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Innovating leadership to enhance productivity and performance

By Neil Hayward, WorkBuzz Customer Advisory Board Chair

Bad leaders are often egocentric, lack empathy, more naturally focus on their own actions first, whilst believing that their people understand them completely (as how can you be a leader without followers?). These four Leadership problems are then magnified by a further fifth failing: most leaders are not particularly adept at understanding how their own behaviours influence the unfolding process of their interactions with the world around them i.e. you get what you give! Arguably technology and managing people at a distance rather than face to face compounds this problem. We have all worked with leaders like this haven’t we?

During the real time exchanges we have with people all day every day, we influence them by how we are in our conversations with them whether we like it or not. In other words, leaders often create the outcomes they don’t like, then blame their teams for this, all without realising they caused it! You have to get to know your people if you want to get the best performance from them. Leaders who don’t know their people, and who only focus on their own actions, make a host of different mistakes that they never seem to attach to themselves.

Here are two such examples based on situations I have either been in or seen:

  • A leader promotes a top employee to a new management position without providing the employee with any managerial or leadership training first. The employee may have seemed immensely mature and truly talented in their previous job but simply does not know how to handle the subtleties of doing something bigger and different. They then don’t deliver in the new job. And the leader then concludes that the employee didn’t have significant leadership potential after all.
  • After a practice talk, a public speaking coach asks the speaker “When did you feel most confident during your speech?”. A second coach asks “When during your speech did you feel least confident?” It is no surprise when the second coach rates the speech lower than the first coach does because they were only looking for the negatives and so that’s what the person being coached gave them. But it was the same speech in both cases!

It doesn’t have to be like this however. If you do these 5 things differently you shape a very different outcome to these five Leadership problems:

Step 1: Focus on them

The team working for you need to feel and believe that as their Leader you are interested in them not just yourself. Do that by asking them questions about themselves and proactively seek their views about their work. This conveys respect, improves trust and gets you information.

Step 2: Step into their shoes

When you are talking to someone who works for you try stepping into their shoes. A conscious push here can have a huge impact. The best question to use is: “What help do you need?” not “How can I help you?”

Step 3: Avoid thinking of your own actions first

Instead, think of the reactions you would like to see from your team members. Only after you have identified your hoped for outcomes should you start thinking about how you can mould your own actions to achieve them.

Step 4: Active listening works

This is a simple way to ensure constructive, substantive dialogue. It means that when Leaders tell a team member about a job they would like done they should then ask the team member to “tell me what I just told you”. The back and forth that ensues means both people take time talking, take time to understand one another’s language and better understand each other as a result. And the task gets clarified too.

Step 5: Get on the balcony/walk the floor

This solution seems to be telling you to be in two places at once as a Leader. But this isn’t a magic trick. The one is metaphorical (get on the balcony) and the other is physical (walk the floor). I see too many Leaders who don’t spend enough time with the people that work for them. They spend time worrying what’s happening in other parts of the business instead. And looking at what everyone else is doing. Such leaders risk neglecting what is in their gift which is to understand and respond to what their team wants and needs from them. Equally I see Leaders who never look up or look away from the day to day.

The concept of ‘Getting on The Balcony’ involves a degree of mental distancing and looking over a situation rather than being in a situation. It involves stepping back from the action, and observing the system, the patterns, the trends and the opportunities. The very worst place to be is on the balcony and yet looking the other way!

Why does this focus on Leadership matter?

Well, I all too often hear companies talking about performance and productivity from their people as if it is somehow something that is determined in the abstract and has nothing at all to do with how they treat people day after day which is the role of leaders after all. It isn’t. And I also see that, according to the WorkBuzz State of Employee Engagement Report 2023, that investing in learning and development is declining in importance (Top priority for 19% of survey respondents in 2023 and down 5 places since 2022) even as the focus on performance and productivity is becoming more significant (Top priority for 26% of survey respondents in 2023 and up 6 places since 2022). This is contradictory as you cannot get the one without investing in the other first. This is all about cause and effect.

This is why WorkBuzz included Leadership Capability in this year’s State of Employee Engagement Survey for the first time. It came in strong in the top half of our rankings and is clearly a concern for HR professionals. And for good reason. Improving employee engagement is an uphill battle if your people don’t believe in your leadership and if your Leaders don’t exhibit the right behaviours. You have to invest to get the best and that investment will improve engagement and that improvement will drive better performance and productivity in turn. Getting your leaders to adopt these five solutions will make a difference but they will need help doing it.

Remember, you don’t get performance and productivity without doing things differently as a leader.

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