Leadership in 2023: Challenging ingrained beliefs.

While the idea of participative leadership has dominated the leadership textbooks for years, the driving forces for change now come from within organisations – a multigenerational workforce, with different values and working styles, dominated by younger generations who simply expect to be involved, expect collaboration, and want to be heard. By Shaun McCarthy.
Everyone will agree, the last couple of years have had us all in a constant state of change. From lockdowns to traffic lights, we have all learned new ways to adapt.

And that’s not about to stop – and nor should it. These adaptations (particularly remote working) were forced upon us, leading to the current model of hybrid working. But these were changes needed to meet immediate demands at the everyday level that risk masking fundamental transformative change needed in the very foundations of how we lead.

Adaptive change will continue to be the new normal. The current geopolitical context destabilising world security, the rise of populist politics, growing food shortages, constant climate disasters, and economic crises such as a potential global recession and the awakening beast of inflation, will all cause us to adapt in some way.

At the very least organisations will be confronted by supply shortages and rising costs along with changing market-place dynamics, not to mention talent shortages and serious skill gaps.

As always, the risk with externally imposed crises is that we focus on the current need and fail to think about deep fundamental changes that will put us in a better place to face further change.

Unlearn some basic assumptions
It’s times like these that we need to question some of the ingrained beliefs about leadership and in effect, unlearn some of these basic assumptions. As Todd Charteris, CEO of Rabobank says: “…these challenges mean that everyone – including our leaders – cannot rely on past assumptions about the way things should be”.

The first challenge is that leaders should spend less time talking and more time listening.

This is not a new idea. In fact, it’s been around for years. But leaders still believe that they must have all the answers, be the expert and have the deciding vote.

Our research at Human Synergistics (In Great Company – Unlocking the Secrets of Cultural Transformation 2nd ed 2011) has shown that listening was one of the least developed skills amongst senior executives.

As Shane Ellison former CEO of Auckland Transport says “…the test is to pick the times when you listen more intently than usual to those around you, such as your people and your stakeholders, and when, because times will demand it, do you choose to have the courage of your convictions and push ahead – taking people with you. In times like these being open to having more time to kōrero to get insights and work with people will become more crucial than ever”.

Todd Charteris’ take on this is “…for me in the current environment, it all starts with our people: supporting them to be the very best they can be, encouraging them to come forward with new ideas irrespective of their role or seniority, and celebrating their successes and contributions”.

The shift to a hybrid working model places even more emphasis on the need for leadership listening, to foster a sense of connection amongst team members and facilitate team discussions through Microsoft TEAMS, Zoom and other technology platforms.

While the ideas of participative leadership/servant leadership/facilitative leadership have dominated the leadership text books for years, the driving forces for change now come from within organisations themselves. A multigenerational workforce, with different values and working styles, now dominated by younger generations who simply expect to be involved, expect collaboration, and want to be heard.

Considering employees personal problems
Another fundamental shift is the notion that employees leave their personal issues ‘at the door’. With the blurring of lines between home and work life, brought front and centre by the move towards remote working, leaders are facing expectations from their people that they will reflect empathy and consideration about employees’ personal problems.

This takes the notion of listening to another whole level. With the current emphasis on personal well-being, expectations are growing that the organisation, represented by individual leaders, will show concern for individual personal issues.

One study undertaken by Circle In (a provider of digital employee benefits platforms), involving data from more than 500 leaders showed that 97 percent of respondents reported having supported a team member navigate challenging life issues, over 50 percent said providing this support is a major part of their job and 80 percent had not received any training in doing this (The Unsaid. Leading with empathy when there is no support: a manager’s dilemma, Circle In 2022).

What’s more, 75 percent said the support they need to provide their teams has increased as a result of Covid, and more than 50 percent report that this impacts their own stress levels.

While we should not expect managers to become counsellors, they need to show advanced listening (there’s that word again) skills to provide a caring ear for team members when they need one.

We need emotionally agile leaders who understand the importance of clear messages, can see when someone’s emotional reserves are low and are constantly matching individual workloads with individual capabilities.

To date most of our focus on culture has been around bullying/toxic cultures. While still retaining the all-important perspective of diversity and inclusion in organisational culture, we need to also think about culture in terms of consideration, support, and empathy. And not just supporting the people, but also supporting the supporters.

Rethinking performance management
Another fundamental rethink is that of performance management. In many organisations this got put on the backburner during Covid.

Rather than simply relaunching the old system, this is an ideal opportunity to go back to basics and think about the fundamental goals of the system. In the past it’s been more about individual performance, often in isolation from the rest of the organisation.
One of the primary purposes should be to show how individual performance contributes to organisational performance – the links between individual goals and organisational goals. This improves sense of purpose, job significance and connection – particularly important in a hybrid work model.

Good performance management also requires good listening. It should be about development and learning, not just measurement. The manager as coach guides improvement through regular coaching conversations (including feedback on performance) rather than the old fashioned annual ‘got you now’ exercise.

Great leaders are constantly learning. They challenge the current state and know that everyone needs to question assumptions. Sometimes this requires unlearning old habits, change in personal mindsets and, of course, learning new

Shaun McCarthy, CFHRNZ FAHRI, is the chair of Human Synergistics Australia & New Zealand. www.hsnz.co.nz
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