By Brad Federman, Originally Published in Business Leadership Today
Leadership, good leadership, is, at its core, a social experience.
Successful leadership is based on connecting with and understanding both your team and yourself. Without that understanding, leaders can’t build ownership, shape culture, promote change, or improve performance.
To be an effective leader also requires a strong commitment to the organization’s mission and the ability to translate the vision to their teams and connect that vision to the work employees do, uniting team members with a shared sense of purpose and fostering a supportive, collaborative work environment.
People have a perception that good leadership is about metrics and success. This is deceptive, as success and strong metrics are the results of good leadership. Outcome, being readily visible, is often mistaken for cause to our detriment.
People aren’t good leaders because they’re successful. They’re successful because they’re good leaders.
The real question is, what does good leadership look like in practice, not result?
Good leadership in the workplace inspires ownership through accountability, buy-in through commitment to a shared sense of purpose, and successful collaboration through conflict resolution, all laid upon a foundation of trust. Each of these things builds upon the other to create strong workplace leadership.
In this article, I’ll explore how these factors of good leadership look in practice.
Leaders create a culture of ownership, which is a breeding ground for success.
Ownership culture is one where employees take initiative and responsibility for their projects, actions, and outcomes. Accountability is in the air.
Ownership culture is where a company’s mission statement elevates from a mantra to a lived ethos. This is an area where many organizations fall short.
Imagine a workplace without a focus on blame, a workplace with a focus on solutions. In ownership cultures, associates speak up, acknowledge issues, and do not hide problems.
For example, let’s say the office finds itself in need of a solution for a project to continue. An employee working in an ownership culture might take it upon themselves to seek out an answer, while an employee in a different culture might wait for someone else to fix the problem or provide further instruction.
Ownership is initiative, but it also requires commitment.
Ownership rides on the back of buy-in. Employees cannot actively work in an ownership culture unless they are committed to the outcome of their work. They need to care. Good leaders are able to create this buy-in for their employees.
Leaders create this commitment by actively recognizing the good work that employees do. They also give constant reminders about the big picture and how every assignment directly impacts overall company goals.
Strong leaders create commitment by letting employees know that their work has meaning. People want to make an impact. They want to connect to something bigger than themselves.
Commitment is also created when employees feel as though they have a stake in the office. This means collaboration and active listening.
It’s easy to associate leadership with taking action. However, leadership rooted in ownership is a conversation, and conversations call for listening. Listening is the foundation upon which leaders make decisions. Without that, their leadership is ineffectual, sometimes even damaging.
However, the best way leaders create buy-in is through collaboration.
Collaboration is the act of co-discovery and co-creation. Collaboration is working on something that gets better through interaction with others.
To collaborate, truly collaborate, each team member must be willing to acknowledge that better things will come through give and take rather than going solo. However, collaboration requires a strong skill set and the ability to manage one’s ego.
Collaborating is easy when everyone is on the same page. It becomes more difficult when people do not see eye to eye. At the moment there is conflict, things can either become functional or dysfunctional. The direction is determined by people’s conflict resolution skills.
Conflict resolution goes back to listening. Leaders must have conflict resolution skills and enough emotional intelligence to guide their team. This means reading the pulse and understanding the needs of your team.
When conflict arises, leaders can use it as an opportunity for discourse and growth as opposed to a setback. Conflict can elevate a team but only with transparency and an underlying layer of trust.
Trust is the foundation upon which all of these leadership attributes stand. Employees and leadership must trust one another. Trust comes with rapport. To build rapport, each member of the team needs to be pulling their weight, management needs to have everyone’s best interest at heart, and employees need to feel comfortable speaking their minds, taking risks, and exploring without fear or repercussions. Great leaders know that their people must believe in them and have faith in their ability to support the team. The other side of the trust coin is safety. Employees must feel safe. When fear and anxiety rule the workplace, people hide or throw their teammates under the bus rather than being honest. In essence, they play below the surface. Leaders have the distinguished role of creating an environment where people trust one another and feel safe to put themselves, their whole selves, out there.
It all rests upon trust, but trust is only built by leaders who exercise specific skills. These skills are invaluable to creating that foundation and the culture that stands upon it. Good leadership looks like this:
Leaders are collaborative because they’ve cultivated the skill of engagement. They’re able to interact with their team in a way that fosters idea production, not control. Leaders who hold death grips on their employees aren’t leaders at all, they’re tyrants. Instead, good leaders remove barriers, motivate their team, and spur ideas through discussion and play. Great leaders do not engage in this manner for “feel good” purposes. These leaders are looking at each team member as an individual. They recognize that everyone is different, and they must connect with each person uniquely to engage them. When an employee is engaged, they give more, stay longer, and promote the organization when no one is watching. Engaged employees are invaluable because they are the employees that make your organization successful.
