Is it really possible for every leader to be as vulnerable and authentic as we think they need to be to create a safe space for us to work and play in? And will our people always naturally respond to the efforts of leaders in encouraging 'authenticity' at work?
The short answer is no. If you have managers or employees who are having challenges being as open and ‘real’ as we’d like them to be then in some respects that’s being vulnerable as well. They are letting us know that they either don’t know how to be more authentic, aren't ready for it or that they are unwilling.
As leaders we have a role to play in making it ok for people to relax and engage with what they are doing on a daily basis and who they are doing it with. This article explores how we as leaders can start to shift our approach in making this happen.
Being vulnerable happens differently for all of us...there is no cookie cutter approach
Not knowing ‘how’ to be vulnerable can be remedied through learning and experience. We know that coaching, mentoring and specialist courses in this area can certainly help. However, the unwilling aspect is a bit different. If they are unwilling does it mean we give up on them? No; but the workplace is not a therapists couch, so we can’t dive into the role of counsellor. Yet the reality is, people show up for work each day who are not so open (or completely closed) to the idea of vulnerability. Have they had a bad experience playing with this idea at work before? They opened themselves up and were ridiculed or it was used against them? Or is it their belief system learned from a very young age? Another reason related to this is related to national culture…in some cultures being more emotionally restrained is considered appropriate, whilst in more collectivist cultures (eg; Asian, eastern European, Middle East) sharing occurs over time as a relationship genuinely develops, because for these groups the door to trust is opened based on ‘who’ you are and not ‘what’ you do. And then there is organisational culture. Is your culture open and supportive of this way of being? There is a whole different article on that alone waiting to be written; but for now we will stick with who we are as leaders and what we can be doing.
Enabling vulnerability means acknowledging and using your potency
As leaders this means that our role is to be thinking about how we create the opportunity for vulnerability to grow. And the solution evolves around psychological safety, which applies to all aspects of work life around the world.
Leaders have a certain potency that comes with their role that can be overlooked. That is, our ability to create a safe place where people feel ok to bring ‘who’ they are into the role and the workplace. I remember when I started my working life, this was an optional and largely unknown aspect of leadership, and if you had a leader who did this then you really had landed on your feet! Today is different. We know more about human development and motivation, and the links between performance, culture, engagement and happiness at work. We also know more about the role that we play as leaders in making it ok for our people to bring as much of themselves to work as possible, and not just a persona shackled by a strong defensive boundary.
How do we make it ok? It’s simple to understand in one respect and the same time, depending on our own frame of reference, can be difficult to do. We lead by example in making the environment inclusive and non-judgemental. We give people time to colour their role with ‘who’ they are, and we don’t enforce a time limit on the development of trust and engagement. In fact, by expecting that trust or engagement should be occurring by a certain time could be saying more about our personal needs as a leader than it does about the people we are leading.
Unconditional Leadership - The key to vulnerability
Really, the key to this is about being unconditional in your style. Accepting that as a leader you may be creating the opportunity for rapport to build, but it may not be reciprocated, or it could take time before others start to relax and share. Others may be ready for it and it happens quickly and naturally.
But being unconditional in your style is a central pillar to building a psychologically safe and enjoyable place to work. It's easy to understand...not necessarily easy to do...but highly rewarding. For everyone.
In the western world we never believe we ever have enough time; we squeeze as much into our day as possible, we want to get to work, maybe grab a coffee and just get on with things. Yes, there are of course those who are cultural outliers and have a more longer-term relationship with time and a more relaxed approach to how things are done (because there is plenty of time!), but for most of us it’s about just getting on with the task at hand.
Which happens to be one of the biggest detractors from building healthy and engaging relationships at work!
To build engagement amongst peers, or between the leader and their team you need to know ‘who’ you are working with. To know ‘who’ you are working with takes time and effort…the time to build rapport and a depth of safety in the relationship that makes it easier to really relax with each other.
Let’s face it, we don’t drop our personal boundaries and defence mechanisms and let just anyone in; nor do we naturally do it quickly. So when we come to work and just get on with things we are preventing the development of rapport and resilience in our relationships.
If you are a leader, then this is one of the most effective and simplest things you can be doing to develop more engaging relationships in your team. Simply put:
If you’d like to know more about the ways in which you can build a more engaging leadership style, view our Engaging Leadership resources, or enquire about our Lead2Engage program.
