How to improve leadership skills in the workplace

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With the landscape of modern workplaces continuing to change and transform so drastically, the way organisations approach leadership development also needs to evolve.

Organisations need to take the necessary steps to develop their leaders to keep up motivation, productivity, effective collaboration and provide career development opportunities for their teams.

Investing in your team is crucial for creating sustained shifts in mindset and behaviour that helps unlock the full potential of your workplace leaders. With over ten years experience in running leadership programs, we have many strategies you can use to help improve your individual leadership skills and guide the members of your team to do the same.

In this article we will look at:

  • what leadership means to the Inkling team
  • why leadership development is so important
  • the attributes that make for a good leader
  • how to improve valuable leadership skills in the workplace with strategies and tips for organisations

What is leadership?

Leadership is often seen as synonymous with an important title, a spacious corner office, the authority to tell people what to do and having influence over major decisions. While all these things can be a part of a leadership role, it’s not how we think about leadership at Inkling.

There is a quote from John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, that we like to reflect upon as the mark of a true leader: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader”.

One way we define leadership at Inkling is all about how an individual’s behaviour and actions inspire others. A secondary and newer way we like to conceptualise leadership is beyond the individual where a collective group of leaders drive the right mindset, practices, and behaviours to build a culture that delivers both on the organisational strategy level and gets the best out of its people.

Why develop leadership skills?

Leadership has evolved significantly since the industrial revolution where most people were working in factories that produced products and employees were on a factory line where they had to do their one allocated task day in day out.

Fast forward to today and people need to collaborate in teams, are delegating tasks, are highly dependent on others to deliver outcomes, need to be creative and need to be innovative to get the job done.

This drive to build leadership and unlock these things within groups of people makes it a much more complex conversation from days gone by and a challenge that needs to be addressed with leadership development and training.

The acronym VUCA was coined during the Cold War based on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, standing for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. VUCA is now commonly applied to the business world, which is constantly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Humans are hardwired to enjoy stability, however with the digital revolution bringing about so much change to do with technology, social media, smartphones and the speed of information in the workplace, it’s a lot for teams to handle. So leaders need to be equipped to regulate this and deal with huge amounts of fear within teams.

In today’s VUCA world, workers with effective leadership skills need to provide stability so their teams can be productive, they get the best out of people and can manage that natural inherent challenge around constant change and uncertainty.

Leadership is constantly evolving and changing. So, it needs to progress to fit the situation that we find ourselves in. Leaders all over the world experienced this last year, in terms of the global pandemic there wasn’t a handbook for how to improve leadership skills in a global emergency.

Going through the global pandemic was not a time to get your coaching toolkit out and mentor people to make decisions, leaders had to act fast. They had to make the tough calls, and that required people to lean into a different style of leadership. The research tells us that being rapidly adaptive and different styles of leadership are required to instil trust in employees in times of uncertainty.

Further reading: How to empower emerging female leaders at work

What are the key behaviours of a great leader?

Now that we’ve established the what and why of leadership development, we’re going to look at some of the key attributes of effective leadership and how to develop the required skills of a leader.

Self-awareness of their strengths

Deep self-awareness is an essential part of successful leadership in the modern workplace. You need to know what your strengths are and how to galvanise and use them to do what you need to do well. On the flip side, you also need to know what your weaknesses are.

Research has shown that 90% of our happiness and ability to effectively problem solve is not due to what happens to us in our external world, but rather how we process that experience. Magic happens when we create space to identify our inherent strengths, our deeply held values and belief systems and consider how these align with our aspirations and behaviours.

This requires us to hold up a mirror and look at our fears and unhelpful thoughts and habits and to understand why they came to be. We need to also understand how our sense of self is deeply grounded in the culture we live and work in – both the subtle and loud messages we get about who we are and what is expected of us. We need insight to break through these, the ability to do so is integral for developing leadership skills.

Further reading: Why emotional intelligence matters in leadership

Mindset and resilience in leaders

What’s needed for you to improve your mindset, your ability to be resilient, and your ability to adopt an optimistic, but realistic perspective in difficult, high-pressure situations? It’s that awareness of self, and how you deal with high-pressure situations, knowing how you’re triggered, but it’s also knowing what the inherent strengths that you possess and can draw on to help you develop the mental strength for yourself and others. That connection point is so critical.

That sense of connection to self leads to a connection with others, how you show up for others, how you lean into difficult conversations, how you develop strong and meaningful relationships, and that does require going beneath the surface. We know that the most inspirational leaders have meaningful connections and relationships with the people that they lead as a sort of role model, and at the same time, there needs to be thinking about how those relationships are built on important ethics and values. Use these leadership pioneers to road map your own skills development process and help you better your understanding of how a good leader operates.

Leading with purpose

Authenticity is a term that gets thrown around in the literature and the media. There’s a part around how you adapt and hold true to your authentic leadership style so that you are still able to play to your strengths and align yourself with your own purpose and values. We need to feel deeply connected to meaning and purpose beyond the day-to-day grind of our daily activities. We want to know that what we do makes a difference.

