Changing the Language of Leadership
The recent pandemic may well prove to be the biggest catalyst for change within the workplace for a generation. Leadership styles have been scrutinised and, in many instances, found wanting. For every leader that has provided reassurance and guidance to their workforce there have been those who have remained inflexible, lacked empathy, and failed to address the uncertainty surrounding their organisation. As the way we conduct business and the fabric of the workplace evolves, the relevance of previous leadership styles is being brought into question. Those who continue to pursue a ‘Command and Control’ style may well find themselves increasingly at odds with their workforce and struggling to overcome future challenges.
The author and founder of NewStories, Bob Stilger suggests that this is not the ‘new normal’, it is the ‘next now’1, and as such it is a chance to reconsider old structures and embrace transformation. What seemed impossible a few months ago now looks possible. Despite the current climate of uncertainty, for those leaders who choose to embrace difficulty, accept the challenges facing them and start to examine the structural elements required to make lasting and effective change there is an opportunity to evolve the language of leadership, adapting it to meet the new ways of working and in turn creating productive, engaged, resilient teams ready to overcome future challenges.
This article brings together some startling conclusions from a recent Gallup Survey of the Global Workplace as well as observations from the recent Coaches Rising Summit2 where thought leaders from across the globe discussed the current challenges to leadership, coaching and the mental and physical wellbeing of the global population. Whilst this article only briefly covers their theories and propositions, (for further reading please see the Reference section at the end of the article) for those looking at how they might adapt their leadership style, strengthen their organisation, or learn from recent events, the theories and practices discussed provide insight and practical guidance.
A recent Gallup survey looking at the State of the Global Workforce found that 85% of employees worldwide were not engaged, or were actively disengaged in their job3, and that was before the Covid-19 pandemic forced a seismic shift in workplace behaviour and attitudes. Global GDP has sat at around 3% since 2012. Employee engagement remains low (10% in W. Europe, 6% in Asia) and organisations have been slow to react to the rapidly changing business environment as a result of factors including; progress in IT, globalisation of markets for products and services, the rise of the gig economy and the unique expectations of the young workforce.
Resistance to change is common and leaders who let traditional practices remain in place often become roadblocks to motivation and productivity4. In the US where progressive management practices have been in operation for a few years the level of engagement is higher (33%) suggesting that organisations that focus on the basic human need for psychological engagement (e.g. creating positive workplace relationships, management recognition, ongoing performance conversations and opportunities for personal development) are getting more out of their employees. Traditional forms of ‘Command and Control’ leadership stifle productivity whereas encouraging practices that allow employees to play to their inherent strengths leads to increased engagement and productivity. 50,000 companies across 45 countries saw sales rise by 10-19% and profits by 14-29% where groups received strengths training and awareness (e.g. psychometric profiling)5. As Gallup Chairman and CEO, Jim Clifton sees it, organisations need to focus on delivering employee development (not satisfaction), use strength based management practices and move the mission from ‘paycheque to purpose’.
Peter Hawkins, Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School refers to the need to let go of ‘the Culture of Individualism’, whereby the leader is solely responsible for decision making, and adopt a more collaborative, open approach towards utilising the collective intelligence of the team. Agreeing together on what the purpose and vision of the organisation is brings with it a renewed sense of engagement and ownership within the workplace. Encouraging autonomy, authority, and choice at all levels within the organisation encourages individuals to take responsibility, think creatively and consult more freely when considering solutions which in turn leads to a more supportive and resilient organisation. For leaders with long standing experience and practice in the traditional ‘Command and Control’ form of leadership this shift in mindset can be unsettling and challenging.
So how should leaders approach such a demanding topic? Bob Stilger talks about the leadership conversation having three levels:
- Level 1. Shifting Mindset. An initial shift in consciousness, mindset, and world view
- Level 2. Developing skills and competencies to nurture learning and growth
- Level 3. Create structures, practices, and processes to support this new view
To best understand and prepare for this new style of leadership requires a deeper understanding of each level.