I’ve just finished watching a short documentary on the making of the Brian Wilson album 'No Pier Pressure'. Anyone who knows me even moderately well will know my deep connection with his music from the time of the Beach Boys through until today. His eclectic style and ability to continuously learn and produce outstanding music is simply amazing.
What stood out for me most though is listening to the much younger artists he brought in for this album talk about their experience in working with him on this album.
All of them, Kasey Musgraves, Nate Reuss, Sebu, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward – a new generation of performers, all established in their own right, describing what it means to be engaged in the creative relationship with Brian Wilson. And all of them spoke about Brian’s desire for getting things right. Really right. Perfect even? And at the same time they spoke about Brian learning as he understood their voices, and folded that into his style to allow for a co-creation and perhaps an output that was better than what he originally had in mind from a production perspective. One of them also spoke of how Brian draws in the best musicians because he can get them to lift more than they normally would.
Then it hit me. What I was watching was a masterclass in engaging leadership.
He certainly has his ideas for how something should be, and the creative process is a high-risk environment. The risk being that your creativity can be trashed at the whim of the consumer and critics.
And leadership is no different.
Really good leadership is often about having an idea about where you are going and articulating that. At the same time it is about listening to your team and those around you, and being prepared to fold in their ideas to make the journey and outcome more effective than it was going to be. But where’s the risk in that? Well, anytime you are prepared to create a strategy, a plan for the future, a blue-print for a new product or service; you are putting your creative self out there for criticism. Show me anyone who has done this and I’ll bet that they can list at least one person who criticised what they proposed.
Beyond this, all of the younger musicians spoke about being inspired and lifted despite his drive for perfection. In fact, I would say a big part of the inspiration was because of his famous drive for perfection…for wanting to get things just right. How often do we hear the message that there is no such thing as perfection; and that’s true when it comes to ‘us’. As humans, we are only perfect whilst ever we are growing, developing, learning and seeking to do things better than we may have done it before. That is what I saw in that documentary; both from the actions of Brian Wilson and in the reflections of the younger artists.
I am a believer that an important part of leadership is not being prepared to settle for second-best; firstly in myself, and therefore in others. This also implies a wonderful thing. It means we believe that even when we do and celebrate great work, we also believe that the team can still lift some more. It means that when things don’t work out so well, we believe that our team can learn, grow and give it another go. That is a wonderful and inspiring belief to have as a leader. Belief in self and belief in others.
The minute we stop believing this, I think we start to reduce our impact as leaders; we commence the gradual erosion of engagement. So perhaps Brian Wilson brings something to the table when it comes to learning about engaging leadership? Perhaps a motto for being an engaging leader (and for life in general) can be found in the words of Brian Wilson...
"Beware the lollipop of mediocrity…lick it once and you’ll suck forever!”
When it comes to fostering engagement, the role of a leader is central, and for leaders themselves, it can seem quite overwhelming. We know that the level of engagement is the result of a number of factors, two of which are leader-critical. They are the ability of your leaders to understand and articulate your:
Let’s explore these ideas in brief.
Whether you are a first time supervisor or a seasoned leader, your ability to make sense of where the company is headed and wrap your head around the strategy and objectives as they relate to your level of leadership is a pivotal activity when it comes to building engagement in your teams. The reason for this is simple. People like to know where they are going and what they are investing their energy in. Sure, there are some people who are just happy to turn up each day, do what they have to do and then go home. But for a majority of your people, they like to know why they are turning up each day and just how their role is contributing to the achievement of the bigger picture. Part of this is psychological, as we all have deep hungers for being informed and acknowledged. At its very core, sharing what you know of how your team’s objectives contribute to the function or company strategy will feed those hungers and prevent your people from making their own sense of where the ship is headed. So, if you know where the ship is headed, share it.
