What is your leadership style and how is it impacting performance?
How does leadership style impact performance? Simple answer? Significantly.
While the impact isn’t direct, it is both clear and consistent. When leadership style is modified (for better or for worse), results change accordingly.
The connection between leadership style and results is demonstrated by the leadership chain.
Working backwards from results, the leadership chain shows that results improve when people make more effort. That’s hard to argue with – it makes sense that higher effort will lead to improvements in both quality and quantity.
It also makes sense that people will make more effort when they are working in better environments. If they enjoy coming to work, they will feel more motivated and/or less demotivated – which leads to trying harder. By the way, if you are X style manager, you will already be slapping your forehead and rolling your eyes. X style managers believe people only come to work because they have to, only make an effort when they are forced to, etc. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but we absolutely believe that is bullshit.
But -and this is a critical point – that does not mean creating environments that are just all warm and fuzzy. People don’t have to feel happy all the time – they must feel valued, but they also need to be accountable.
What creates that blend of valued and accountable? The first link in the chain, leadership style.
So, poor results are all the leader’s fault?
No, not all. But much more than most leaders realise and accept. Studies indicate that:
- Up to 70% of the variance in organisational climate (the working environment) can be attributed to differences in the way leaders lead.
- Up to 30% of the variance in results can be attributed to differences in organisational climate.
The leader’s style isn’t solely responsible for performance levels – but it plays a very major role. Clearly, if you want to improve results the most effective way to do that is to work on the way you lead.
That can be difficult because none of us wants to believe our own style could be responsible for lower productivity, especially when there are so many more comfortable factors that we could work on such as the way our team members act and behave.
Of course, as the leadership chain illustrates, the most effective way to change the way an employee is acting, and behaving is for the leader to modify their style.
The broken mirror of self-reflection
Whether a leader needs to modify their overall approach to leading their team or make more specific changes to be more effective with an individual, that process starts with reflection. And that’s where the problems often begin. Accurate reflection can be very difficult because we have a natural bias towards validating the way we currently do things.
To enhance reflection, leaders should look for other evidence – and there are three excellent ways to gather it.
Don’t interpret the absence of feedback as evidence that you are doing everything perfectly. In fact, it may mean the absolute opposite – that your people are fearful of providing feedback because of the way they believe you may react or reluctant because they don’t believe it will lead to any change.
For feedback to be a valid source of information about your leadership style, it must be safe for people to provide it – and that doesn’t come through hollow assurances. It comes through the repeated experience of team members providing feedback and you responding well. Of them not regretting speaking up because it led to negative outcomes for them.
Listen to their feedback, take time to reflect and process, and then let them know how you will be acting on it.
A final tip on feedback – actively seek it out rather than waiting for people to approach you. Build it into regular interactions with your team members. Normalise giving and receiving feedback as part of everyday workplace discussions.
Tools that generate 360 (or even 180) degree feedback are especially useful when people don’t provide leaders with feedback – because of the leader’s style, their own lack of confidence and skill, or an entrenched cultural pattern.
When we use psychometric tools in these circumstances, we find results that are a surprise (even a shock) to the leader. The gap between the leader’s style as they perceive it, and the leader’s style as their team experiences it, can sometimes be significant. Looking back to the leadership chain, that means they are impacting the working environment (organisational climate) in ways they don’t intend or realise. And that will be flowing through to results.
As we review the results of psychometric measures, we find some leaders have excellent self-awareness, some underestimate themselves and others – well, let’s just say that we have to have awkward conversations with them!
Regardless, here is the cold hard reality: the way a leader’s team responds is based on their perception of the leader’s style. The leader’s perception of their own style is interesting but irrelevant to performance.
The actions, thoughts and behaviours of team members
We described self-reflection as a broken mirror. A more effective mirror is the way the people in your team act, think and behave. Very often, this behaviour is the response and leadership style is the stimulus.
Some examples we see every week in the workplaces we work in:
- A leader complaining that their people won’t show initiative but who also looks for someone to blame whenever anything goes wrong. In their people’s minds, this sounds like, ‘it isn’t safe to try anything new in case it goes wrong so I’ll just stick with old habits, even if they only produce average results.’
- The leaders who get annoyed that their people won’t make decisions – but who have a habit of overriding the decisions their people make. In their people’s minds, this sounds like, ‘they are going to change what I decide anyway, I may as well just ask them what they want and avoid pissing them off.’
- Leaders who can’t understand why their people seem to have petty squabbles that are never resolved – but who are so uncomfortable with conflict that they smooth things over and bury issues rather than dealing with them. Team members who might otherwise be courageous and deal with issues honestly, end up feeling, ‘last time I spoke to a colleague about my concerns, they got upset and the boss told me I was rocking the boat.’
- Leaders who get frustrated when people don’t take the ‘rules’ seriously – but who don’t provide uncomfortable feedback when people are off track
- Leaders who are annoyed that people don’t strive harder, but don’t show appreciation, gratitude and positive feedback when people do a good job
In each of these situations, there is something that frustrates the leader – our recommendation is that you start by asking ‘what failure of leadership could be causing or contributing to this?’ It is not all about the leader, but it’s a great place to start.
This is not about beating up on leaders – I am a leader myself and one who struggles as much as anyone with this ‘perception gap’. However, as leaders, we have the responsibility to look hard at ourselves and the outcomes we create, regardless of how uncomfortable that may be.
Six leadership styles
The table above lists six leadership styles that were identified and elaborated on by a number of researchers including David McClelland and Daniel Goleman. Your true leadership style will not be any one of the six – it will be your own unique blend of these styles.
None of the six are bad leadership styles – but there are some that should be used dominantly and some that should be used only when needed. The only real measure of whether a leadership style is good or not is whether it is the right style for the specific situation at the time. That should be based on the needs of the people being led, the circumstances and the outcomes needed – but not on the leader’s default habits and styles (those they are comfortable using).
A useful mindset is, ‘lead people the way they need to be led rather than the way you like to lead.’ For example:
- In a high-pressure situation with inexperienced people, a more controlling approach is needed.
- In a situation where the outcome is still important but there is less urgency, and the people are more experienced, a facilitating approach will work better.
You will have a tendency to use some styles more than others, but your leadership effectiveness will increase with your ability and willingness to use all six styles – assuming you use the right ones at the right times.
Evolving the way you lead
Every one of these styles may be the most appropriate style in a specific situation – and the conscious leader is nimble enough to move between them as needed. However, Directive and Pacesetting are only effective as short-term solutions. Long term, these leadership styles burn out leaders and disempower their people.
Affiliative and Participative can be really positive styles, but only if there are other dominant styles to keep them in balance.
If you are a leader reading this and wondering about your own style, well done for being courageous enough to peer into the broken mirror. Self-insight is often uncomfortable but genuine personal growth is impossible without it.
Here are some follow-up actions you could take
- Rate yourself on each of the leadership styles. How often do you use each one? How comfortable is each one?
- Now go back and have a second look – have you rated yourself based on the way you think you should be, the way you wish you were, or the way you actually are?
- Is there a team member or two that you could ask for feedback?
- How do they experience you? You may need to ensure you are open to information that isn’t consistent with your own perceptions.
- What is the gap between their perceptions and your own?
- How is that impacting performance – and what do you need to do about it?
Don’t try to act on everything at once. Coaching and Visionary are the styles that get the best long term results, so focus on doing more of those – the more time you spend on them, the less that is left over for the other styles.
Pick a few suggestions from this table and make them your guiding principles as a leader – notice that by increasing some styles, you will also decrease others. For example, when a leader does more Coaching by asking questions, that also decreases Directive and Pacesetting.