Shifting Mindset – You can’t get a new ‘what’ from the same ‘how’
A number of years ago it was predicted that ‘Black Swan’ events, (such as the current Covid-19 pandemic) would become more frequent and that organisations needed to look at ways of becoming more resilient and prepared for sudden, dramatic change. To be truly effective however, requires the leadership mindset to support it. Lasting change can only happen if it is embodied change. Therefore to achieve a substantial shift in organisational practices and process, change must first happen at an individual level. As Paul Byrne, European Director of the Leadership Circle6 puts it, “ask yourself the question – are your leadership and team principles able to cope with existing and future challenges?” It is all well and good enabling ‘Agile’ working practices but if the purpose and vision of the organisation is not shared by the leadership team then there is a disconnect or as Dr. Tammy Lowry, Global Head of Talent at Roche, states, “you can’t get transformation at the organisational level without achieving transformation at the individual level”.
Transformative coach, Nicholas Janni7 stresses the importance of the need for leaders to be fully coherent, where coherence is seen as all parts of the being; mind, body and heart are connected. Otto Scharmer8 describes this as the need to break down ‘the wall’ that separates us from ourselves. The need to become aware of our blind spots, (i.e. not seeing an issue, not feeling an issue, seeing and feeling an issue but not acting) accessing our ignorance, vulnerability and discomfort around these blind spots and accepting the need for help. Taking this initial step towards a level of self-understanding and acceptance through the various means on offer (reflection, coaching, mentoring, meditation etc) requires an open mind, an inquisitive and creative nature, compassionate thinking and a willingness to learn and embrace the unknown. This is not without challenge and takes time, perseverance and practice but can ultimately lead to a more subtle, precise form of integrated leadership that gives renewed purpose and creativity to teams.
Widespread understanding of the Vision and Purpose of an organisation has always been important but as current conditions place increased stress on the workforce and the business environment so reminding those we work with why we are working and providing them with a deeper sense of purpose becomes ever more critical. Leaders need to ensure that they are not only aware of the purpose and vision of the organisation but also of their team on an individual level. To the incoming generation joining the workforce, there is a need for coherent leaders able to perceive the complexity of global issues, acknowledge the multiple perspectives of those issues and give equal relevance to both the internal indicators (people) and the external indicators (profit) of the business9. Leaders who are truly aligned to a purpose and vision can set a course through which goals are accomplished and rewards achieved.
Studies into the neuroscience of coherent or resonant leadership have been undertaken for decades. Recent work by Richard Boyatzis and Amanda Blake10 however, afford some fascinating insights into the skills required of modern leaders. The effects of positive (PEA) and negative (NEA) emotional attractors can significantly impact the productivity of a leader’s team. For a leader to get the most from their team they must develop the skills to harness the power of both PEA and NEA.
Different situations require a different leadership approach. For example, if the desire is to encourage ideas and creativity, adopting an open PEA mindset and offering others the opportunity to partake in problem solving will have a higher instance of success. Whereas if the desire is to achieve specific goals and objectives within a given timeframe this requires a more analytical, or NEA, mindset, discouraging collaboration in favour of the attainment of goals. It takes the skill of a coherent leader to assess the situation and determine which is the most appropriate approach.
Both forms of emotional attractors can significantly impact the mood or behaviour of the team. Emotional transference or contagion is commonplace within teams, whereby consistent positive or negative behaviour by a leader will affect those around them. A leader should be aware of the impact of this and manage their behaviour accordingly. Being aware of triggers for PEA and NEA behaviour will allow the leader to harness that awareness and convert it into real change.
In his presentation, Jim Dethmer looked at Michael Beckwith’s concept of the Four States of Consciousness and how most conversations are formed by content and context11. All too often leaders approach conversations by content (e.g. what are we talking about?). As we move towards a more open, empathetic form of leadership however, so there is a need to see the context of the conversation as being equally important (e.g. from what state of mind are we having this conversation?).