This one can seem a bit harder than sharing on direction as culture can seem like such a big and impermeable beast. But the reality is that as leaders we are custodians and champions of our organisations culture. If you’ve not gone down the path of capturing and optimising your organisational culture, you can still nail this one. What are the company values? These are usually derived from processes that distil what we believe are the important ways to think and act around here. If you don’t have clearly stated values, what is the vision? This is another way of getting in touch with the culture of an organisation. It’s certainly not the whole picture, especially if you find yourself in a situation where the stated vision or values are not demonstrated by the leadership of the business. Between your vision and values, you have some important guide posts for ‘how’ you should be leading. Whether they be values such as ‘passion’, ‘entrepreneurial’ or ‘customer-focused’, find a way to bring these to life in the way you lead. Talk with your team about what they mean for how your team does what it does on a daily basis. From first time manager to experienced leader…this one can be easy to do as well. From a psychological standpoint, by having this conversation your people feel involved in the business. And when you walk the talk, and carry out your role in the spirit of the vision or values you let your people see what good looks like. Some people need to see it to make sense of it whilst others will just get it.
These are a couple of small actions that any leader can deploy that will start to have a positive impact on engagement. Seriously, they are not time-consuming nor do they need to suck energy…rather they will most likely generate energy…and we know that when we feel energised we also start to feel engaged.
Having a sense of purpose is central to effective employee engagement, and there are three dimensions to this, that if understood, can contribute effectively to organisational engagement strategies. I call these dimensions:
Below is a short descriptor of each type of Purpose.
Intrinsic Sense of Purpose
This is really about those fundamental questions like; Who am I? or What are my values? We may never fully know the answers to these types of questions, but for most people there tends to be a sense of what the answers are, especially on the values side of things. I like to think of this as being our internal compass and life vest all rolled into one. It gives us direction, and in those times when the direction isn’t clear, or we lose our way, our values can act as our life vest to keep us afloat until we regain traction. If we are unable to access, develop or acknowledge our Intrinsic Sense of Purpose, we aren’t in the best position to optimise our Extrinsic Sense of Purpose.
Extrinsic Sense of Purpose
This is the part of us that the rest of the world can see when seeking to fulfil our Intrinsic Sense of Purpose, whether it be in our career, our personal activities or the way we engage with family and friends. Ideally, in a professional context, we would like to think that what we do for a living is an extension of ‘who’ we are and the reality is that this is true for all of us, no matter what our country or culture. In Asian and Middle East cultures, for example, our work team really is an extension of our family on many levels with individual purpose being reinforced through acceptance of, and belonging to, the group. This of course relies on knowing ‘who’ our colleagues are and what they stand for and is as important, if not more important, than knowing ‘what’ we are here to do. Whilst in cultures, like that found in Anglo countries, there is a continuous need for organisations to understand and express its Intrinsic Sense of Purpose in an effort to attract and retain employees by demonstrating that what it stands for is good for the Intrinsic needs of the people it hopes to attract and for those who already work there.
So our Extrinsic Sense of Purpose serves the purpose of being fulfilling on a practical level (I enjoy what I do) and reinforcing our Intrinsic Sense of Purpose (I enjoy how I do what I do and why I do what I do).
Adapted Sense of Purpose
This is an interesting place to be as there are times when our Intrinsic and Extrinsic senses of Purpose aren’t in alignment. This can be when we aren’t sure of ‘who’ we are but we are finding ways to sustain ourselves externally with the hope that this will provide clarity on who we are. This can be caused by a major life event which creates the need to re-evaluate who we are, and can sometimes seem like it’s always a work in progress.
There are also those times when we are sure of who we are, but our Extrinsic activities are out of alignment. For example, when we are starting out in our career, there is sometimes the need to take what we can get to build up experience. There are also those times when we are caught up in a restructure or major organisational change; and then there is the more stark situation that comes with expats moving from one country to another. In all of these situations we are required to adapt temporarily until we can find that common ground, or reconcile between who we are and where we find ourselves.
The Challenge and the Opportunity
It is in the Adapted space that we can lose people…no matter the circumstance. It is in this adapted space that we see the largest turnover of expats during the assignment and upon return due to culture shock, reverse culture shock and a lack of planning to support effective return of the expat. In change management, we lose people because the change plan didn’t take into consideration how people will feel, react or perceive the change. In restructures, it is more obvious because who we are can often be wrapped up in what we do.
This challenge also represents the greatest opportunity for both the individual and the organisation. It is in the Adapted space when there is the greatest opportunity for personal and professional growth.
If you are able to identify those moments in your organisation when at either an individual, team or functional level, there is likely to be gap between the Intrinsic Sense of Purpose and the Extrinsic Sense of Purpose, that’s where the work is to be done. That’s precisely the place where concerns are planned for, fears are addressed, excitement is harnessed and progress can be created.
