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A fine balance: The art of human leadership

A fine balance: The art of human leadership

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Since the pandemic started, employees’ and customers’ behaviours have changed – some permanently. Those leaders who successfully steer their organisations over the next few months and years will retain all of the harder business capabilities from the past. But they will also excel at the softer skills that have come to the fore in the past 18 months. Dr Andy Brown, CEO, ENGAGE, explains how leaders can become compassionate and fair bosses while pushing their business forward.

Successful leaders are the sum of many parts, but with changing times those parts have evolved. The pandemic has fundamentally shifted how we engage and how we lead, meaning the factors on which we select leaders, promote them and reward them must also shift.

Traditional leadership frameworks based around big picture thinking, results focus, building high-potential, inspiration and innovation are no longer enough on their own to drive success in the new future.

As wellbeing and safety have become the primary concerns for employees over the past 18 months, leaders who’ve also demonstrated traits such as humanity, humility and transparency have thrived. They’ve created huge amounts of goodwill among their employees and built trust in their leadership teams – key drivers for engagement, productivity and adaptability.

A balanced leadership model

But, even before the pandemic, our work and wider research proved that softer skills have become as critical to leadership success as the harder skills of capability and competence. Getting the balance right is where the challenge lies.

Today’s successful leaders have achieved this balance: a clear focus on purpose, vision and strategy, and a core set of human leadership behaviours.

These leaders view engagement as a company-wide priority; they get people on board with the bigger picture and ensure everyone is equipped to play their role in delivering this. What’s more, they themselves role model the behaviours they expect from their people.

They also show depth of purpose and EQ by looking after their employees, customers, clients, communities and stakeholders. This creates a stronger sense of team and galvanises employees around a bigger purpose – in both good times and bad.

The human element

Despite the proven success of a balanced leadership model, it’s still common for leaders to take on a work persona that’s at odds with a compassionate, communicative human approach. Our research shows that traditional leaders are much stronger on the ‘harder’ side of the framework: around 70-80% show their strengths here, while only 50-60% demonstrate core strengths on the ‘human’ side.

And we’ve gathered a wealth of data that takes this argument further: not only are many in positions of influence emotionally isolated from their teams, they’re also poor at delivering critical drivers of employee engagement.

The reason is simple: strong leadership and engagement in today’s workplace relies on the ability to build relationships and understand employees – wherever they may be. Future leaders will therefore need be equipped with a core set of soft skills if they’re to survive and thrive in the long-term.

These include:

The ability to listen – authentically. Many leaders excel at communicating in ‘broadcast’ mode, but those best positioned to lead in the long-term have switched into listening mode. Showing that you take seriously the views of your colleagues, peers, direct reports or your most frontline employees leaves a huge and lasting impression and encourages long-term engagement. One of our CEO clients in the financial services sector has exemplified this, spending a great deal of time speaking directly to frontline employees over the past 18 months, and running frequent surveys to understand employees’ concerns and frustrations – allowing them to make rapid adjustments to working processes in direct response.

Communication and clarity. Don’t forget the power of simple and direct. A lack of authentic communication is the biggest underlying factor in the lack of trust in leaders. Be open, even about hard truths, and be prepared to say when you don’t have all the answers.

Honesty and transparency. Being totally open and honest is the key to retaining trust and commitment. You may be asking people to do things differently in the future, such as the way they work, and you may be asking them to do things for different reasons. Being honest about why is much more likely to bring people with you.

Looking after your people. It’s critical to remember your people are individuals. Organisations spend millions of dollars segmenting their customer base externally, yet internally they tend to treat employees as one amorphous lump. Smart leaders recognise that their individual team members have their own strengths, needs and concerns and motivate and communicate accordingly.

Empathy. This is one of the most attractive qualities a leader can have. It builds positive relationships and produces more effective collaboration. And empathy breeds empathy. Leaders with strong empathy are over five times more likely to have teams working under them who demonstrate the same quality to other stakeholder groups – their own teams, customers and other teams within the business.

Humility. Leaders need to be able to make mistakes and change direction while maintaining trust and confidence. The best leaders are willing to learn and keep learning, regardless of status. This shows that even at the most senior level individuals can be educated. The message to employees is clear: great leaders are adaptable, open and willing to embrace new ideas. This approach is vital for innovation and growth.

Managing performance in the moment. Recognition is one of the most powerful drivers of engagement and productivity. People want feedback on how they’re doing, good or bad. Telling people they did a great job scores much higher than reward.

Managing poor performance ‘in the moment’ is equally crucial. Immediate feedback tends to be better delivered and more memorable when given by leaders on the spot.

Fairness. Perceptions of a fair workplace are a differentiating factor for the highest performing leaders. This is characterised by factors such as a lack of office politics and leaders and managers not having ‘favourites’ within teams. Exceptional leaders share their power and their status: they are prepared to roll up their sleeves and work alongside their people, which directly connects them on a personal level.

Let people breathe – nobody works at their best when they’re exhausted or stressed. Our evidence shows that great leaders recognise this and ensure their people have the right sort of balance to be at their most productive. They actively avoid a culture of over-work and burnout. Again, the basics of being human – considerate to those around you – come in to play.

A new leadership framework

We’ve seen time and again that change is a catalyst for the emergence of true leaders. Today is no different. Great leaders in our new normal will question what’s really important. They will guide their organisations to deliver what they know their customers and stakeholders want by listening to them. They will understand that new rules of engagement are needed with their employees. And they will know that employees’ and customers’ behaviours have changed – some permanently.

Those leaders who successfully steer their organisations over the next few months and years will retain all of the harder business capabilities from the past. But they will also excel at the softer skills that have come to the fore in the past 18 months.

Now is the time for leaders to take time to assess themselves, to choose to behave differently and to build a culture in which a high-performing, balanced organisation can thrive: one which equalises strategic business focus with real, open humanity.

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