What makes a great leader in the workplace?
The turbulent changes of the past 2 years have redefined the workplace, and as a result, what’s required of leaders and organisations to be successful has changed dramatically.The move to remote and hybrid work on the back of a once-in-a-century pandemic was unplanned and, for many, unwanted. No job on the organisational chart remained untouched. It has caused a re-evaluation of how we work together as team members and how we define “what makes a great leader in the workplace?”.
Even with working practices in flux, there is little appetite to return to the way we worked pre-pandemic. The focus, both for workers and good leaders, is now firmly on flexibility, inclusion and wellbeing. Research by Qualtrics has shown that more than a third of workers will look for a new job if made to work in an office full-time. Of those who still want an office, 37% said the one they are in is not a pleasant place to be. Just over two-thirds of people felt supported in their efforts to adapt to organisational changes, and a third reported they didn’t feel there was open and honest communication at their company.
It’s obvious there’s still a lot of work to do. Businesses and their leaders will need to work hard to not only retain employees but also enable them to feel happy and purposeful so they have no reason to quit. Achieving these outcomes is of course no easy feat for leaders, who are also under a significant amount of pressure in a way that they have never been before.
What is effective leadership in the workplace?
A good leader is more than their title. At Inkling, we define leadership as how an individual’s behaviour and actions and unlocks the potential in others. For an organisation to thrive, however, it takes more than an individual leader – it requires leaders across an organisation to come together and work collectively on creating stability, genuine connection, establishing trust, as well as setting best practice goals and role-modelling the leadership mindset, behaviours and practices to unleash individual potential and create a thriving organisational culture.
So, what are some of the core leadership capabilities require to become an effective leader?
- Self-awareness: Knowing your own strengths and how best to use them when you need to do well. This also requires an ability to identify your weaknesses and fears and work on breaking through these. We all have a ‘dark side’ to our strengths, where we go when were under pressure and stress. It’s every leader’s responsibility to know how this impacts you, as well as those around you and the people you lead.
- Mindset and resilience: This is the ability to think clearly and adopt an optimistic but realistic perspective in stressful situations. It’s about being able to identify the sort of situations that trigger your stress and drawing on your strengths to get through them. Like an athlete who has a training plan for their key performance moments, it’s also about ensuring that you have the rituals in place to ensure you can be calm under pressure and stress.
- Leading with purpose: Authenticity in the workplace means being able to feel connected to what you’re doing even when it’s difficult. It helps a leader because knowing that what you do in an organisation makes a difference encourages you to be the best version of yourself and instill that belief in others.
- Strong influencing skills: This is almost self-explanatory, but it does require a leader to have difficult conversations in a timely and effective manner, and to be able to ensure success as one unified team.
Through our work at Inkling, we know that the most successful leaders are the ones who have tapped into emotional intelligence. They also understand the people working around them have benefited from time and space to slow down and reflect upon what is important.
For the bottom line to improve in a post-pandemic organisation, an effective leader will need to continue this empathy and remain thinking about how they will attract, develop and retain talent. It will require leaders who genuinely listen to employees, foster flexibility, embrace inclusion, focus on career development, build authentic and meaningful connections, and lead by example. Achieve this and you will create a work environment that is more productive, balanced and innovative than before.
How has leadership in the workplace changed?
Two years into the pandemic, uncertainty is still a constant, teams continue to be distributed, and burnout at work is on the rise. At the same time, it is amazing to see how quickly entire organisations were able to go virtual, team members learned new skills, and new products and solutions were developed. This has created a sense of possibility and capability.
In the face of ongoing uncertainty and constant change, however, people crave knowing that their work matters. Employees want to understand how their work is connected directly to a company’s purpose and makes an impact each day.
Of the US-based employees surveyed by McKinsey & Company, two-thirds said COVID-19 had caused them to reflect on their life’s purpose, while nearly half said they were reconsidering the kind of work they wanted to do. This does pose challenges to leaders, but 70% also admitted their sense of purpose was defined by their work. Unfortunately, there seems to be a massive disparity between executives, where 85% agree they can live their purpose at work. On the other hand, only 15% of frontline managers and employees believe the same.
