Sunday, August 17, 2014

Let's Talk About Leadership?

Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind highlight in a 2012 HBR article that “the command-and-control approach to management has in recent years become less and less viable. Globalization, new technologies, and changes in how companies create value and interact with customers have sharply reduced the efficacy of a purely directive, top-down model of leadership. What will take the place of that model? Part of the answer lies in how leaders manage communication within their organizations - that is, how they handle the flow of information to, from, and among their employees. Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be conversational.”
Groysberg and Slind mention that “smart leaders today, we have found, engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high. Furthermore, they initiate practices and foster cultural norms that instill a conversational sensibility throughout their organizations. Chief among the benefits of this approach is that it allows a large or growing company to function like a small one. By talking with employees, rather than simply issuing orders, leaders can retain or recapture some of the qualities -operational flexibility, high levels of employee engagement, tight strategic alignment - that enable start-ups to outperform better-established rivals.”
Yet one has to ask if this is ‘nice to have’ theory or if it is really happening in the work place? It’s strange, as over the last 20 years I must have asked over 5,000 employees at various levels and across all business sectors – “what makes a great leader” – and you know what, 99% of them know the attributes of a great leader, the problem always comes in the application.
Leaders know that ‘communication’ and ‘people conversations’ are vital to optimise an employee’s motivation, innovation and performance – yet for some reason that has been identified yet; most leaders are constantly bad at having these conversations.
Groysberg and Slind highlight how “personal conversation flourishes to the degree that the participants stay close to each other, figuratively as well as literally. Organizational conversation, similarly, requires leaders to minimize the distances - institutional, attitudinal, and sometimes spatial - that typically separate them from their employees. Where conversational intimacy prevails, those with decision-making authority seek and earn the trust (and hence the careful attention) of those who work under that authority. They do so by cultivating the art of listening to people at all levels of the organization and by learning to speak with employees directly and authentically. Physical proximity between leaders and employees isn’t always feasible. Nor is it essential. What is essential is mental or emotional proximity. Conversationally adept leaders step down from their corporate perches and then step up to the challenge of communicating personally and transparently with their people.”
It was Stephen Covey in his 7 Habits Programme who recognized that the trick to highly effective communication was learning to listen with the intent to understand and not with the intent to reply. It’s a simple philosophy and one that most people embrace as ‘correct’ – and yet again in the workplace you still find leaders who know a principle is right, yet fail to apply it on a daily basis.
Finally Groysberg and Slind conclude that “this intimacy distinguishes organizational conversation from long-standard forms of corporate communication. It shifts the focus from a top-down distribution of information to a bottom-up exchange of ideas. It’s less corporate in tone and more casual. And it’s less about issuing and taking orders than about asking and answering questions.
Conversational intimacy can become manifest in various ways - among them gaining trust, listening well, and getting personal. Where there is no trust, there can be no intimacy. For all practical purposes, the reverse is true as well. No one will dive into a heartfelt exchange of views with someone who seems to have a hidden agenda or a hostile manner, and any discussion that does unfold between two people will be rewarding and substantive only to the extent that each person can take the other at face value.”
Although the command and control approach to leadership might be less viable in today’s global economy it appears that the ‘mail’ to most leaders got conveniently lost in cyberspace; since ‘trust’ is a trait many leaders simply don’t know how to garner. Where there is a constant contradiction between leaders demanding that their employees both trust and respect them, without making an attempt to earn it first.
If you’re a leader then the simplest way to more effective leadership and building a culture that includes trust is through regular, open two-way communication – it’s as simple as that – the more ‘people conversations’ you have the more optimal your results will be.
Groysberg, B. and Slind, M. (2012). Leadership is a Conversation. Harvard Business Review. July. [on-line:]

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