We often miss this piece as we are focussed mainly on the external factors, for example, what I want you to be doing compared to what you are doing today. And our change plan supports this in a structured and behaviourally focussed way.
However, if we are prepared to explore the space between who our people are (and therefore the reason why they likely joined your organisation) and what we are asking them to do differently, (and therefore the intrinsic impact this will have on them), we are in a better position to drive genuine engagement. In my last post titled Build Engagement Through Change, we started to explore how to work in this space, and over the next couple of posts we will explore the ways to work with this in more detail.
What does national identity have to do with employee engagement?
Well, everything really when we consider that ‘who we are’ is central to what motivates us. Like organisational culture, we know that national culture is made of outer layers that are mostly easy to see; practices, rituals, symbols etc… But the deepest layer of culture is that of values, which exist deep within each of us, and which determines the way we perceive, and therefore, embrace the outer layers. These are values that underpin our perception of self, and of who we are, such as gender and national identity. And this is the key. By understanding the differences between national culture and organisational culture, we can strengthen the potential of engagement approaches; especially in multi-national settings, or in multi-cultural societies. By understanding the core tenets of national culture, an organisation has the ability to build in added relevance, and dare I say it, sustainability, to their engagement strategies and activities.
Let’s explore this a little more to get an idea of how easy it is to build in this extra layer of relevance and impact to an engagement strategy. Firstly, we need a common global framework and language for understanding national culture; for this I draw on the scientific foundation of Prof Geert Hofstede’s six dimensions of culture, of which I will focus on the first five:
Power Distance: The extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations accept that power is distributed unequally. Higher Power Distance = hierarchy, power and distance between the top of the institution and the bottom. Lower Power Distance = flatter hierarchies (and hierarchy for convenience only) and greater accessibility to superiors.
Individual or Collective: In Individualist societies people are supposed to look after themselves and their direct family only. In Collectivist societies people belong to ‘in-groups’ that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.
Masculine or Feminine: Emphasis on status, achievement and success in life, versus emphasis on the quality of life and serving others.
Uncertainty Avoidance: The extent to which people feel threatened by ambiguous situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these.
Long Term vs Short Term: The extent to which people show a future-oriented perspective rather than a normative or short-term point of view.
With the above dimensions in mind, we can already start to see that what may work in one country as far as an engagement approach is concerned may not work as well, if at all, in a different country. This is a huge consideration for multi-nationals. For those with a single country focus, our experience is showing very clearly how the effective use of these dimensions can help to optimise the way engagement occurs; both at a leadership and organisational level. Let’s look at what this means.
Culture Focused Engagement
We have taken the cultural dimensions of Hofstede, and applied them to employee engagement and found that there are a number of fairly simple combinations that can inform the approach of your engagement strategy for greater impact. We have broken them into two sets of factors, People and Organisational Factors.
These are the factors that influence the way leaders engage with their people, ranging from the relevance of reward and recognition strategies, and how leaders motivate and inspire. Below is a short overview of the impact of each People Factor Dimension.
People Factor 1: Involve Me or Tell Me
Involve Me countries are those with a lower Power Distance score, such as Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK. As the name suggests, the involvement of employees in decision making through a more consultative style is central to how leaders can engage with their teams. In Tell Me cultures, there is higher Power Distance; with ‘power’ being the central concept. Most countries around the world outside of Germany, Anglo and Scandinavian countries are higher in Power Distance. Therefore, in these countries, the higher the score on the Power Distance scale, the less likely it is that a) the manager will want to involve their employee in a conversation to seek their opinion on a topic, as this would mean giving up the power that comes with their role, and b) the employee will not believe they have the power to engage in such a conversation in the first place and will expect to be told. Outside of day-to-day leadership styles, an easy example of how we see this play out in multi-national companies is through the application of the annual objectives setting process. Employees from Involve Me countries, (lower Power Distance origins), will appreciate this process and be mostly engaged in the negotiation of objectives. The same practice rolled out in Tell Me countries stand next to no chance of being applied successfully, if at all (with the same going for higher Power Distance employees living and working in a lower Power Distance society). The manager will see this as giving up a central tenant of their role (to have the answers and provide direction) and the employee will not believe that they have the power in the first place to have such a conversation.
