UPFRONT Why Kiwi leaders stifle innovation

New Zealanders may pride themselves on innovation but in reality the rest of the world is well ahead of us in strong visionary thinking.
That’s according to Shaun McCarthy, chair of Human Synergistics Australasia (HSA), whose company has compared the leadership styles of 189 company bosses in New Zealand to those of 5000 top business leaders worldwide – and found them wanting.
“In general terms we have business culture that limits creativity and reduces people’s ability to use their own personal initiative. Where innovation exists it is often confined to certain parts of the organisation and not widespread.”
Instead, he says, we have managers who want staff to conform to policies and procedures, compete with peers and work longer hours – and believe these are ideal leadership traits. This reflects national trend which will inhibit our economy unless we “wake up and make some changes to our business attitudes”, says McCarthy.
Leaders can identify which of three leadership styles they most embody – constructive, passive/defensive or aggressive/defensive – by answering simple questionnaire about management traits, then transferring the resulting scores to 12-sector diagrammatic tool that is part of the HSA work kit.
Although most managers believe they have constructive leadership style, this doesn’t often match the assessment provided by those they work with. Most executives are seen by their direct reports and peers as far from constructive.
McCarthy notes that many Kiwi bosses have misguided assumptions about human behaviour – like ‘aggression will increase productivity’ when it almost always creates passivity. Human behaviour is prone to paradox – often you’ll get the opposite of what you’re aiming for.
Examples he cites include:
• The paradox of the short-term fix – the more we submit to pressure for short-term results, the more likely we are to create long-term ineffectiveness.
• The paradox of power – the more you control, the less initiative you get.
• The paradox of perfectionism – demanding perfectionism reduces quality.
• The paradox of competition – why do we assume that if we get people to compete, it will raise the level of competition?
• The paradox of goal setting – we all know that the most motivating goals are the ones we set ourselves, so why do we continue to manage through imposed goals?
• The paradox of performance management – many common approaches to performance improvement actually limit individual and collective performance.
Unless we start addressing some of these assumptions and what McCarthy describes as “conventional attitudes” then the gap will only widen between local companies and their international counterparts. The onus, he says, has to fall on leaders to try and understand that what they think of as their ideal leadership style may in fact be less than desirable and, in the long term, won’t take their company forward.

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