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Leadership: Traditional vs Modern


We could all feel it coming. Now it’s here. Younger generations are rejecting oldschool leadership practices outright, forcing organisations to rethink and reshape the way leaders lead. The terms “boss” and “supervisor” sound out of touch to today’s employees. Effective leaders are described as inspiring mentors, advocates, and influencers. By today’s standards, if you aren’t helping employees to succeed, learn, grow, and find meaning in their work, you’re not viewed as a leader. Period. Great leaders connect employees to three essential things: purpose, accomplishment, and one another. They provide support, encouragement, and advice. They encourage employees to dream bigger, reach higher, and do their very best work. This, in turn, drives personal and organisational success.


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Leaders are critical to building positive employee experiences. They hire the team you work with, set the tone for the team, affect wellbeing, and provide direction and resources. They help each individual to succeed, to feel appreciated and supported, and to grow and develop. They translate the purpose and values of the organisation and personalise them for their team. Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders and companies approach leadership traditionally, using aged practices that damage their teams, create negative experiences, and perpetuate chronically stressed workplace cultures.


Most organisations still follow age-old traditional leadership practices that concentrate a dangerously high percentage of decision-making power and control in a small percentage of designated leaders. This robs individuals and teams of the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills and share responsibility. It also increases the risk of decision bias and reduced innovation. Workers have essentially tolerated (and resented) this management approach for decades. Now we’re finding Millennials and Gen Z-ers are rejecting these practices outright and expecting more.

The research results are sobering. Less than one-half of employees feel their leader works to develop them. Only 26% feel their leader encourages collaboration. More than one-half say their leader won’t give up control over anything. Only 59% believe their leader values them. 1 in 5 say their leader regularly expresses doubts about them.

The impact of poor leadership is disastrous. Companies that support and maintain these traditional leadership approaches have lower scores on employee experience, engagement, great work, NPS, and all six essential aspects of workplace culture—purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, wellbeing, and leadership. They have a decrease in odds of growing revenue and increased odds of laying off employees.


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More than a century ago, German sociologist Max Weber argued that “highly organised bureaucracies with clear hierarchies” were the best way to run businesses.1 More than 100 years later, too many companies are still following this philosophy, despite decades of evolution in our working environment.

The modern workplace has changed. No longer are employees working 9-5 in an air-conditioned cubicle or office, taking an occasional break to mingle by the water cooler. Employees aren’t working on teams of 200 people with one boss who tells them what to work on and how to do their jobs.


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Leaders often think their remote workers’ expectations of work are the same as in-office employees’, but if not managed well, the element of isolation for remote workers can result in a 21% drop in performance.3 Leaders need to adapt to a more mobile, autonomous, global workforce.

Other things have changed as well. Newer generations aren’t as interested in money, legacy, or hierarchy. 89% of employers think employees leave because of money, when only 12% actually do.4 In fact, according to a survey by Virtuali, 47% of Millennials want to be leaders because they want to empower others, not because they want to tell people what to do.5


“Boomers have been autocratic leaders that are all about command, control and policies, such as working nine-to-five. Millennials want to create a more collaborative environment where they exchange ideas with peers and accomplish a mission instead of a corporate culture that’s rigid with policies and procedures.”

In order to effectively lead these new generations of employees, companies will need to drastically change how their leaders interact with their people. The traditional leadership style, along with its associated guarding of information and decision-making, is going away.


Employees are looking for more than a boss and micromanager; they are looking for a leader who mentors and inspires. They want a leader who is interested in them, who cares about their goals and aspirations. One who encourages them to strive for greatness and helps them feel connected.


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Great leaders connect employees to three specific things: purpose, accomplishment, and one another. They show how their employees’ work makes a difference, how it furthers the company’s purpose, and why it matters. They teach people to succeed and help them accomplish great things by connecting them with new skills and new ways of working. And they bring people together by building strong teams and enabling strong social networks.


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Great leaders connect team members to three things.


The numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of this new kind of leadership. Our research shows that when leaders connect their people to purpose, employees are 373% more likely to have a strong sense of purpose, 747% more likely to be highly engaged, and 49% less likely to burn out.

Our data also shows when leaders connect their people to accomplishment, there is a 259% increase in odds an employee will have a strong sense of opportunity, 247% increase in odds an employee will do great work, and they will be 46% less likely to burn out.

When leaders connect their people to one another, there is a 156% increase in odds that an employee will have a strong sense of wellbeing, a 374% increase in odds that an employee will feel appreciated, and the employee will be 47% less likely to burn out. All of which indicates that modern leaders need to learn and practice the art of building connection.


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The impact of reinventing leadership is powerful. When companies adopt a more connected, collaborative, and mentoring approach to leadership, they see massive improvements in the employee experience, all six essential elements of workplace culture, engagement, great work, and the likelihood to recommend the company. There’s also less burnout, fewer layoffs, and increased revenue.

On the other hand, organisations with traditional leadership styles see dramatic decreases in the employee experience and all areas of workplace culture, higher burnout rates, and an increased odds of layoffs.


“We’re not just selling a cot, for example. We’re selling something so important to a mother, something so important to a father. We are becoming part of a person’s life and a part of a person’s home, and that’s the difference we’re making.”

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It’s easy to tell leaders they have a new role, to connect team members to purpose, accomplishment, and one another. But how does that actually look in practice? What are some day-to-day micro-experiences leaders can create for employees to make those connections stick? Are there examples we can learn from? Are any leaders or companies out there doing a good job of this already?

The answer is yes. As part of this year’s Culture Report, we researched what leaders in top organisations are doing to build the kinds of connections we are talking about. The following pages take the idea of connection one layer deeper to reveal the day-today experiences leaders are using to actually help employees feel a deeper connection to things that matter. Because, as the research indicates, those connections are key to employee engagement, productivity, longevity, and growth.


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To connect your people to purpose, accomplishment, and one another, leaders should do the following:


1.  Connection to Purpose

Clearly articulate the meaning of each employee’s work and communicate how it impacts the organisation, its customers, and the world. This can be done in four ways:

Understand what your employees actually do. While this seems elementary, only 54% of employees report that their leader knows what they do. When leaders make an effort to understand their employees’ jobs, their struggles, challenges, workload, and responsibilities, employees feel their leader is invested in the work they do. In fact, there is a:


36% increase in employees feeling they have the support of their direct leader

35% increase in the feeling that their leader acknowledges the great work they do

29% increase in engagement



Imagine an employee who spends their day assembling spray bottles for window cleaners. Their mindset is focused on zero defects. Their focus might be on streamlining efficiency and meeting quotas. But they might never get the chance to see how their work impacts the lives of their customers—a parent watching children play in the back yard and ensuring no one gets injured, a pilot cleaning a windshield before flight, or a weary driver pulling into a gas station in the middle of the night to ensure a clear view for the next few hours of driving. Instantly, an employee assembling spray bottles understands the impact they have on the recipient of their work. This impact can be shared with employees through customer testimonials, field trips to see customers engage with the work, and shared through company purpose and vision statements. Consider the mission statements of organisations like: Nike (to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world), Google (to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful), CVS Corporation (to be the easiest pharmacy retailer for customers to use). When employees see and hear about how their work contributes to the organisation, and to the lives of their customers, they are more likely to give their all.8



Articulate why your employees’ work has meaning. Why is the work each person does important? How does it make a difference and further your organisation’s purpose? We all want to do something that matters. By clearly communicating the meaning of an employee’s contributions, companies can see a:


15% increase in organisational purpose clarity

17% increase in purpose differentiation

27% increase in pride in the organisation

21% increase in putting discretionary effort into helping the organisation succeed

200% increase in the incidence of great work


Show how your work affects the customer. Most employees don’t come to work to help your company make money. They invest effort to make a difference in the world. How does their work improve the lives of your end-user, the customer, and community?

