team update meetings or an electronic system that preserves quiet headspace.

Across our society today, norms of noisiness run deep. Demands like constant connectivity and maintaining a competitive advantage still prevail in most office cultures. Few organizations prize or prioritize pristine human attention. But there are simple strategies we can employ in order to find our own personal sanctuaries and to shift broader cultures. By reclaiming silence in the workplace, we can create the conditions for reducing burnout and enhancing creative problem solving.

Even in an increasingly noisy world, we can be quiet together.


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To Get Results, the Best Leaders Both Push and Pull Their Teams



Over the past year, there has been a call for leaders to be less demanding and more empathetic toward individual employees. To get results, managers needed to rely on “pull” — giving employees a say in how they carry a task out and using inspiration and motivation to get them going. But an analysis of thousands of 360-degree assessments showed that the most effective leaders also know how to “push” — drive for results by telling people what to do and holding them accountable. The takeaway? Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn’t diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed. The data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence among employees. The key is to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people.

When you see a task that needs to be accomplished by your team, do you “push” them to get it done or do you “pull” them in, giving them a say in how they carry it out and using inspiration and motivation to get them going? These are two very different approaches to reach a goal, and the latter is often the best one, but knowing how to combine these two paths is an important skill for managers and leaders.

Take this example from a client of ours. There had been an ongoing discussion about the company’s policies around the environment and sustainability. The CEO had allowed debate and encouraged everyone to weigh in. The CEO strongly supported the need for change but allowed time for ample discussion (using the pull approach). However, two members of the executive team were naysayers and dragged their feet on enacting any of the proposed initiatives. After two months of inaction, the CEO announced to the team that the company was going to implement two initiatives and stated that everyone needed to get on board (moving to the push approach). One of the executives balked at this and made clear he wouldn’t support the initiatives. The CEO terminated him by the end of the week (using the ultimate push approach).

Leaders who are willing to try hard with pulling but ultimately resort to a strong push provide a good example of the power of the combination of these two approaches. Pushing too hard can erode satisfaction but, at times, is needed, especially when pulling just doesn’t work.

In our research, my colleague Jack Zenger and I identified two leadership behaviors directed at the same end goal but utilizing opposite approaches. We call one behavior “driving for results” (push), and the other “inspiring and motivating others” (pull). Let me define what I mean.

Defining Pushing and Pulling

When a leader identifies a goal that they want to accomplish, there are two distinct paths to get there.

Pushing involves giving direction, telling people what to do, establishing a deadline, and generally holding others accountable. It is on the “authoritarian” end of the leadership style spectrum.

Pulling, on the other hand, involves describing to a direct report a needed task, explaining the underlying reason for it, seeing what ideas they might have on how to best accomplish it, and asking if they are willing to take it on. The leader can further enhance the pull by describing what this project might do for the employee’s development. Ideally, the leader’s energy and enthusiasm for the goal are contagious.

Gathering data from over 100,000 leaders through our 360-degree assessments, we measured both push and pull and found that 76% of the leaders were rated by their peers as more competent at pushing than pulling. Only 22% of the leaders were rated as better at pulling, and a mere 2% were rated as equal on both skills.

We also asked the people rating those leaders (over 1.6 million people) which skill was more important for a leader to do well to be successful in their current job. Pulling (inspiring others) was rated as the most important, while pushing (driving for results) was rated as fifth most important.

Understanding What People Want and Need

While our data is clear that most leaders could benefit from improving their ability to pull or inspire others, our research revealed that leaders who were effective at both pushing and pulling were ultimately the most effective.

We gathered 360-degree assessment data on 3,875 leaders in the pandemic. In this analysis, we did the following:

  • The direct reports rated the leader’s effectiveness on both pushing (driving for results) and pulling (inspiring and motivating others).
  • The direct reports were also asked to rate their confidence that the organization would achieve its strategic goals and their satisfaction with their organization as a place to work.
  • We ranked leaders’ data on pushing and pulling into quartiles and identified those who were low (bottom quartile) and high (top quartile).

The results are captured in the chart below. When both push and pull are in the bottom quartile, both confidence and satisfaction of direct reports are low. When push is high and pull is low, both confidence and satisfaction increase. When pull is high, satisfaction increases to a level substantially above confidence. When both are high, then you see the most significant increase. (Note: High confidence and satisfaction were measured by the percentage of people who marked 5 on a 5-point scale. This is a very high bar for satisfaction.)

Bringing Push and Pull Together

As many leaders across the globe grapple with retention and how to prevent their employees from joining the Great Resignation, they’re asking themselves hard questions. How do you motivate people to stay? How do you encourage them to increase their efforts? What is it they really want and need from their work environments?

Over the past few years, there has been a call for leaders to be less demanding and more empathetic toward individual employees. More pull, less push seemed to be what’s needed to retain talented employees. While I agree with this sentiment, this data also offers a clear warning. Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn’t diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed. As our data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence.

In fact, your influence as a leader comes from your ability to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people. So next time you’re trying to accomplish a significant goal, consider whether your team really needs a good push, a big pull, or perhaps both.


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