People Factor 2: Recognise Me or Acknowledge Us
This factor is based on Hofstede’s second dimension of Individualism vs Collectivism, and has a strong influence on recognition, loyalty and, like the first factor, how people like to be led. Anglosphere countries, Germany, France, the Netherlands are examples of Recognise Me countries; all highly individualist societies. The Middle East, West Asia, Asia and South America are all examples of Acknowledge Us regions, and more collectivist. When coaching expat leaders moving from individualist countries to collectivist, this is one of the more subtle, but high impacting aspects of leadership that needs to be grasped. The easy example is how we recognise high performers. In a Recognise Me country, it is as the name suggests; we recognise those who perform. Whether it is in the company newsletter, as employee of the month or a special voucher for a vacation. In Recognise Me cultures, loyalty is to oneself, and their immediate circle of friends or family; and engagement is probably most likely to occur if the organisation can demonstrate an intersection between the needs of both the organisation and the employee. In an Acknowledge Us country, where belonging and loyalty to the group trumps self-actualisation, the approach to recognise great performance is structured not to place an individual above the group. In fact the belief is more likely to be that ‘we’ succeeded with little or no thought of how one individual was better than the other. Naturally you can imagine how leadership styles need to be adjusted to maximise performance. Applying a Recognise Me style of leadership in an Acknowledge Us country will only create disharmony, and create greater distance between the manager and the employee group than would normally exist.
People Factor 3: Task Trust or Relationship Trust
Trust and engagement are often considered interchangeable terms when thinking about employee engagement. But how we build trust will happen in different ways, depending on where you are from. Through a business lens, and drawing once again on the Hofstede dimension of Individualism vs Collectivism, we know that trust is built in different ways; either through the demonstration of individual competence and focusing immediately on business (Task Trust) or by sharing time in the group and letting people understand who they are really working with (Relationship Trust). From an engagement perspective we can see that this element has the potential to work against us in very subtle ways if we aren’t awake to the difference in approaches. An Asian member of a global team (Relationship Trust), who is used to slowly spending time building the business relationship, will likely find it confronting if they are sent to Task Trust country as an expat or to form part of a virtual team made up mostly of Individualist team members. Confronting in that a quick team-building session will serve as the means by which the ice is broken and the first building blocks of trust are established in an Task Trust society. It’s interesting to note that in my experience, very little energy is given to the notion of team building in Relationship Trust countries; whereas in Task Trust countries, where the focus is on what ‘I can do’ and ‘who I am’, it makes sense that team building and Tuckman’s stages of team development have a genuine role to play in building team engagement.
People Factor 4: Win the Game or Play the Game
In tougher cultures, or as Hofstede describes, Masculine cultures, the aim is to be the best, to win. Japan, China, Australia, the US and Germany are all examples of countries who fall into this category. On the other hand, more tender cultures, where the emphasis is on the quality of life, the aim is to participate, collaborate and achieve in a win-win manner. The Scandinavian region, The Netherlands, Sri Lanka and Thailand are all examples of countries that fall into this category. This factor has a strong impact on the best approaches for rewarding, and in some respects, the language and symbols used to motivate. In tougher cultures, where win/lose is preferable to win/win, the dialogue required is a more direct style that clearly points out benefits. And the role of rewards, to recognise status, are central to motivation. In more tender cultures, where the journey is as important as the outcome, then the focus is more on how to ensure ‘we’ experience the journey and the outcome. This factor plays a role in how you communicate messages to your team to motivate them; tough = sell and debate, whilst tender = support and dialogue.
Organisational Approach Factors:
The design of an engagement strategy is one thing; but knowing how to optimise its approach through the effective understanding and application of national culture factors is something else. Even a basic understanding of the national culture dimensions can assist with more targeted communication and change management techniques. The Organisational Approach Factors are underpinned by two of Prof Hofstede’s dimensions: Uncertainty Avoidance and Long or Short Term Orientation (how we perceive time).
By taking these dimensions into consideration, we are able to create a core engagement approach that will target a majority of employees; remembering that in any country there will always be cultural outliers, such as expats, immigrants, or the children of immigrant parents.
Below is a summary of the various organisational approaches to engagement based on the combinations of Uncertainty Avoidance and Long or Short-Term Outlook.