Many conversations are driven by the ‘Victim’ consciousness, whereby life is a series of problems to tackle, and the person is the victim of these problems and the environment that created them. This is often driven by a strong egoic need to be right (and to prove others wrong) hence a lack of empathy and understanding. If leaders can move to a more ‘Creator’ driven state of consciousness influenced by curiosity rather than righteousness, (i.e. ‘what happens if I look at this problem differently?’) there is a chance they will view problems as an invitation to learn rather than something to solve. This fits with the more collaborative, inquisitive, and open minded approach to leadership asking others to give advice and seeking alternative sources of information other than their own experience or intuition.
Amy Fox, CEO of Mobius Executive Leadership12 suggests it is no longer valid to approach problem solving as a need to break the problem down to its component parts and then examine them individually, so often they are inextricably linked and must therefore be approached as a whole. She describes this as ‘patchwork thinking’ or the need for a more holistic approach; to find the thread that joins it all. This requires leaders to embrace the complexity of the problem and realise that its solution is in the understanding of how the parts are related.
What does an organisation need to have in place to support this new way of thinking? As discussed, it starts with a detailed examination of the leadership profile within the organisation with a view to challenging existing behaviours and attitudes. Exploring and gathering feedback from the stakeholders at all levels of the organisation, asking questions such as ‘how has the business changed?’, ‘is what we do now, right for the business and its stakeholders?’, ‘what has changed for them?’ and ‘what is coming next?’ will lead to greater insight of the organisation’s current thinking and future requirements.
In their book, Systemic Coaching – Delivering Value Beyond the Individual, Peter Hawkins and Eve Turner13 suggest the need for a move towards Systemic Coaching practices. A Systemic relationship is a collaborative dialogue between two or more people exploring ways they can learn and develop in relation to the environment within which they are embedded. Be it a micro (workplace) or macro (global) environment. It recognises that we are part of a system that involves many stakeholders (e.g. colleagues, managers, clients, suppliers, customers etc.) and the importance of addressing topics from the standpoint of those stakeholders as well as from the individual.
For organisations this means that leaders must not only address the need for a more collaborative relationship with their co-workers but also recognise and bring into discussion the needs of their stakeholders, essentially moving from a diadic to a triadic relationship. This process takes into consideration the effects of their actions not just for the good of the company but for the good of their stakeholders and the wider national and international environment. Hawkins and Turner go on to explain the need to ‘unlearn’ certain habits and practices in favour of adopting new ways of working, such as more collaborative forms of conversation and listening. This also recognises the increasingly important role of the leader in steering their organisation towards more environmentally astute practices and processes. Hawkins and Turner suggest a process for achieving this change:
Put simply, they encourage us to become more curious, inquisitive, and informed, thereby achieving a level of awareness that in turn leads to engagement and ultimately into action and change. In this instance towards ecological advances but the same cyclical learning could be applied to all areas within an organisation where it is necessary to learn new practices, processes, and systems.
According to Greg Thomas and Jewel Kinch-Thomas the key elements to a successful jazz ensemble are adaption, agility, flexibility, fluidity, and innovation14. Elements, it can be said, that should be found in a successful team in the workplace.
They suggest that the key jazz principles of; individual excellence, antagonistic co-operation, shared leadership, and ensemble mindset can be used to set the agenda for modern leadership practices. As before there is a need to recognise the different roles within a team (Thomas & Kinch-Thomas determine key roles as; improver, innovator, stabiliser and integrator) but they advance existing thinking suggesting the need for these roles to integrate further than previous practices have suggested and for leaders to listen more acutely to their team, to be active, empathetic and generative (listening with an open heart and will). Encouraging a process of antagonistic co-operation and challenge can lead to greater innovation, ownership initiative and shared leadership. Which in turn can lead to greater engagement, trust, and productivity. A leader who has the courage to challenge the old systems and practices around teamwork, can develop their people and organisation towards greater flexibility and resilience for future challenges.
