Why leaders must stay human

Leadership is about much more than being in charge. It’s about having support from and empathy with those you lead. But the concept of empathy seems to be lost on many leaders – something we are seeing played out at the top level of corporate and political leadership today.

 

This is because leaders often fail at one of the most basic aspects of leadership: staying human.

 

This may sound odd, but it is in fact very common for leaders – be they political, corporate or otherwise – to take on a work persona that is entirely at odds with their normal nature. People who may be warm, communicative and compassionate with their families and friends at home can become cold, reserved and indifferent to peers and colleagues in the workplace.

 

Data we have gathered about effective leadership takes this argument one step further: critical drivers of employee engagement and motivation are poorly delivered by many in positions of influence.

 

For example, leadership ratings on issues such as sociability, connecting with others at different levels in the business and interpersonal sensitivity are poor and getting worse among many senior executives. In a nutshell, too many leaders are failing at the simple stuff of human interaction:  saying hello, speaking to people at the front-line and empathising with the situations of other employees.

 

How can people who rank highly in terms of competencies and behaviours such as strategic thinking, being inspirational and having strong ambition, lack the more fundamental human aspects of good leadership?

 

It’s usually because they have become too removed from the day-to-day goings-on of the workplace and, in parallel, have lost the fundamental art of connecting with others.

 

There are, of course, some great counter-examples: think Branson at Virgin (great communicator); Catmull at Pixar (great listener); Justin King when at Sainsbury’s (great connector). But the requests we get from clients for leadership coaching demonstrate the widespread need for going back to basics: being more human at work.

 

So, what are some of the simple lessons leaders need to remember when they walk through the office door?  Based on our data around what drives leadership effectiveness, there are a clear ‘top ten’ lessons that all leaders would do well to take on board:

 

  1. Say hello more – frontline employees tell us time and time again that many bosses can walk across a whole floor without saying hello to anyone, whether in an office, a shop or a factory. The simplest act of humanity is to make eye contact with people and say “hello”.  Chances are you wouldn’t walk past a member of your family without acknowledging they were there.  Do the same at work – just be human.

 

  1. Listen – and listen authentically. While many leaders spend a lot of time in “broadcast” mode, the most powerful impact they can have is just by listening.  Showing that you are interested in and take seriously the views of your colleagues, peers, direct report or your most frontline employees can have a huge and lasting impact.

 

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate – don’t forget the power of simple and direct communication.  Trust levels in leadership are low and falling and a lack of open, honest and authentic communication is the biggest underlying factor.  In both tough times and good, you can’t over-communicate – and employees will be more willing to listen the more you talk to them.

 

  1. Remember people are individuals – Organisations spend millions of dollars and hours segmenting their customer base externally.  Internally, though, they tend to treat employees as amorphous lumps.  Smart leaders recognise that their individual team members all have their own strengths, needs and concerns, and motivate and communicate with each individual accordingly.

 

  1. Show empathy – demonstrating empathy is one of the most attractive qualities a leader can have. It helps hugely in building positive relationships at work and produces more effective collaboration.  What’s more, our data clearly shows that empathy breeds empathy.  A leader demonstrating this is much more likely to create a team who show empathy to each other as colleagues within teams, to their customers and to other teams within their own business.

 

  1. Keep learning (and show that you’re willing to) – as Simon Sinek has argued recently, the best leaders consider themselves as students more than as experts.  They are willing to learn and keep learning, regardless of their status. This sends a number of important signals: it shows humility, it signals a willingness to listen and it shows that, even as a senior person in the company, they are still being educated.

 

  1. Tell people when they did a great job – recognition is one of the most powerful drivers of engagement and productivity.  It scores way higher than reward. A simple thank you for a job well done, a customer well served or for going the extra mile can have a much greater impact on people’s commitment, productivity and motivation is delivered in person by a leader. And it costs nothing!

 

  1. Manage performance in the moment – people want feedback on how they are doing:  good or bad. In the same way recognition for a job well done can have a powerful effect, our data also suggest that managing poor performance “in the moment” is also crucial. Immediate feedback tends to be better delivered and more memorable when given by leaders on the spot, with some thought put into not making it a public event.

 

  1. Let people breathe – nobody works at their best when they’re exhausted or stressed. Our evidence suggests that great leaders recognise this and ensure their people have the right sort of balance to be at their most productive.  They actively avoid a culture of over-work and burnout.  Again, the basics of being a human leader come in to play here.

 

    1. Be fair – as a recent Great Place to Work report from the US showed, perceptions of a fair workplace are a differentiating factor for the highest performing firms.  This is characterised by factors such as a lack of office politics and leaders and managers not having “favourites” within teams.  Exceptional leaders share their power and even their status: they are prepared to roll up their sleeves and work alongside their people, which directly connects them on a personal level.

 

Of course, our list could go on as great leadership is defined by a multitude of qualities and approaches. However, taking into account these – very simple – rules can make a huge difference, not only to the success of a leader as an individual, but also to the engagement, productivity and well-being of employees across their organisation.

 

By Dr Andy Brown
CEO & Practice Head: ENGAGE Leadership