Giving feedback on another's performance and behaviour at work - both positive and negative - is probably the most simple and cost effective means of improving performance. Yet commonly L&D professionals report a reluctance in management and staff to engage in feedback. At the same time UK employees report not receiving enough of it. We know that giving feedback should not be restricted to the annual performance appraisal meeting. In high performance company cultures, giving and receiving feedback constructively is a normal part of the working day. So how can managers and teams be encouraged to do more of it?
The challenge for all businesses to be able to attract and retain the best people they can is well known and much talked about. Many firms turn to their relatively low staff turnover or the number of applicants to their recruitment initiatives and conclude that all is well. But is this right?
Not infrequently we work with people on development programmes and workshops who, to put it charitably, are not exactly 'on fire' with enthusiasm for their job or their firm. Most of them are not doing a poor job but they are not performing anywhere near as well as they could be - meaning that both firm and lawyer suffer. They frequently feel stuck and undervalued in the role and would prefer to be doing something different – or differently. This is not where optimal performance or job satisfaction comes from. From the wider business perspective this also creates vulnerability; the risk of good people being poached by other firms - always a concern - becomes greater.
What does it take to attract and retain good people who are committed and perform well?
A couple of weeks ago (10 October) the first female chairman of the Institute of Directors, Lady Judge, caused controversy when she said that mothers risk losing their jobs if they take long maternity breaks. She argued that the American system, which entitles new mothers to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, was better than its UK counterpart because it ensured that women's careers did not "come off the tracks".
Essentially, and incontrovertibly, leadership makes a difference to company performance. When market and resource opportunities are scarce this impact is significantly amplified.
In the Borderless 2016 Leadership Development Survey, 54% of those polled considered that leadership development in their organisation was ineffective and nearly a third (29%) were unaware of any leadership development coaching or mentoring initiatives at all.
The global leadership selection and consultancy firm Borderless has just published its global survey of 1,000 senior executives on leadership development.
Using the respondents' definition of leadership ("the act of taking ownership for business results delivered by people"), the report "supports a call for a more balanced approach to leadership development, which stands on two pillars: the development of skills to visualize, plan and monitor business results, and the development of interpersonal (‘people’) skills to deliver them".
Accordingly the survey asks respondents to assess the effectiveness with which these skills and attributes are developed in organisations. The findings present a mixed, and in parts troubling, picture.
Top Leadership Challenges
Respondents were asked to list their top three leadership challenges of 2016. The most common were:
In response to these, the top 6 leadership skills they considered to be required to lead organisations and meet these challenges effectively were:
They all relate to inter-personal effectiveness and the balance required to be struck between these soft skills and business acumen. To be effective leaders, these skills need to be developed and given the opportunity to be practiced and fine-tuned.
However, many respondents considered that their organisations lacked a focus on leadership development and considered it merely as "nice to have" rather than a strategic imperative. They reported that their organisations tended to hire in leadership skills in senior executives from outside rather than growing and advancing these skills from within the organisation. This over reliance on 'hiring in' can be significantly demotivating to those with leadership potential who may see the lack of promotion opportunity as compounding the lack of development provision.
Of those organisations providing leadership development, two-thirds of leadership development participation is optional. In few other professions would it be considered acceptable that people may occupy senior positions in organisations - responsible for profitability, growth and jobs - without the skills development that accompany them.
Successful Leadership Development
So what do these senior executives consider is necessary for effective leadership development?
In the first place, and consistent with other surveys of this type in recent years, the majority (56%) consider that support from top management is a critical success factor in effective leadership development in organisations. Importantly they comment that this should not just be "parked in HR". Supporting this they consider that there should be an organisational focus on people and talent management in the organisation and sufficient resources allocated to it.
80% of those surveyed report that coaching is effective in leadership development but that there is room for improvement. Nearly a third of organisations had no coaching or mentoring support in place at all for leadership development and surprisingly only 36% used external coaches or a mix of internal and external coaches for this work. The need to use better qualified and more experienced coaches was identified. In particular, in order to enhance the quality of tomorrow's leaders, leadership development programmes should be grounded in real-life work (and should not just comprise additional tasks for busy executives to complete).
The Borderless report, 2016 Survey of Leadership Development, is available in full here.
A couple of weeks ago during a busy coaching week I met with a number of new as well as existing clients. I was struck by the fact that a significant proportion of them had recently experienced extremely difficult life events or were in the process of doing so. They variously described experiencing a miscarriage, the loss of a parent, diagnosis of a seriously debilitating illness, discovering that their teenager was self-harming, the death of a child, a partner's infidelity. Hearing about these events in such quick succession and in a short space of time was striking. It brought home to me just how commonplace these very difficult, often tragic, life events are.
This is the kind of stuff that we deal with throughout our lives. If we are lucky, we may escape many of them but most of us will certainly experience "bad stuff" at some time or other. What was striking to me was that all of these people were quietly struggling with these events whilst trying to keep everything else going - including work.