Creator of the Cynefin Framework, David Snowden15 sees resilience as ‘the surviving continuity of identity over time’. For organisations to ensure the survival of identity in uncertain times he suggests the need to create awareness of the present, not the future. Where it is difficult to predict the future the best, we can do is to start a journey with a general sense of direction rather than a strict set of goals. If you cannot define the structure of your organisation in relation to the changing environment it finds itself in, then focus on building ‘scaffold’ instead to support it. That is to say that by focusing on the elements of the organisation within a leader’s control, (rather than those forces out of their control) they can maintain a focussed strategy and build resilience. By reviewing the processes, resources, procedures, and frameworks of the business they are able to reinforce the organisation in readiness to face whatever changes arise in the business environment.
Snowden highlights the need to reduce the degrees of separation within an organisation and focus on building informal networks and increased connectivity wherein more can be achieved. The formation of small groups with overlapping membership can improve connectivity, creativity, discussion and ultimately improve performance. Allied to this is the concept of collaboration, working as more free thinking teams rather than groups reliant upon individual leaders. Leaders should share knowledge and distribute decision making.
For many the suggestion of embracing a more empathetic form of leadership, allowing greater employee input, and enabling autonomy poses an overwhelming challenge to their current understanding of leadership. Changing this mindset, however, need not be the impossible task it seems at first to be. Whilst accepting there is a need for change, great leaders understand the need to develop flexible strategies and recognise the differing and unique perspectives of their business and workforce.
As discussed, the process of change should start at an individual level. Using coaching or developmental programmes, leaders at all levels within an organisation should be invited to explore and develop their own leadership style and establish a clarity of thought and awareness around it. Leaders will then be able to move on and assess the needs of their team, the organisation and its environment with the skills, confidence and assurance required. By fostering this attitude on a team level organisations can apply it more broadly by encouraging inquisitiveness and dialogue around their vision and purpose and then gradually moving towards more collaborative, autonomous systems that empower the workforce, bond them to the organisation and provide them with the support and encouragement to become the most productive element of the organisation. To achieve realistic and enduring change takes time and should be undertaken as a series of gradual steps rather than giant leaps. What works for one organisation will not work for every organisation.
Ultimately, enhancing employee engagement can only be good for society. Increased productivity leads to greater social stability and higher standards of living as people achieve financial stability, self-worth, and optimism about the future.
- This is a chance to reconsider old structure and embrace transformation
- Organisations that focus on the basic human need for psychological engagement get more out of their employees
- Change mindset, from culture of individualism to collaboration
- Lasting, embodied change starts at the individual level before moving to the team and throughout the organisation
- Awareness and acceptance are the first steps to becoming a coherent leader. Accept ignorance, vulnerability, and discomfort
- Systemic thinking. Consider the perspectives of all the stakeholders in the organisation, both internal and external
- Different situations require different leadership styles. Assess the situation and determine the appropriate response
- Adopt a more holistic approach to problem solving. Embrace the complexity of the problem
- Listen more acutely to the team. Be active, empathetic, and generative
- Encourage antagonistic co-operation and challenge to increase innovation and engagement within a team
- In times of uncertainty do not set rigid goals. Instead improve resilience by building ‘scaffold’ around the organisation
- Realise the need for flexible strategies to suit the needs of the organisation and situation – one size does not fit all.
- Bob Stilger
2. Coaches Rising Summit 2020
3. State of the Global Workplace Survey, Gallup 2017 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238079/state-global-workplace-2017.aspx
6. Paul Byrne
7. Nicholas Janni
8. Otto Scharmer
9. Holly Woods
10. Richard Boyatzis & Amanda Blake
11. Jim Dethmer
12. Amy Elizabeth Fox
13. Peter Hawkins & Eve Turner
14. Greg Thomas & Jewel Kinch-Thomas
15. David Snowden
If you would like to discuss any of the points in this article or explore the ways in which coaching might assist you or your business, please get in touch.
Jon Hazan is the Director of Atlas Coaching and has worked in the field of team development and leadership for over eighteen years.