This is where good leadership comes in. If you can assist your team members to find their purpose and live it there are massive benefits, both to the business and the people within it. Employees who find purpose at work are 2.6 times more likely to want to stay, 6.5 times more likely to report higher resilience, and four times more likely to report better health.
Now, there is competition for talent and the best employees care less about salary and more about the meaning of their work and its impact. To attract and keep them, organisations and their leaders must know how to make ethical decisions, be inclusive and think more broadly than the bottom line, continue to focus on managing wellbeing and create a psychologically safe environment where the most talented individuals can learn, develop, grow and do challenging work aligned to their strengths.
The crucial skills needed by the leaders of tomorrow
There is so much opportunity for leaders to be bold and continue building thriving workplaces and teams that are more human and future-proof. To do that, good leaders should be prepared to be more courageous and experimental.
In our hybrid working world, it’s more important than ever for leaders to provide clarity and to help their managers and teams focus on what matters most. Leaders who stay open and curious, listen with empathy, and act with integrity to create space for people to do their best work will ultimately create the most successful organisations.
Given the lack of connectivity and engagement that is typically associated with remote work, one of the biggest challenges for employers to solve will be in how to connect people to each other. Leaders need to consider how they will continue to create opportunities for connection, meaning and work/life balance when everyone is working at least part-time from home.
More than ever, employees need flexible, empathetic leaders, as well as the removal of outdated, bureaucratic or rigid workplace requirements, towards more equitable, open and inclusive cultures to give them a strong sense of belonging in the workplace.
These are five of the most important skills a leader will need to help their teams flourish in 2022 and into the future.
Leading with transparency
It can be hard to answer the big questions when there is constant change, but leaders should engage in early communication with their employees about major developments that will impact them and the organisation even if they don’t have a definitive answer. Employees now expect early, transparent engagement with their leaders on important issues, even if the message is “We don’t know yet” or “We’re still figuring it out” – this has a strong tie to employee retention.
According to research into transparent communication from the Future Forum, employees who think their leaders are transparent are twice as likely to be excited about the future of their companies. One of the main reasons for this is they feel as though they’ve been included in the processes of making decisions that affect the way they work.
Transparent communication in the form of feedback to support growth and development is critically important. It also involves including employees in the crafting of new policies and making announcements that include why decisions were made and how the employee perspective was taken into account.
Embrace diverse perspectives
There are biases that go on in the larger community, and many are now taking personal action to attempt to mitigate this. It should come as no surprise these biases also exist in workplaces, and good leaders must do internal work to build greater self-awareness, cultivate a growth mindset and educate themselves about how bias is exhibited in the workplace. Second, they must acknowledge it and work actively to alleviate it.
More and more often, the answer to “how are you doing?” is not going to focus solely on work projects – it might also touch on frustrations with what’s happening in the world or personal struggles. It may include dismay about events that target particular communities.
Leaders should start to think about how they can navigate these situations: what might you put in place that supports your people? Can you dedicate spaces to conversations for those who want to have them? Are your managers equipped to lead inclusively?
What exactly can leaders do to help their people feel included? An inclusive leadership report from Catalyst identified six leadership behaviours that predicted feelings of uniqueness and belongingness, the key ingredients for inclusion. These were:
- Accountability: You hold team members responsible for their behaviours, development, and work processes.
- Humility: Admitting mistakes. Learning from criticism and different points of view.
- Courage: Putting personal interests aside to achieve what needs to be done. Acting on convictions and principles even when it requires personal risk-taking.
- Ownership: You guide team members to solve their own problems and make their own decisions.
- Allyship: You actively support people from underrepresented groups.
- Curiosity: You proactively seek to understand different points of view.
Leading with empathy
If leaders want their employees to do their best work, they need to ask them what they want and need and, whenever possible, deliver that. It creates an environment where people feel as though they truly belong and can thrive. A big part of this is making space for authentic conversations and responding accordingly.
Showing compassion, genuinely caring and strengthening relationships with your employees may just be the keys to turning the Great Attrition into the Great Attraction. Demonstrating thoughtful, empathetic leadership will be vital as organisations feel their way toward a new working model.
A new study of 1,000 American employees by Ernst & Young (EY), revealed 54% of workers left a previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work. In all, 49% said employers were unsympathetic to their personal lives. The survey concluded that empathetic leadership could be the secret to retaining and finding employees in the face of the hiring crisis.