When leaders can express the specific way an employee’s work impacts customers, there is a 22% increase in feeling like the organisation inspires employees to work toward a collective goal, and a 23% increase in feeling like the organisation’s purpose motivates employees to do their best work.

Create shared plans and goals with your team and connect them all back to your organisation’s purpose. There’s a 103% increase in the perception of employee experience and an 87% increase in the amount of great work happening when leaders are transparent with their team about how they collectively can work together to achieve the company’s purpose.


2.  Connection to Accomplishment

Show you believe in your people, be involved in the entire process of accomplishment, and allow employees to lead out on their own.

Actively show you believe in your people and value their career goals. Talk with employees often about their own personal goals and dreams for their role. Tell them you value their unique skills and talents and believe they can succeed. Trust them to make decisions and work autonomously. When this happens, there is a:


39% increase in an employee feeling like they have the opportunity to grow, even if they weren’t a “favorite”

33% increase in an employee feeling like they are working for a winning team

43% increase in an employee feeling like they belong at the organisation


“What makes Pixar special is that we acknowledge we will always have problems, many of them hidden from our view; that we work hard to uncover these problems, even if doing so means making ourselves uncomfortable; and that, when we come across a problem, we marshal all of our energies to solve it.”

Stay involved during the entire process of achievement, providing specific, constructive feedback throughout, not just at the beginning or the end. Don’t micromanage the project or process, but celebrate small accomplishments, act as a guide and advocate for your people, and work to break down barriers inhibiting innovation. Check in often with your people on their progress and offer coaching and support. When leaders do this, they see a:


86% increase in feeling they are learning new, valuable things in their current role

43% increase in feeling like they receive the support they need from their leader to do their job well

207% increase in feeling like their leader connects them with opportunities

29% increase in knowing what the leader wants them to achieve

133% increase in the incidence of great work


Recognise your people throughout the process, not just when an accomplishment has been made. By recognising small wins and efforts along the way, leaders see an 83% increase in engagement and a 136% increase in feeling like a subject matter expert at their organisation. A word or note expressing appreciation when a team member puts in extra effort, overcomes an obstacle, innovates, helps a peer, or goes above and beyond provides extra encouragement and motivation to succeed.



Success is a process. Projects often get worse before they get better and eventually achieve success. In fact, most workplace projects are similar to getting a haircut. Things are going to look worse before they look better. And employees need to be recognized throughout the life of a project—for their small wins, their daily efforts, and even during times of struggle—because knowing they’re supported during failures is important. Jay Samit, author of Disrupt You, is a person who has spent his entire career in tech and innovation. He may have summarised it best when he told us, “I have always told my employees that if they do not fail within the first year of employment, they will be fired. If people are not failing, then they aren’t truly trying to improve something.”9


Share leadership. Give employees latitude to lead out on their own. Employees don’t want a micromanager; they want a leader who inspires them. When you empower your people to take ownership, make decisions, lead, and innovate, you’ll fi nd:


88% increase in the sense of opportunity at the organisation

78% increase in engagement

255% increase in the incidence of great work

184% increase in the perception of their direct leader


“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

3.  Connection to One Another

Mentor, encourage collaboration, and help employees build their own social networks within teams and with others in the organisation.

Connect employees to their team, either for mentorship opportunities or project guidance. When employees feel connected to their teams, there is a:


91% increase in feeling like they belong at the organisation

131% increase in feeling like they continuously learn new and valuable things

55% increase in engagement

83% increase in the incidence of great work


Encourage collaboration within and outside of the team whenever possible. This is a departure from traditional, “territorial” behaviors. When leaders do this, companies see a:


