Last week, I was on a speaker panel discussing the future of global workplaces. The last question posed to the panel was a big one: “What are employees looking for most in today’s environment?”

My answer, which another panelist echoed, was focused on workplace flexibility, which is most effective as a two-way street. But a third panelist had a more expansive take, responding that employees today want to work where they want, how they want and on what they want.

While I agree that many employees do indeed want that degree of freedom, I felt compelled to respond that I did not believe that approach was particularly realistic or healthy for an organization, and that it reflects a highly individualistic mindset. I suggested that someone who really feels that way is probably better off working in the gig economy, or even starting their own business.

For many decades, the power imbalance in the workplace clearly favored companies and their leaders, especially in industries or areas with limited options for work. Many of the businesses that exploited this imbalance were led by mercenary leaders, who put their own needs above those of their employees. This was never going to last forever because, let’s be honest, no one wants to work for a mercenary leader.

To that point, the emergence of the gig economy and the increased prevalence of remote work over the past decade have helped correct the imbalance between employees and employers. And the COVID-19 pandemic, and the great resignation that followed it, has empowered employees to leverage their bargaining power and understandably flex their newfound muscles.

This more balanced power dynamic has resulted in some long overdue and important changes to the workplace, and even to the nature of work. However, in a case like this, when the pendulum swings so drastically, there are often unintended consequences. Plenty of research shows that the best companies are made up of great teams with shared goals, purpose, values and vision, and substantial employee autonomy can undermine that foundation.

In this case, what I am seeing and hearing from many companies and leaders is a real level of concern over the individualistic cultures developing within many organizations’ walls. In some cases, employee autonomy has left some leaders struggling to get their teams to think about the company’s greater objectives, or to buy into organizational goals or established processes. Some policies even exist to ensure a more equal playing field in the workplace.

Employees are understandably optimizing their situations, including seeking real-time changes to compensation, job responsibilities, title and flexibility. They have significant leverage in the current employment environment, and it’s natural to use that leverage to gain a better position. But there may also be a hidden, collective cost.

For example, a colleague recently shared with me that their company was struggling to persuade a group of engineers not to all take vacations shortly before the company’s critical product launch. Though each engineer was entitled to time off, the overlapping nature of their vacation plans threatened to derail the launch, and they were asking the company to buy back their vacation time in exchange for not taking time off.

Employees’ self-advocacy isn’t a problem in itself. However, it presents a unique challenge for business leaders today, who must balance individual needs with team and company objectives. At a certain point, being a part of a team requires elements of commitment and sacrifice toward a bigger objective. This is why all the best sports teams never allow a single player to monopolize the ball to a degree that is detrimental to the overall objective: winning. A sports team where everyone is focused on themselves will almost always underperform, as will a team in any workplace.

Employees are clear that they do not want to work for mercenary leaders. However, organizations need to develop their approach and response for what is essentially a mercenary employee: someone who cares first and foremost about what is best for themselves, irrespective of the impact on others, or on the organization as a whole.

Being part of a truly great team, and working toward a compelling shared vision, is often the highlight of one’s career, overshadowing individual wins in our memories. It’s important for both employees and leaders to keep this in mind as we build the workplaces of the future with a mindset of balance between individual need and collective mission.

Quote of The Week

“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”


– Helen Keller