“As a middle-aged white man, it can be difficult to voice your opinion without getting shot down”

Illustration: Nanna Skytte & Carolina Diaz

COVID-19, “cancel culture”, #metoo, and LGBT+.

As a modern manager, it is important to watch your step.

The time when women and men—and nothing in between—physically showed up at the workplace every day and cracked some light-hearted jokes by the coffee machine during the break seems far gone, and as a manager it is now inevitable that you will be confronted with one of the modern letter combinations in the form of a real employee.

At least that is how it is in the experience of engineer Bjarne Kousholt.

For the past 20 years, he has worked as a consultant for several hundred companies, and therefore has his finger on the pulse of modern management challenges.

“I get around a lot and talk to different managers, and in recent years there have been quite a few challenges with e.g. covid, ‘cancel culture’, and #metoo—all the things that are also discussed on Twitter—and I have noticed a sense of resignation in many managers and eye rolls that say ‘the youth these days,’” Bjarne Kousholt says.

That is why he has now written a kind of survival guide for managers in book form—or as he himself calls it: “A catalogue of topics that are challenging for modern managers”.

The book, which bears the title “Leder til tiden” (Eng. “Manager for the Times”), is full of cases, discussion papers, and exercises that will prepare today’s managers to connect with their employees.

Do not overreact

Bjarne Kousholt explains that he wrote the book because modern challenges such as gender identity and #metoo can be difficult for managers to talk about—both because they may not “speak the language” and because they are simply afraid of saying something wrong.

“If you are, for example, a middle-aged white man, it can be difficult to voice your opinion and say anything without being shot down,” the management consultant says and continues:

“So, the cases and exercises from the book can be, for example, used in a joint workshop and help bridge the distance. Then I can be blamed instead of the manager. In this way, management and employees can talk through some difficult dilemmas and discuss solutions—without it being about themselves.”

If we do not learn to talk about the new challenges at work, it will become difficult to navigate everyday life, and there is a risk of turning a blind eye to avoid conflicts. But that would be a shame, because we may also miss out on opportunities, he says and gives an example:

“Before #metoo, men might have been used to praising their female colleagues and giving them a hug on festive occasions when the mood was right. But after #metoo, people have become afraid of doing something wrong. And then they may go completely in the opposite direction. Like a craftsman I know. He no longer takes in female apprentices for fear of getting into trouble. So instead of dealing with the challenge, he just avoids it. This means that he misses out on good candidates. Therefore, the intention behind my book is to get people to stop overreacting. Let’s just talk about things.”

Critical young people

The new generations on the labour market—the so-called millennials and generation Z, who were born from the beginning of the 1980s to the end of the 1990s—have a tendency to withdraw if things are not going as they think they should, Bjarne Kousholt says.

“The generation that has entered the labour market in recent years quickly moves on if there is friction because they are able to pick and choose due to the economic climate. They grew up in prosperity and are often referred to as spoiled, overprotected children,” the management consultant says and continues:

“Furthermore, young people today don’t have much belief in authority, and they don't buy into ‘that’s just the way it is.’ They move on instead.”

Bjarne Kousholt recognises that people in their 20s and 30s are more sceptical and critical than previous generations, and loyalty to the company is often difficult to find among younger employees.

“Before, people were proud to work in e.g., Maersk and Danske Bank, but today’s young people are a bit less impressed. They google things that may be sensationalised, and they may not want to take a job with an otherwise reputable company because it was once involved in a messy case,” he says and elaborates:

“I myself have two teenage girls who are very involved in these things. One day, I overheard that they don’t shop at a certain clothing company that once had a child labour scandal. But it’s a story that goes back several years, and which was a subcontractor’s fault. So, we talked about it. There is a tendency to go a little too far into the extreme with boycotts and witch hunts in some areas, but we must find the middle ground, because all stories have several sides,” the management consultant says.

He also feels that it has been harder to maintain a credible image in recent years:

“The individual manager has therefore gained great importance. Because if the young people think the boss is okay and trustworthy, they become more loyal because of the personal relationship, even if they may be sceptical of ‘those higher up.’”

Drop the hot air

Therefore, the young generations do not just “buy” everything that companies communicate externally, for example, about sustainability.

“They don’t want to read all the correct nonsense about the green transition on a website, which is not written by those who have to implement it, but by marketing specialists who write what people want to hear. They see right through it,” Bjarne Kousholt says and mentions one of the cases in the book, which will serve as a discussion paper in meeting rooms across Denmark.

In the case, Anita, aged 22, is at her first ever job interview. The HR manager, who holds the interview with the team leader Søren, starts a lengthy PowerPoint presentation about the company’s excellence. When she gets to the slides that explain what the company is doing with regard to the green transition, Anita interrupts to ask what exactly they are doing.

The question comes as a bit of a surprise to the HR manager, but she quickly lists a number of measures and results. This does not really impress Anita, and she goes on to ask why the service vehicles in the parking lot run on diesel, why the dish of the day in the canteen is sausage, and why the waste down at the reception is not sorted. The HR manager tries to avoid the subject, and the team leader remains silent. The conversation ends with Anita refusing to work for the company because the HR manager’s presentation seems like hot air and hollow words to her.

Bjarne Kousholt acknowledges that the case is a caricature to help readers understand his point but says that it is based on a whole range of closely related real examples.

“Leder til tiden” by Bjarne Kousholt, 180 pages, Akademisk Forlag. DKK 299.95 Illustration: Akademisk Forlag

“I don’t have the solution to all this, but the thing that is wrong in this case is that the company itself does not believe in it. The HR manager delivers platitudes and falls short. You get further by saying: ‘It’s true, we haven’t come that far.’ You have to stop trying to pretend. After all, people catch on to it sooner or later. So it’s better to ask for help, tell the candidate that you need people like her to move further in the right direction,’ the management consultant suggests.

For him, it boils down to seeing things at eye level with others as a manager, being authentic and true to oneself, but still listening to other people’s views.

“You can look at it completely mathematically: A middle-aged white man faces these challenges, but personally believes that there are only two genders, that #metoo has gone too far, and that the green transition is overrated. He can either ignore it, avoid confrontation, and only hire and promote people who are not too radical in his view,” Bjarne Kousholt says.

“Or he can play a game and use all the right words with the risk of it being seen through—and it will be at some point. My best advice is therefore to find the golden mean, where you listen to other people’s opinions, stay true to yourself, but at the same time are open to changes on some points. That will get you the furthest.”