Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Year in Review: Lead Well, Follow Fairly

We've had another rich year at the Occupational Digest, so before it fades, we're taking the time to review some of the themes and common findings that could be helpful in 2014. This first post looks at leader-follower relations.

There was plenty of research on the give and take between leader and follower, and the ways this can fall out of balance. This can be due to a clash of expectations: for instance, managers are likely to see emotional support of those they manage as something over-and-above their normal duties. They expect their employees to reciprocate in kind, but employees just don't see it that way. In their eyes, managers are paid to support them. Not addressing or recognising this mismatch can demoralise managers expecting appreciation for being a 'toxin handler' of other people's negative emotions.

Manager expectations in themselves can be a powerful alignment tool, drawing more performance out of those judged to 'have the stuff' by inspiring them and painting a picture of what is possible. But a theoretical paper explains that the reason why this so-called Pygmalion effect doesn't always hold may be because some leaders aren't trusted enough for their followers to take a risk and make big changes.

Newcomers into an organisation gather their sense of how much the organisation is willing to support them in their early days on the job. If that support starts to tail off, employees become less committed to the organisation and make fewer proactive efforts to fit in themselves, presumably because they feel that their newly-formed expectations have been dashed. So abandoning newcomers after a big hands-on induction week could have real problems down the line.

Leaders may have expectations about us, but we also have expectations about them. Demanding our leaders act accountably appears to be particularly important when the leader is an outsider - a business pro heading up a research institute, for instance. Data suggests that the necessity of justifying their actions leads them to make decisions that are more favourable to their team members. Meanwhile, we're relatively tolerant of tentative behaviour from leaders, willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that the situation merited careful behaviour. Unless they are a woman, in which case we judge them for it.

Meanwhile, when it comes to leadership style, we've reported on data that suggests both directive (perform work as I have told you to) and empowering (find your own routes to delivering outcomes) leadership styles can have performance benefits, in the appropriate contexts. Empowerment, it appears, can reap long-term rewards relative to direction, but often at the cost of immediate performance. And transformational leadership, sometimes considered a 'holy grail', appears to matter more when followers are low in energy, less curious and fairly pessimistic. Employees with naturally positive mindsets don't benefit so much from the transformational leader's inspiration and motivational effect - because they are in a good place to begin with.

There is no single optimal way to lead: a team's aims and general attitude matters, as does each individual follower, in terms of how much they trust you and where they are in their organisational journey. And employees should be fair to leaders: avoiding discriminatory judgments, obviously, but also by recognising the emotional investments that good managers are making in them. And of course, when managers don't offer top-notch support, it's all the more important to pick up the mantle and proactively engage with the best of what the organisation has to offer.

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