Having a sense of purpose or clarity around what matters to you and how you want to show up. What is the legacy you want to leave? And then the last part we talk about is engagement – what are the habits, rituals, and practices that I need to engage in, to be the best version of myself? And how can I influence others to do the same?

Strong influencing skills

We commonly see the leader who finds conflict difficult and will avoid difficult conversations only to see it blow up in their face a million different ways. You know where we become overcome with imposter syndrome and we stay stuck for too long and become resentful, or there’s someone who put themselves last or has a deep kind of anxiety or challenge in their past that they project onto others at work, or even blame the work environment or the job itself.

The research is quite strong now from a psychological behavioural science perspective on all of those four areas, both in terms of how you do those things, but also how important they are to creating that collective sense of leadership. When we are doing these four things well, magic can happen.

Further reading: How to increase your influence at work 

Four circles of courage

At Inkling, we’ve developed a framework that’s based on over 60 years of research in the field of psychology and aims to help us understand what is required to help people thrive in teams and organisations. When we lean into these four circles it has a knock-on effect, because when we focus on our thriving, it changes things and helps us enable and encourage others to thrive.

These are things that can be learned. They do result in unlocking potential, and they also create environments where inclusion and belonging and psychological safety exist, and at Inkling, we believe that when you enable these four circles you unlock something really special.

All these things impact our ability to show up as leaders and to create a psychologically safe space for others to step outside their comfort zone and be their best. Leadership development is not easy. It can be really confronting; it can be relentlessly hard work. As a psychologist, it’s not therapy, but there is some alignment around the challenging work that you need to do to unlock the best version of yourself to be able to unlock the best version of others. And if you’re not doing that work on yourself, you are not able to be an effective leader in the modern world.

Ways to improve leadership skills in the workplace for organisations

1. Invest in people

Investing in your people is important to help retain and advance top talent within your team and help them improve their emotional intelligence. You could recommend to management for the team or a certain department or emerging leadership team to undertake quarterly or bi-annual leadership development retreats or attend virtual training webinars and courses in a move to foster and develop good leadership skills from the bottom up.

It’s vital organisations invest in the development of their manager’s leadership competencies. Research from Gallup suggests a manager’s role is far more than supervisory — where 70% of a team’s engagement is influenced by the manager. Manager’s these days take on more of a coach role than that of a boss.

Which leadership competencies are most important to invest in? Gallup’s study of 550 job roles and 360 job competencies found seven leadership skills are typically found in managers of successful high-performing teams: relationship building, strengths development, lead change, the ability to inspire others, critical thinking, clear communication and accountability

2. Adopt a strengths-based approach

We know that your greatest room for growth is in your strengths. You will only ever unlock your full potential when you focus on your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses. And sadly, most organisations adopt a weakness-based approach, and it can have a really negative impact on engagement and on motivation.

With a strengths-based approach, it is significantly aligned to engagement and motivation and collaboration among each team member, but it also helps create a more inclusive environment and a sense of belonging.

3. Psychological safety

Build a culture of psychological safety. What are the skills your leaders need to build psych safety? The skills required for the modern-day leader are very different from the traditional hierarchical leadership styles, and it can be difficult for leaders to lean into this.

Organisations need to ensure that their leaders get a mirror – ensuring that they are learning about themselves. In our leadership development programs we use a number of psychometrically validated tools. These tools provide a sound basis for beginning a leadership journey, assist with creating self awareness of personal style, and establish a common language to discuss leadership styles, desired approach, and behaviours.

4. Opportunities for feedback

Good leaders need to lean into feedback. Feedback from senior leaders, from peers, from direct reports or stakeholder groups they need to influence. If we are not consciously doing this, our personal perceptions of ourselves are often incorrect, and we might overestimate or underestimate them. Individuals can work through skill gaps through opportunities for coaching and leadership experiences.

Finally, we can’t stress enough that any development of a leadership program must be purpose fit for the situation and the solution. Stepping back and working out what you really need and getting clear on what the competencies you need to build are. What’s the learning environment, what are the barriers. How do we embed that learning? To create mindset and behaviour change, it needs to be small opportunities for learning, for learning embedded over time

At Inkling, we work with a broad range of participant group sizes, and regardless if it’s a group of 20 or 200, what’s critical is that we are providing them bite-sized learning and multiple different ways in which to learn, because everyone learns differently. That might look like a 90-minute turbo session, small group learning sessions, individual coaching, or sponsorship opportunities – all components that we bring together to embed certain mindset and behaviour changes over time.

Ready to develop effective leadership skills in your workplace?

Unlock the full potential of your leadership team with capability training designed to develop effective leadership skills for individuals and instil a continuous learning environment for all team members to grow.

Get in touch with the Inkling team if you would like to find out more about our tailored leadership development experiences.

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