Amid ‘triple squeeze’ of pressures, HR setting its sights on leader effectiveness

If there’s one word to describe the mood of HR leaders as they get ready to head into 2023, it may be “uncertain.”

Management consulting firm Gartner describes that uncertainty as being fueled by a “triple squeeze” of pressures: economic upheaval, CEOs increasingly prioritizing the needs of their workforces and the mandate for HR to manage multiple tradeoffs (for instance, balancing cost savings amid a potential economic downturn with the need for increased talent investment). It’s with this context that HR leaders are lining up their priorities for 2023, which, according to a new survey by Gartner of 800 HR professionals, puts leader and manager effectiveness squarely at the top of the list.

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Leadership jumped to that spot from third last year, while organizational design stayed steady at No. 2. Other shifts include employee experience rising from sixth to third and recruiting claiming the fourth spot after ranking seventh last year.

Leader and manager effectiveness has long been identified as a top-five priority by respondents over the years, says Mark Whittle, vice president, HR Research & Advisory at Gartner. However, what’s changed this year is the context in which this and other priorities are being pursued—and which is greatly influencing how they’re going about accomplishing them.

“What has really changed is the lens through which we need to look at these things,” Whittle says. “In 2020, the lens was really focused on COVID and last year was a post-pandemic, kind of optimistic lens. This year, the lens is one of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And that’s making it trickier than ever to put our HR strategy into practice.”

Leadership in focus

Sixty percent of those surveyed said they plan to prioritize leader and manager effectiveness in 2023, a finding that Whittle says is unsurprising, given the impacts of the pandemic on the workplace.

“Over the last three years, organizations have realized that what it looks like to be a good leader or manager has changed, but they haven’t quite figured out what that looks like or how to develop that,” he says.

In particular, mid-level and frontline managers are in the crosshairs of the tectonic shifts that have happened in recent years. “This is the segment that feels particularly squeezed right now,” Whittle says. They’re getting pressure from leadership—driven by employers’ concerns about the economy, for instance—while also managing employees who are adjusting to new, hybrid workplaces amid social and financial upheaval.

“They just keep adding to their responsibilities, and it’s causing burnout and frustration,” Whittle says. “And organizations are worried about that.”



However, nearly a quarter of respondents said their organization is not effectively preparing leaders for the future of work, highlighting the scale of the problem.

In a recent webinar on Gartner’s Top 5 Priorities for HR Leaders in 2023 report, Whittle pointed as a success story to professional services company Rentokil’s leadership development strategy, which is steeped in manager feedback. The organization regularly surveys managers, zeroing in on the challenges they’re facing leading in new, hybrid environments. Leadership also identifies managers of high-performing teams and interviews them about what’s working, and what’s not, while managers also have the opportunity to participate in peer cohorts to learn alongside one another.

Such a strategy underscores that today’s workplaces need human-centric leadership—rooted in authenticity, empathy and adaptivity. Yet, according to Gartner’s research, only one in four leaders is human-centric.

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But, Whittle cautioned employers that a push toward human leadership is not a “blanket mandate to be a ‘touchy feely’ leader.” Instead, it’s about leaders’ ability to adapt.

Up until the last few years, leaders had a set framework: They were expected to enable workplace boundaries, address the work-related needs of their employees and manage a set of defined workflows. But, given the high stress of social and political turbulence, employees’ need for new levels of support and the increased variety of work patterns and norms that the last few years have brought, a new type of leader is now in demand. That person enables safe self-expression at work, addresses the “life”-related needs of their employees and is able to manage tailored flexible workflows, the Gartner report describes.

“These shifts are not creating entirely new responsibilities for leaders, but rather requiring leaders to achieve their core responsibilities in different ways, as the changing environment blurs the boundaries that previously the leader-employee dynamic,” Whittle said.

“The new dynamic,” Whittle added, “is not simply a leader-to-leader employee relationship, but a human-to-human one.”

Learn how to leverage technology to manage HR’s 2023 priorities at the free, online HR Technology Virtual Conference, Feb. 28-March 2. Click here for more information or to register.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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