How Workplace Complexity Affects Leaders

My wife and I just bought a mattress…online.


We recently moved into a new house and decided to put our old mattress in the downstairs guest room and purchase a new mattress for our master bedroom. We went to a few local mattress retailers, and in each store, my wife asked questions like, “What are the components in the mattress?” and “Does the mattress off-gas?”

She was concerned about not just the environmental friendliness of the mattress, but also our health. After all, we’d spend 6-8 hours of our day on it.

We could not find a local mattress store that could tell us in no uncertain terms that their mattresses were organic.

So, we kept searching. And found one online. Free shipping. 100-day return policy. The mattress was delivered without a flaw in two weeks.

If you can buy a mattress online, you can buy anything online.

And that story brings me to an important part of our conversation today about the future of leadership. As leaders, we have to understand the driving force behind complexity so that we can change before we have to change.

Let me say that again—we need to change before we have to change.

And what’s worked for us in the past may not necessarily work for us in the future.


The complexity in our workplace is skyrocketing. Consider a few of these common examples:

  • The current political climate and state of trade policies make it very difficult for global companies to plan. Especially those dealing with China.
  • Hiring in a globally low unemployment environment makes it more challenging to find talent that will stick around for the long term.
  • Organizations are already planning for future workforce shifts, downsizing and restructuring based on the expected impact of machine learning and technological change.
  • Leaders at all levels are finding themselves more and more on multidisciplinary teams
  • There’s a much broader spectrum of constituents and stakeholders with whom  leaders have to engage. Leadership is not just the team that you lead anymore. It’s the executive leaders to whom you are accountable. It’s the managers underneath you who are looking for direction,feedback and coaching, and a network of peers who have competing priorities.

The Driving Force Behind Complexity

Many of you may already be saying, “Sal, we already know our world is more complex. We know things are moving faster than ever. I work crazy hours. I don’t have time for everything that needs to get done in an 8-10 or even 12-hour day!”

Knowing the driving force behind complexity is important for the exact reason that Einstein said, “We can’t solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Our thinking will need to shift in order for us to be successful…

… and primarily because most of the problems we had to solve in the past had a high level of predictability to them. And we could think a certain way—mostly in a very logical, linear, top-down approach—and be successful. An event would occur, we could look at similar events of the past, and decide on a course of action for the future.

But as we see the levels of complexity and cultural shifts rising, our thinking as leaders needs to change to deal with the unpredictability of our work.

Unpredictability is the driving force behind complexity that will require all leaders to shift their thinking in the future. Who would have predicted three or four years ago that a mattress retailer’s entire business model would be disrupted by a small company who successfully fulfills mattress orders online. It will take a change in thinking for the mattress retailer to respond effectively to that competitive threat.

Where do you go from here?

In our next post, we’ll lay out specific ways in which your thinking will need to change in an unpredictable world.

In the meantime, you can download two tools below to help you radically shift your thinking as you are making day-to-day business decisions. The first is a one-page infographic to help you consider your current situation, the assumptions and beliefs that may be driving your decision making, and new questions to challenge your point of view. The second is a recording of my recent Future of Leadership masterclass.