(Click on the table for a bigger version)
For many years we’ve been considering the impact of organisational culture on employee engagement and the interplay that exists between the two when creating engagement strategies. By taking one extra step, and considering one of the core values that exist in all of us, that of our national identity, it is possible engagement to take on a whole new meaning and relevance.
How often do we look at the most engaging and inspiring leaders of the world and ask ourselves, "why can’t I have a bit of that?"
Let’s face it, there are leaders out there who are engaging, effective, and carry with them a potency that seems to almost create a class system in terms of leaders. But what is it about their potency that places them at the top of the leadership pecking order (if such a thing existed!)?
There are three characteristics that I consistently see in those that I regard as potent leaders. They:
1. are natural
2. can relate with ease
3. own the role of a leader
Let's explore these ideas in brief.
Potent Leaders are Natural
A potent leader comes across as natural; there is a higher degree of authenticity with what they do and how they do it. This is because for them the debate on just how much we allow ‘who’ we are to influence our work isn’t a consideration. I often hear leaders express concern over how they work hard to keep their personal and professional lives separate, or put effort into managing the balance. Little do they realise that people engage as much with who we are as much as they do the other factors such as remuneration, rewards and the aesthetics of the workplace. Years of global engagement surveys highlight this fact; but the chances are your people aren’t reading employee engagement surveys, but they are reading you every day.
Being natural is about having a strong sense of self; being aware of your boundaries and being comfortable with what you are prepared to share, and the extent to which you are prepared to allow ‘who’ you are to colour your professional life and leadership style. Accompanying this is a healthy level of self-esteem and knowing that a little bit of vulnerability and openness is demonstrating that you are human; you are real!
So how can you be more natural in your leadership approach? The easy answer is to have the confidence to be yourself. If this isn’t a strong point, then question the self-talk that undermines and eats away at your confidence to allow more of yourself into the role. Chances are the self-talk is based on messages we have picked up throughout life (many that we have brought from childhood into adult life) that are irrational and probably not relevant to who you are today. So anything you can do to raise your levels of self-awareness and learn more about what makes you tick, will go a long way. Working with a coach who can help you connect with your values, reading or working with a mentor who is acknowledged as a natural and effective leader are all ways to help develop your style.
Potent Leaders Relate with Ease
The more natural we can be within our role, the more likely it is that we will be able to relate to others in an engaging style. After all, people will know ‘who’ it is that they are interacting with, which makes it easier for the communication flow and for the other person to also relax and bring more of who they are into the dialogue. When you are more relaxed with yourself, it also means you can increase your focus on the other person. Because you aren’t so worried (consciously or unconsciously) about what the other person may be thinking of you, this means you have more energy to invest in them. Observing their body language, looking for small cues that let you understand what they are really saying. You are signalling that you are interested in them; in ‘who’ they are. Leaders who relate with ease are really quite unconditional in their approach. To relate with ease is almost always about putting who you are, and your needs, to one side and really listening.
The impact for global leaders in this regard is significant. The ability to read small cues and be awake to what is really being said is critical to bridging the cultural gap. It is how we identify the cultural rituals and understand the differences that exist between us; allowing us to engage and relate with greater meaning. More importantly though, building any relationship, intercultural or otherwise, is an extremely unconditional process, and one that requires an acknowledgement that no matter which nationalities we may be interacting with we all share the some process for how we develop relationships. That is; we all need to go through a process of building rapport (seeking to understand ‘who’ the other person is, what their rituals are, and what is important to them), as a precursor to enjoying the natural momentum and engagement that comes with a ell developed relationship.
To improve the way you relate with ease, one of the most powerful things you can do is one of the simplest. Invest time at the beginning of the relationship to understand who it is you are dealing with. Ask questions and be inquisitive. Be interested, not interesting. You will soon realise that the idea of relating with ease has less to do with you, but more to do with how you enable the other person to relate to you with ease.
Potent Leaders Own the Role of a Leader
Allowing more of yourself into the role, and relating with ease can help you grow into the role of a leader and evolve as a leader. Underpinning this is your ability to acknowledge that you are a leader, in a leadership role. Your decisions and behaviours impact the careers and lives of those in your team directly and indirectly and in obvious and not so obvious ways. From decisions on performance review and pay increases and decisions to hire or fire, through to making off hand or throw away comments that may be in jest or only half thought through…but if taken out of context by an employee can impact their thinking and behaviours.