Employees describe an empathetic leader as someone who is transparent and fair and follows through on actions. The top five qualities employees look for in an empathetic senior leader found in the EY study are:
- Openness and transparency (41%).
- Fairness (37%).
- Following through on actions (37%).
- Encouraging others to share their opinions (36%).
- Trusted to handle difficult conversations (34%).
It’s not enough to hire people, tell them what to do and hope they succeed. Leaders who practice a growth mindset help employees achieve in their positions by allowing them to develop new skills through training and education. They value hard work and persistence over raw talent. They give feedback that promotes learning and a desire to better themselves.
When someone fails, a good leader empowers an employee to admit to a mistake and own up to it, then treats it as a learning opportunity. They also encourage them to develop critical thinking skills and use them to navigate problems. Closely related to one of the earlier crucial skills, a good leader with a focus on a growth mindset will encourage people from diverse backgrounds to speak up and the other employees to respect their viewpoints.
Regularly ask for, provide, and receive feedback
Leaders should harness ongoing uncertainty as an opportunity to engage their employees, ask for feedback, and involve them in finding better solutions.
Leaders must recognise that the most creative and innovative solutions can come from anywhere and anyone. Leaders of tomorrow are experts at open-ended questions (“How might we…,” “Where are the bright spots…,” “What are our most innovative customers doing…”) that unlock the collective genius of their teams to create far better products, solutions and ways of working.
As a leader, you’re expected to give feedback to your employees regularly. In some organisations, the reverse is not always encouraged. Good leaders, however, ask their employees what they think about how things are going. If you’ve developed trustworthiness and empathy, people working on your team will find a question like, “How do you think XYZ is going?” an invitation for open feedback rather than a threat to their positions.
How to improve your leadership and upskill people leaders
Even good leaders can benefit from coaching and tailored capability development programs, especially during times of radical change when they can begin to question their own abilities. At Inkling, our coaches and facilitators work with organisations and their leaders to help unlock growth potential that’s transformative, inspiring and centred on people. Good leaders help employees feel as though they belong and building inclusive, values-driven organisations will help them achieve that.
Understand your individual and leadership strengths
As a leader, you probably already know where your strengths lay. You may be an excellent communicator or be able to recognise problem areas within an organisation. To become a great leader though, you must be able to reflect on the other aspects of your leadership style that can be improved. Could you be better at bringing a team together? Does your goal setting, whether personally or directing outcomes for your team, need improvement? Is there room for you to be more courageous about making difficult decisions under stressful situations? One of the best ways to become a better leader is to get to know how your unique strengths can support you to overcome your weaknesses, whether that’s with the support of a sponsor within your organisation or working with a coach.
Listen to and support others
One of your biggest strengths as a good leader will be having empathy. Being able to recognise others’ emotional states is just the beginning. You need to be able to respond to them in a way that is welcomed. It could be noticing someone is not performing to the capacity they have in the past. You then need to be able to approach them in a way that makes them feel seen, heard and comfortable, and that encourages them to be honest about the path they’d like to take, or what support they require.
Whether they’re feeling disengaged in a position they’ve held for some time, or are having a personal issue, a good leader does not simply try to ‘fix’, but is able to listen without judgement and sit with the discomfort of feeling the emotion of the other person.
Developing uniquely human leadership skills
We know leaders in the post-pandemic world are faced with a myriad of new challenges and constant change. In the face of new and unknown obstacles generated by our growing complex and agile world, organisations that seek out and develop diverse capabilities such as leading with transparency and empathy, embracing diverse perspectives and two-way feedback, and having a growth mindset are more likely to success in uncertain times, this year and beyond.
Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders will need strong uniquely human, or ‘soft’, skills and capabilities to engage and influence others, and to make change happen. The sooner these leadership skills can be developed, the better. The longer organisations wait to upskill their teams, the harder It will be for them to embed these essential skills, and to realise the great extent of their benefits.
Contact the Inkling team if you would like to learn about how our customised capability and leadership development programs can help you and your organisation develop leaders with the uniquely human skills to lead inclusively and create an empowering work environment.