By providing job clarity, regular feedback, frequent recognition, and coaching and mentoring opportunities that help employees grow, leaders can inspire them to do great work. In addition to these methods of communicating with employees, there’s another important way that leaders communicate with employees that helps to build engagement and cultural buy-in. People cannot take ownership of their work, nor can they properly engage, when they aren’t in on the vision. Vision provides direction and guidance. It is helpful in moments when things go as planned and absolutely vital during times of challenge and change.
Good leaders have mastered the skill of alignment and use it to help them address conflict. They ensure that their policies, processes, procedures, and culture are in a state of harmony, resolving any conflicts and disputes when they happen to arise. Only when its members are united can a team be effective. Great leaders understand that everything is connected and will work together or create a drag on performance. Leaders consistently audit their company to identify where they are out of alignment, and they make the necessary changes to reduce distractions and noise from getting in the way. The best way to identify barriers that do not align with an organization’s stated focus is to listen to employees because employees will usually know before leadership. However, they are rarely heard in a timely manner. We have all experienced a customer service problem with a company that promises great customer service but does not empower their employees to handle such problems. The customers know it, and employees know it, but the real cause is that leadership is not ready to admit it.
Leaders can tap into emotions. They have a finger on the pulse of the emotional state of their team, as well as their own emotions. Strong leaders keep the team in an emotionally stable place. This means no excessive highs or lows. Hope must remain when the going gets tough. On the flip side, a team must recognize that there is still work to be done, even when things are going very well. Great leaders not only practice strong emotional intelligence, but they also strengthen the emotional intelligence of their team members. When teams have strong collective emotional intelligence, they are able to utilize emotions as data to help make better decisions. It is the ability to blend thinking and feeling that drives the most optimal decisions. The best leaders know that emotions propel people and people propel performance.
Teams must be on the same page, fighting for shared norms and values. This is one of the most important aspects of workplace culture. Workplace culture is a delicate thing. Leaders are able to shape and maintain it. They uphold cultures that support their brand promise as well as the customer’s experience. In a world of individualism, we must have some shared way of doing things to create repeatable success. Culture is “simply a shared way of doing things.” However, it can be undercut based on the behaviors we are willing to tolerate. Strong leaders will hold each of their team members equally accountable to the culture regardless of the employee’s special expertise or client relationships. Strong leaders know that no one should ever hold the culture hostage—it is too important. Good leaders build culture into the way they do business. They sustain culture by revisiting culture with their employees as much as they talk about results and metrics, if not more. They recognize that culture is not a “set it and forget it” event. Culture is not immortalized on placards and posters. Culture is cultivated on a regular basis: daily, weekly, and monthly.
The world is hectic, and people have lives beyond work. Many are finding it difficult to adjust to the fast pace we now find ourselves in. Change has become constant. We have seen dramatic changes in the world and in the workplace, such as shutdowns, pandemics, and the rise of remote work. Stress levels are at an all-time high, and the use of anxiety and sleep medications has risen significantly. Even addiction-related problems have grown in the work setting. Strong leaders watch over their teams and support them in the workplace while understanding the trials people may be facing beyond the office. Leaders now run trauma centers as well as businesses. They should know the signs that an employee is not doing well and the resources available to that employee.
Leaders are listeners. They listen, not just for what is said, but what isn’t. Leaders ask themselves why a piece of information was presented to them, consider the emotions surrounding it, and look for subtext. Most people listen to the content that is being shared because it is easy. The more difficult task is listening to subtle messages that may be below the surface. Every time an individual shares a message with another person, there is an emotion attached to it and a reason for sharing that message. Whether that individual realizes it or not, they have a perspective, opinion, and feeling regarding the subject. The individual is also aware of the impact of what they are sharing. The message matters. Something will happen or not happen based on what they are sharing with you. Strong leaders know that when an employee shares something there are three components to what they are sharing. So, each time we are listening to a message, we should ask ourselves:
What is the content of the message?
How is this person feeling related to what they are sharing?
What are the implications of what they are sharing?
How To Demonstrate Good Leadership in the Workplace
We live in a social world where relationships are forged in bonds of trust. Trust is built upon the back of several actionable skills. This is the crux of what leadership looks like in the workplace.
People have a perception that good leadership is about metrics and success. Organizations reward metrics and performance without weighing the people side of the equation.
It is the reason we have so many individual contributors in leadership roles micromanaging employees, destroying employee morale, and gaining short-term results over sustainable long-term success.
Let’s face it, many workplaces value high performance over trust. However, managers, individual contributors in leadership roles, are unable to maintain high performance because they no longer do the work.
As their span of control increases, they can create bottlenecks when they push, force, and coerce performance, when they should build trust, remove barriers, and inspire their employees. Leaders, strong leaders, recognize people are at the center of success and hone those skills.
Let’s not be lured into the trap of thinking that leadership is all about the numbers. It’s about people. The numbers are a byproduct.
Successful leadership is based on connecting with and understanding both your team and yourself. Without that understanding, leaders can’t build ownership, shape culture, or promote change or performance.