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BookWatch: When frontline workers get the financial and career support they deserve, all employees benefit.


Virtually every sector of the U.S. economy depends on the 112 million people working on the front line, including retail and food-service workers, teachers and hospital staff. Ironically, these also are some of the last employees to get the financial and career support they need.  

Frontline workers have stepped up to carry the U.S. over the past two years, but often at the expense of their well-being, advancement and growth. We surveyed 2,100 frontline workers earlier this year and found that, while more than 70% say they want to be promoted and exhibit the drive and skillset for career growth, just 25% say they are able to achieve this goal.   

We must do better. Upward economic mobility for the frontline is a critical building block for an inclusive and resilient workforce. Currently, not enough of these employees are experiencing the support, flexibility and growth opportunities necessary for both them and their organizations to thrive. There are concrete ways companies can better support these workers, starting with strong leadership and what we call “deliberate calm.”   

The ‘deliberate calm’ framework 

The frontline experience stands to benefit immensely from simple, conscious steps that leaders can take to create a healthy, adaptive work environment. When deliberate calm is put into action, the employee experience stands to improve tremendously. From our research and experience, we have identified effective ways to transform team dynamics using psychology and neuroscience to turn stress, volatility and pressure into opportunities that help leaders and their teams innovate and grow. 

“ Many frontline workers feel disconnected from their organizations and their leaders. ”

Right now, many frontline workers feel disconnected from their organizations and their leaders. The majority of these workers identify these top priorities: opportunities for career growth; flexibility; working on caring, supportive teams, and feeling appreciated and valued at work. Yet our research also shows that most leaders have an incomplete understanding of the needs of frontline employees, and fail to prioritize many of the very things frontline workers say are most important to them. 

Resolving this disparity is hardest, and most crucial, during times of volatility and uncertainty. Doing so begins with practicing deliberate calm. This framework helps leaders gain both self- and situational awareness to respond thoughtfully under pressure, without sacrificing creativity and innovation. Additionally, these tools strengthen an organization’s ability to attract, mobilize and retain frontline talent when they are under the most pressure. 

When put to the test in practice sessions, we saw striking progress made by the 1,450 leaders who participated. In just 30 minutes a day for three months, participants improved their performance, adaptation to unplanned circumstances, acquisition of new knowledge and skills, optimism and sense of well-being. In fact, participants made up to three times the progress of the control group and improved their well-being by 7.5x. 

Bringing deliberate calm to the frontline experience 

Here are three steps leaders can take to practice deliberate calm and successfully harness the full potential of their workforce.    

1. Improve learning agility: Leaders must become active, curious learners to discover the realities of what workers really need. Exploring, listening with empathy, and understanding the motivations, struggles, and needs of the front line goes a long way in helping leaders connect with and adapt the employee experience in difficult times to increase engagement, and cultivate the flexibility, support, and growth opportunities frontliners are seeking. Taking lessons learned and applying them to new situations is critical to strong leadership. 

2. Invest in emotional intelligence: Leaders should practice understanding their emotional responses to challenges, and how the connect with and relate to others in the face of difficulty and uncertainty. Emotional self-regulation is often overlooked as a critical skill for leaders, but the ability to recognize, understand, and manage emotions while leading and serving as an example for others can help teams perform better as a whole and deepen relational ties with front line workers.   

3. Practice dual awareness: This is the integration of internally focused self-awareness (i.e., taking stock of experiences, including thoughts, emotions, and responses) and a balcony perspective on the external situation (i.e., a clear reading of the situational landscape and what it requires of us as leaders).

In practice, leaders who learn to read the situation while considering not only the performance requirements of the business, but also the needs of frontline employees, can better identify creative solutions that prioritize both.   

Harper Business

Practicing these deliberate calm exercises can help leaders and frontline employees in everyday situations, “black swan” events such as a global pandemic, and every event in between. In doing so, leaders can more effectively adjust decisions to meet the needs of their employees and the moment in which they find themselves.  

Jacqui Brassey is McKinsey’s former chief scientist and the director of research science for the firm’s People & Organizational Performance Practice. Aaron De Smet is a McKinsey expert on organizational design, corporate culture and leadership development. With McKinsey alum Michiel Kruyt, they are the authors of Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World (Harper Business, 2022).

More: ‘I wish someone had warned me not to take my current job.’ 1 in 5 employees now reports being ‘miserable’ at work.

Plus: ‘Gaslighters have two signature moves’: Are you being gaslighted at work? Here’s how to recognize the signs.

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