Reflecting on leader capabilities for 2015
Traditional leadership research would have us thinking about trait, situational, generic, theoretical or model-based frames. At the same time, complementary to these frames are “real world”/ crowd-sourced feedback data derived from genuine employees and colleagues - people paid to serve your customers, to deliver the goods and to create exceptional performance day in, day out.
This challenge prompted EdelmanENGAGE, partnering with Melcrum, to dive deeper into the topic with some global research in late 2014. Throughout 2014 it also attracted the interest of one of the most respected researchers and practitioners into the organisational engagement behaviours that drive organisational performance, namely Dr Jack Wiley, the author of Respect.
So what increases employee engagement, in particular what is it that the very best leaders do practically and behaviourally that drives organisational engagement priorities and, therefore, performance?
Linking leadership behaviours and engagement
In Q4 of 2014, EdelmanENGAGE in partnership with Melcrum conducted the first of our annual research tranches into current and future engagement best practice. We set about asking a more than 500 global specialists in a range of functions for their take on employee engagement practices. Perhaps the most profound finding from our early analysis is the extraordinary influence that leaders have in both raising and, in some cases, lowering, employee engagement and organisational performance.
Our early look at the data suggests six principal findings:
- That leadership engagement and performance is interconnected: perhaps no surprise but the scale of the impact is enormous and growing; leadership behaviours are having an increasing impact on how engaged employees are day-to-day
- That engagement surveys are too broad: despite a major investment in surveys, some 80% of engagement surveys continue to focus on very broad HR issues and give relatively little detailed insight to which leadership behaviours matter most
- The focus on internal leadership behaviours and their impact on engagement needs to be balanced with a focus on how that engagement then leads to improved customer service and operational delivery
- A “Trust Gap” is emerging: while 70% of employees trust that the surveys put out by leaders are truly confidential, many fewer (54%) really believe that leaders will listen to their opinions; and an even smaller proportion (42%) believe that any positive change will take place once leaders have absorbed the results
- Despite years of work on leadership behaviours, leadership itself still remains the key focus of the vast majority of organisations to improve engagement and performance (called out by fully 74% of organisations)
- Poor understanding of engagement and performance link: the greatest barriers to improving the level of connectivity between engagement and performance remains the poor understanding of that link amongst leaders and managers themselves
Overall, our early findings suggest that isolating the leadership behaviours that really matter is the key to unlocking engagement amongst your people in 2015.
So where can leaders focus?
In 2014 Jack Wiley and Francis Lake looked into data from 22 countries across 47,000 employees in 187 businesses. They asked the question “what do employees really want from their organisations and their leaders?”
They identified nine “wants” across three core clusters: inspiration, respect and reward. Within each, they identified what employees want most from their leaders.
Focus on inspiration
Employees want leaders who:
- Are highly skilled: competent in sizing up the situation, making good decisions, solving problems and leading the organisation to higher levels of performance
- Provide clear direction: they want clear direction from the “top of the house” with leaders who can articulate a strategy for achieving success
- Communicate honestly and transparently: employees want to be able to believe what senior leaders tell them, with an open, frank assessment of the challenges facing the organisation, an open dialogue regarding the path forward and sincere two-way communication
However, performance on these behaviours is not great. While, globally speaking, the majority of employees agree that their leaders do have the ability to deal with the organisation’s challenges and inspire them, it is only a slim majority at just 62%.
Focus on respect
Employees want leaders who:
- Recognise and respect employees: working for grateful leaders who appreciate the contributions employees make and ensure they are recognised for those contributions. That recognition and respect must be seen as sincere and genuine
- Show consideration and understanding of employees: they want top leaders who are available, considerate of their people and willing to listen to their points of view
- Treat employees fairly and equitably: leaders need to be fair, objective, impartial and just in their implementation of HR policies. They want leaders who ensure that both workloads and recognition are distributed fairly and that equal opportunities are provided.
However, Wiley and Lake found that performance here is poor: only 42% of employees around the world agree that their leaders treat them fairly and respect them.
Focus on reward
Employees want leaders who:
- Provide fair and appropriate compensation: they want to work for leaders who provide “proper” compensation for the efforts they extend. This refers not only to salary or wages, but also total compensation (including incentives, bonuses and benefits)
- Support the career growth of employees: employees want to work for top leaders who help them develop their skills and abilities to grow their careers
- Provide job security: they want to work for leaders who create confidence about a secure future – both for the organisation itself and for individual employees
Unfortunately, around the world Wiley and Lake found that just 48 per cent of employees agree that their leaders reward them in this way.
What does this mean for HR in 2015?
So there’s a lot of work for leaders to do: the behaviours required have been clearly identified and the link to engagement and performance proven many times over. These findings cut through the historic clutter that sometimes surrounds “modern” talent management and leadership assessment and development. We believe there are huge implications for leadership best practices, especially when considered from what best engages employees to perform
Finally, we know from many private client studies that the exact leadership behaviours which will have the biggest impact in a particular culture, change setting or transformation programme will also vary by firm. Leaders need to use data and feedback more smartly to segment which behaviours will help make them the best they can be.