If you don’t understand this, then it doesn’t matter how natural a leader you are, or the extent to which you can relate with ease. You are missing the point that you have signed up for management and everything that comes with it. This means making the difficult decisions and having the hard conversations as well as ensuring you celebrate the successes.
The key message is that the potent leaders don’t shy away from the fact that they are a manager. They understand that there is an inherent power that accompanies the authority of their role that can be used to inspire, motivate and help lift performance. This inherent power is a natural accompaniment to leadership. You can’t have one without the other; which means that those leaders who find it difficult to own the fact that they are a leader probably don’t realise that by doing nothing in their role, they are still influencing behaviour. But not in the way they would like.
The Final Word?
No matter who you are, your role, or level of leadership; you can start developing your potency whenever you want; it’s not something that requires permission from anyone else. You own your potency.
Be pragmatic and look for ways to practice and experiment with new ways of engaging and track the responses and results. Read books on the subject, take tests that allow you to learn more about your values and what’s important to you, be coached or mentored, and above all value the integrity of your relationships.
Out of the many pillars of employee engagement, the one that stands out the most is leadership. Leaders impact engagement within an organisation both horizontally and vertically, and as identified in many research reports in the last five years, engaging leadership is fast becoming a non-negotiable.
It seems that now is the time to be rethinking the way leadership development occurs from an engagement perspective and there is a very good reason for this. Ask most leaders and they will be able to tell you ‘why’ employee engagement is important. They will most likely be able to tell you ‘what’ they should be doing as well; after all most leaders have at some point completed some form of management or leadership training that has provided some great ideas on what to do. But there is a missing link.
The secret to really good leadership engagement lies in ‘how’ we choose to deploy the skills and tools learned in the courses that teach 'what' to do. I've come to realise that in this respect, the answer has been in front of us for a number of decades without realising it. Eric Berne, in his work with transactional analysis, identified a series of hungers that drive us into action. Three of these are integral to employee engagement; stimulation (being intellectually and emotionally stimulated), recognition (being acknowledged for who we are and what we do - acknowledgement of our existence in the group and in society) and structure (how we make time for relationships, activities and to give and receive stimulation and recognition).
As a coach, mentor and leader in the people field for many years now, I have often found myself working with actively disengaged employees and teams with the objective of helping them get back on track. In this time I've worked with many underpinning causes of disengagement, such as, lack of challenge in the role, no vision for the future of the employee, lack of trust, inability to connect and integrate with new teams. You can imagine that these causes are a synthesis of many different variants; and the reality is that they are all related either directly, or indirectly, to each of the hungers mentioned above. Or rather, they are related to a lack of fulfilment of these hungers.
'How' we choose to engage as leaders should therefore look to addressing these basic hungers:
If you are an organisational development or professional development leader, the challenge is to take a fresh look at your leadership development approach through the 'how' lens. Another way to consider it is like this; if the way we have viewed leadership development until now can be considered structural and content driven, perhaps we need to match this with an approach that could best be described as relational and emergent.
The engine room of engagement is often perceived as a complex beast; but it doesn’t have to be this way; and it probably never has had to be this way. If you can keep it simple and focus on the above three elements, then you are perhaps making it easier for leaders to tap into and harness their potency, and become more naturally engaging leaders.
The future of leadership is always being questioned, explored, poked and prodded; yet the reality is that successful leaders tomorrow will most likely carry the same core qualities as those from today and years gone by. They will be leaders who have the vision of Steve Jobs, leverage disruption like Richard Branson and encourage constructive risk taking like Jack Welch. Above all, they will get that the relationships they create with their people will continue to be the beating heart of their success as a leader.
To put this in context let’s look at leadership through a couple of lenses that will matter in the coming years.