43% decrease in the incidence of observed exclusion

133% increase in promoters on the net promoter score

44% decrease in the incidence of moderate-to-severe burnout



A core principle to building trust and connection with employees is engaging them in solving problems and co-creating solutions. Consider the lengths Delta Airlines pursued when it recently launched new uniforms throughout the company—for all employees. You may have noticed the striking purple attire on a recent flight, aptly named “Passport Plum.” The company knew the project would be daunting. They also knew that they wanted to include opinions from employees—the people who would be wearing the uniforms on daily basis. Conducting more than 80 employee focus groups and reviewing more than 30,000 employee survey responses, Delta’s design team then made more than 165 changes to the uniforms before launching the final product. Employees knew their opinions were heard. “The new Delta uniform collection offers unity between all workgroups like never before,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian. “We are one proud Delta team and it really shows.”10


Build a team that cares about each other, can depend on one another, and celebrates each member’s success. Teams with leaders that do this well have members with a 284% increase in feeling like the employee belongs at the organisation, 33% increase in engagement, 41% increase in likelihood to stay, and 88% increase in a sense of wellbeing.


Modern leadership is moving beyond telling employees what to do; it’s about inspiring them to find and carve out their own path. Smart leaders look for opportunities to create micro-experiences that connect employees to purpose, accomplishment, and one another that build a culture of motivation and success and propel employees to do great things. Helping leaders shift from a traditional mentality to a more modern mindset takes time (and active development), but it will dramatically improve the everyday employee experience, create a thriving workplace culture, and lead to business success.


“Success is best when it’s shared.”


BP is an example of a company that is intentional about building connections between their people located all over the world. Percentage-wise, just a small portion work at the company’s headquarters. Realising this could negatively impact decision-making and collaboration, the company set out to nurture social networks by moving employees across functions, business units, and countries as part of their career development. By changing roles frequently, and working with new team members frequently, the company has been able to socialize learning across business units and develop strong personal connections between people that break down territorialism. As a result, it is not uncommon for leaders at BP to have worked in numerous businesses at various geographic locations over the past decade. This builds relationships across the entire organisation.11



Leaders have a major impact on company culture and the employee experience

Traditional leadership practices are outdated and being rejected by the modern workforce

Effective modern leaders are mentors and coaches rather than bosses

Great leaders focus on connecting people


Leadership Sources

1. “Employee Experience: 5 Big Reasons Why It’s The Future of the Workplace”, G.I. Sanders, Dynamic Signal.
2, 3. “The End of the Traditional Manager”, Adam Hickman and Ryan Pendell, Gallup, May 31, 2018.
4. “Employee Experience: 5 Big Reasons Why It’s The Future of the Workplace”, G.I. Sanders, Dynamic Signal.
5, 6. “Millennials Challenge Traditional Leadership”, Duffy Group, September 22, 2017.
7. The How Report, 2016
8. “3 Keys to Helping Employees Understand Their Impact”, Michelle Checketts, decisionwise, Feb 10, 2014.
9. “Signs You Might Be Leadership Material, From 10 Experts Who Know”, David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom, Forbes, October 12, 2017.
10. “Delta’s $20 Million Designer Uniforms Draw Mixed Reviews”, Janine Puhak, Fox News, May 31, 2018.
11. “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams”, Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson, Harvard Business Review, November 2007.

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The O.C. Tanner Institute used a multi-method research design, employing interviews, focus groups, cross-sectional surveys, and a longitudinal survey.

Qualitative findings are derived from 16 focus groups and 108 interviews among employees and leaders of larger organisations. The groups were held in two phases: December 2018 and March 2019. Groups were conducted in Denver, CO; Toronto, CA; London, UK; and Sydney, AU. Each group represented a range of types of employers, including private companies, public companies, and government entities.

Quantitative findings are derived from online survey interviews administered to employees across Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States. The total sample size was 20,088 workers at companies with 500+ employees. Fieldwork was undertaken in May and June 2019. Survey data was collected and analysed by the O.C. Tanner Institute. This sample is sufficient to generate meaningful conclusions about the workplace culture of companies in included countries. However, as we do not have population data, results are subject to statistical errors customarily associated with sample-based information.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from the O.C. Tanner Institute.

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