Taking the lead

The emotional atmosphere in any organisation is difficult to measure, and even harder to manage. But business leaders neglect it at their peril.

According to Graham Keen, chairman of GK Partnership, the single most important factor influencing an employee’s productivity is the relationship they have with their immediate superior.

This means that to be an effective leader is to foster positive relationships with employees. Keen cites research by psychologist Daniel Goleman that found the best predictor of CEOs’ financial performance to be the emotional climate they created in their organisations.

It also explains why authoritarian leadership styles are counterproductive. The anxiety that such styles create in employees has a demonstrable negative impact on their intelligence, their health and their ability to have new ideas. “If you reach a tipping point of anxiety, creativity shuts down,” says Keen.

But how can leaders develop an emotional relationship with their staff that maximises their potential? To do so requires self-control.

Keen points to research by Richard Boyatzis which found that the personality trait most closely associated with profitability in business leaders is self-regulation – above strong analytical reasoning and ‘social skills’. The ability to moderate one’s own behaviour, argues Keen, is key to influencing others.

However, one cannot force oneself to adopt the traits of good leadership by sheer force of will. “Willpower is only suitable for short-term interventions, not for sustained behavioural change,” he says.

Instead, it is necessary to gradually modify the ‘defaults’ of one’s personality, the type to which one reverts in times of stress and anxiety. To do this, says Keen, one must retrain the mind to believe it is in possession of leadership qualities. That means eliminating experiences that confirm the existing self-concept and concentrating on those that reinforce a more positive impression. “You have to control every piece of conditioning you experience and make sure it is helpful,” he says.

Difficult though it may be, this technique offers anybody the opportunity to become an effective leader. Or rather, it allows people to behave in such a way that employees will respond to and follow them. After all, as Keen says, leadership cannot be taken by an individual, it can only be given by those around them.

Personality types

To foster a positive emotional connection with staff, it is important to consider the way they think. Personality type theory can help by providing a framework with which to model other people’s thinking.

Roy Norris, principal consultant at White House consulting, argues that whether people are either introverted or extroverted and whether they are proactive or reactive are particularly important considerations when managing them in the workplace.

The four different permutations of these characteristics are described as the following personality traits: dominance (introverted and proactive), influence (extroverted and proactive), steadfastness (extroverted and reactive) and compliance (introverted and reactive).

While 85% of company directors exhibit high-dominance characteristics, the majority of IT staff exhibit high compliance. Such people – dubbed ‘High Cs’ – crave order, like things to be done ‘in the right way’ and are rule oriented. They are also highly susceptible to work-related stress.

An important consideration when managing people exhibiting High C traits is that, unlike more spontaneous personality types, they like to take decisions based on evidence, and are therefore most comfortable making decisions once they have researched the matter at hand.

“A managing director would be advised to give his technical director time to prepare for decisions,” says Norris. Unfortunately, these managing directors tend to be high-dominance types who like to drive through decisions quickly and spontaneously, he adds. “However, they can get much better results by allowing IT staff the chance to perform.”

Both Keen and Norris argue that a proficient leader is one that takes the mental and emotional state of their ‘followers’ into account in order to motivate them. And while certain personality types may take naturally to commanding others, they do not necessarily make the most productive leaders.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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