Engaging the Millennial Employee
It’s too easy (and lazy) to write off Generation Y with broad-brush strokes that categorise them as superficial and being the ‘me’ or the ‘I want it and I want it now’ crowd. The reality is that this is a generation connected to values, to each other and to the world as much as the generations that came before it – if not more. It goes without saying then that the most successful leaders of Generation Y will be those who take the time to connect with and genuinely understand what their Millenials want; from life and from work. You can’t discover this unless you build a relationship that is more than chatting about what you did on the weekend or the task at hand. The world is changing and we are well and truly in the Participation Age. As the name suggests, the people we are leading will increasingly expect to be involved at work. They will be as interested in the vision of the organisation as they will your personal vision for leadership and life – there will be no room to hide if your own personal line of sight from values to behaviour is blurred. They will want to be involved in decisions that impact organisational and team direction, and involved in decisions that impact them. So the more you understand, and really know the people you are leading, the more you will know how to direct and optimise their energy, and engage them in ‘why’ they are working with you and not just that they are.
Leading in Global Organisations
Everyday the world is becoming smaller; supply chains and markets are becoming global faster than ever before, and for leaders this means adopting a whole new mindset around how they connect as a leader. Teams are increasingly spread across more than one country and require a different style of leadership that engages and motivates in such a way that people feel like they belong – irrespective of where they are located. I’m fortunate to have worked with and been led by some really effective leaders over the years who have nailed this; one in particular stands out to this day. He was based in Parsippany, New Jersey and I was in Sydney, Australia. He also had reports in other countries and scattered throughout the US; and they all reported the same experience. He took the time to get to know us. Each phone call commenced on a personal level, he spoke as if we were old friends and drew us into the conversation. He also did a second thing very well; he spoke of our geographically dispersed team as if they were in the same room, as if I was sitting next to them! My colleagues, like him, were dotted line relationships, but he spoke as if we were blood relatives, and encouraged us to connect, share and leverage our collective knowledge. And we did. There were no silos and collaboration was the norm. It was as if the idea of borders and separate countries never even existed in his mind; and the assumption of his words and language was that we were one.
So what does this mean for the future of leadership? Probably the same thing it’s always meant; that we are leading people who at their core desire acknowledgement for who they are, and recognition for what they bring. People who, as Maslow suggested, like to belong. Factors that have never changed; but are about to become just a little more important to the leadership success equation. Perhaps it will become the era of the Relational Leader.
I read often about the idea that the aim of groups is to be able to ‘work together’. In the context of the world today, and what is described as the Participation Age, I wonder if ‘working together’ is enough? My experience is that if we are 'working together' then we are in a state of getting on with the job; doing what needs to be done to meet an outcome. In the past that may have sufficed, however we find ourselves in a position today where increasingly we are seeing transactional and administrative type tasks going the way of self-service and automation. This process is eliminating an important layer of ‘the work’ that we once got on with, and creates a new definition of what it means to get on with the job.
This new foundation layer is more transformational than it is transactional. It means getting on with the job in an era defined by continually changing technologies that influence rapidly shifting business expectations, and with a generation of younger, more world-aware, and ‘instantaneous’ employees. Underpinning this is a business environment where the borders that separate countries are less likely to define business context. Instead, the borders that encompass like minds and shared desires become the new business context. This shift brings with it a whole new set of challenges that redefines what it means to work and to lead.
So, coming back to my initial question…is ‘working together’ enough to ensure organisational success in the Participation Age? I think it’s a good start, though the real goal is to progress to the frame of ‘winning together’. The table below shows some of the key transitions will help an organisation move from Working Together to Winning Together:
Whilst there are not many organisations that could attest to being completely in the frame of Winning Together, when I speak and work with those people who are fortunate enough to be in organisations who lean that way, what I hear in the words they use, and see in the things they do, is a real sense of liberation. They speak of the freedom to experiment and exercise entrepreneurialism within a clearly defined set of boundaries. They speak of leaders who are more interested in feeding and guiding their energy around a task rather than micro-managing the task. Above all, they speak about how they are encouraged to bring themselves to work…not just the part that completes the job. They fully participate in ‘how’ the job is done, and not just that it is done. They therefore have a vested interest in success, and finding ways to be successful; for themselves and for the business.
In addition, when we consider the literature on how to work with Generation Y and those who will follow, we know that ‘working together’ isn’t going to cut it for much longer. Anyone who is currently leading a team of Millennial’s will most likely already be cutting their teeth on the attributes listed in the Winning Together column above.
As we enter the early days of the Participation Age, I’m not sure that merely ‘working together’ will be enough to ensure organisational longevity and success. A 'Winning Together' mindset it seems may be the new non-negotiable basis from which we work and lead.