The world of leadership development is the subject of so many fads and fashions that many prefer to reject it entirely than be swept up in the latest trend or buzzword. It is therefore refreshing when a leadership theory emerges that is actually based on research and evidence.
A series of corporate scandals over the last fifteen years (Lehman's and RBS spring quickly to mind, and these are now joined by Volkswagen) have created the requirement and context for the theory of Authentic Leadership. This has been studied and written about for the last decade but until recently there had been no research looking at how leaders develop either authenticity or authentic leadership. [In the US, over $10bn is spent on leadership development each year despite, to date, little theoretical or empirical evidence to support it.]
What is authentic leadership? Authentic leadership is considered to encompass four key components:
In our development work with leaders and teams we emphasise the importance of creating positive, energising working environments. We say that this is essential in order to facilitate the best performance from ourselves, and for our colleagues and teams.
We're also aware that this can just sound like the latest management 'blah blah' speak! So, is this really important and what is it about?
As the conditions in which we work become more pressurised and stressful, so our performance tends to decrease at a corresponding rate. When we work in positive, energising environments, our performance increases accordingly. What is going on?
Simply put, stressful conditions cause us to feel anxious - levels of stress hormones (particularly cortisol) increase and the short term effect on the brain is to negatively affect our cognitive thinking ability. Our ability to process information, make decisions and to make judgments is impaired (when we are highly stressed our IQ is said to temporarily decrease around 10 points which is quite a drop when you consider that the average IQ is always 100). In the longer term, sustained exposure to high cortisol levels is associated with heart disease, stomach ulcers, and increased abdominal fat, among others. So, conditions of negative stress are not good for us in terms of well-being, are linked to poor performance, and are not a particularly satisfying or rewarding way of working either. We are simply not at our best when under these conditions.
When we are at our best however our brains are influenced by (and influencing) different conditions. When levels of hormones such as seratonin and dopamine rise they help to reduce cortisol levels and are also associated with an increase in critical thinking capacity, decision making and judgment, and creativity. The ease and speed with which 'information' flows around our neural pathways is optimised This is when we do our best work. Associated with this are lower stress levels, lower rates of heart disease, quicker recovery from illness, increased confidence and greater happiness. [See Shaun Achor's TEDTalk about the "Happiness Advantage]
Let's make it easy...So the question for leadership teams is, how do we create these positive conditions in which we and our teams may flourish?
This is where the strengths approach comes in. Evidence shows that using our strengths more and focusing on our weaknesses less, helps to create those optimal brain conditions. People who use their strengths more:
Our strengths-based team work starts with an assessment of individual and collective strengths with follow-up feedback to ensure understanding and awareness. We then coach and facilitate individuals and teams in strategies and actions to harness their strengths to maximum advantage whilst at the same time minimising the impact of weaknesses. Our experience in this work repeatedly confirms the performance benefits of creating optimistic, energised, positive working environments and doing away with negative, highly-critical and even hostile working conditions. And, by the way, this does much to enhance job satisfaction and happiness too...
We believe that life can be complicated enough. Let's make our work performance, and the personal fulfilment that results, as easy as it can be.
As executive coaches we work with large numbers of women leaders and managers. In common with their male counterparts, many of them are hugely talented, hardworking and driven people. Quite frequently during a coaching session I will hear a client reveal something such as “I suppose I fear that I will be revealed as a fraud” or “they will see that I shouldn’t really be in this role”. Most of the time these comments are made by women; rarely, by men. It is quite possible of course that men experience this feeling as often as women but are maybe less inclined to reveal it.
This belief is known as ‘Imposter Syndrome’, a term which was first termed in the late 1970s.
Regardless of what level of success they may have achieved in their chosen field of work or study, or what external proof they may have of their competence, those expressing the 'syndrome' remain convinced that they do not deserve the success they have achieved and will at some point be "found out".
It seems to affect women leaders significantly more than men and if this is true it would seem valuable to understand more about it. Imposter Syndrome expert Valerie Young says that it is not about low self-confidence but about chronic self-doubt. Why might this affect women more?
As a psychology undergraduate many years ago I researched the snappily titled “gender differences in the attribution of success and failure”. It would seem to be relevant – here’s what this area of research suggests: men and women significantly differ in how they account for success and failure. Women tend to attribute their success to external factors outside of their control (e.g. "the task was easy", "I was lucky") and attribute their failure to internal factors ("I didn’t work hard enough", "I was not sufficiently competent"). Men on the other hand are significantly more likely to do the reverse, attributing success to internal factors, and failure to external factors outside of their control. This has been repeated a number of times and these findings are consistently found across many cultures. My own research looked to establish the age at which this difference might be seen and found clear evidence of it among 6 year olds…
What are the implications for women leaders and indeed for those of us who coach them? I am interested for example in how using cognitive behavioural coaching and examining core beliefs might help in this area.
We’d love to hear from you – what are your experiences?
We work with companies to help their people achieve their performance, development and career goals. If you or your organisation would like to know more, get in touch to see how we can help.