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Don’t just fake it till you make it

Posted on 2 May 2023 by Jason

Leadership has always mattered, but at a time of high attrition in many sectors, especially technology, its positive qualities are more important than ever. Good leadership inspires, engages, motivates, and improves others. By contrast, bad leadership discourages, disenchants, demotivates, and ultimately worsens those in its orbit.

Over the next three blogs, we’re going to dig in to the subject of leadership, and the related topics of motivation and engagement. They’re aimed at HR professionals and also apply to team leads, senior managers, and the C-suite. Whether you’re planning to buy in a new team, or build on the one you already have, it’s worth taking the time to check how you plan to onboard, retain, engage, and motivate them.

Leadership matters because we’re at a moment like few others in the history of organised work. There’s the “great resignation” effect, where dissatisfaction is causing large numbers of people to see a future away from their current employer. Throw in a competitive sector like technology which is seeing sizeable salary increases (up to 19 per cent in the past 12 months, by some measures), and even settled staffers might be tempted to seek new pastures.

At the same time, we’ve all been getting to grips with remote teams, where face-to-face contact has been replaced by screens and online chats. All told, it’s a much more challenging environment for managers to connect with their teams and consequently to understand what’s driving them.

There’s a reason why the phrase “people leave managers, not companies” has endured. On the other hand, authentic leadership can make a positive difference for organisations that want to retain their people. Authentic leadership makes team members perform better because they feel valued, so they contribute more, and stay in the company longer.

At heart, it’s based on building trust-based rather than adversarial work relationships. As Denison Consulting puts it: “The future of performance management lies in placing ownership in the hands of employees, and teaching managers to coach rather than police.”

Being authentic isn’t something you’re born with; it can be practiced and honed. One of the key components is active listening: taking the time to hear and engage with what the other person is saying. This doesn’t come easily: as humans, we’re wired to anticipate the next thing people will say and to jump in – especially if we think we know the answer, or we have a solution to a problem someone is telling us. It takes practice to pause and really listen. Ultimately, it comes down to spending the time to get to know the person on the team. It’s an investment of time that leaders need to be willing to make.

Faced with an employee whose work isn’t meeting standards, or who is missing deadlines, the traditional leader or manager takes two steps. They feel an emotion – probably anger – and react with some form of warning or punishment.

The authentic leader takes a crucial third step: in between feeling the emotion in that moment and doing, they reflect before acting or making a decision. They diagnose what they’re feeling and link it to what they know or discover about the team member. By checking in with the person and practicing empathy, and by asking investigative questions, leaders may become aware that the person is experiencing some difficulties in their personal life which could be affecting their ability to carry out their tasks. Suddenly, it’s a different conversation and a different outcome.

This kind of behaviour doesn’t just affect the relationship with that one individual; it’s got a ripple effect throughout the team, who recognise impartial and fair treatment and realise they can have the same interaction with that leader.

Authenticity isn’t just some new leadership fad, to be adopted eagerly and dropped again a few quarters later. By definition, it isn’t something you can fake. It’s an approach that needs continuous practice, but one that delivers continuous results because it allows individuals to be at their best.

Scientific research has found that when people feel psychologically safe, they bring their best selves to work. That should always be the goal, and leaders have an oversized role in determining this environment of safety. In the next blogs, we’ll dig deeper into building on authentic leadership through motivation and engagement.