Leaders play a critical role in shaping the employee experience and helping employees to embrace new ways of working in the face of digital disruption, writes Anthony Mitchell
“Only three things happen naturally in organisations: friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership.” – Peter Drucker
This may be my favourite business quote of all time. Do nothing with organisations and they will decline. They will lose direction, become inefficient, and founder. Market shares and margins will deteriorate as will both customer experience and employee engagement.
Interestingly, leadership does not simply impact the efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation. It also drives the style of the organisation – whether it is supportive or competitive, collaborative or independent, humanistic or mechanistic, steady or dynamic. Quite simply, leaders’ behaviours shape how organisations work.
Digital disruption and new ways of working
This impact of leaders is of pronounced importance right now, as ways of working are changing more significantly than any time since the rise of the assembly line. The rise of digital disruption has ushered in a new paradigm that hasn’t merely changed how business models and competitive advantage work – it’s changed how organisations themselves work.
The translation of agile from an IT project management methodology to a metaphor for more nimble cultures is an apt illustration of what is going on.
In Bendelta’s leadership development work we are finding ‘agile leadership’ to be one of the fastest growing needs, whether agile is spelt with an upper or lower case ‘A’. We’ve found that it is incredibly important for these programs to focus on ‘the agile mindset’ as the skills only become relevant once leaders really understand the purpose and value of agile ways of working, and why they are an essential component of operating in the age of digital disruption and the cyber-physical revolution.
“The translation of agile from an IT project management methodology to a metaphor for more nimble cultures is an apt illustration of what is going on”
This is not about buzzwords such as ‘squad’, ‘tribe’, ‘chapter’, or ‘sprint’. Rather it’s about:
- Removing barriers to responsiveness to opportunities and threats
- Replacing inflexible long-term plans with opportunities to experiment, then quickly learn and adapt
- Eschewing hierarchy
- Breaking down functional barriers
- Organising in multidisciplinary teams, based on customer needs
- A more energising, more empowering, more collaborative experience of work
It is becoming clear that there is no option but to adopt new ways of working in an age of digital disruption. Leadership, more than anything else, determines whether organisations will succeed at doing so.
How we shape each other
As neuroscience shows us, the effect known as ‘emotional contagion’ results from how our mirror neurons pick up on signals from others. This is why we often yawn or giggle when we see someone else do so.
Professor Sigal Barsade of Yale University found that emotions don’t just hop from one person to another; they also influence group dynamics.
Barsade separated business students into small groups, each with the same hypothetical task of allocating employee bonuses. She secretly planted one student in each group to act out a different emotion: enthusiasm, hostility, serenity, or depression. When the infiltrator was enthusiastic, he smiled often, looked intently into people’s eyes, and spoke rapidly. When he feigned depression, he spoke slowly, avoided eye contact, and slouched in his seat.
Barsade measured participants’ moods before and after the exercise and found that students who caught the actor’s positive emotions were perceived by others and by themselves as more competent and cooperative. The positive groups also believed they were more collegial than those in the bad-mood groups. But when Barsade asked the students what influenced their performance, they attributed it to their skills.
She concluded: “People don’t realise they are being influenced by others’ emotions.”
“Leadership, more than anything else, determines whether organisations will succeed at adopting new ways of working”
There are numerous factors which impact the degree of emotional contagion. Extroverts are more contagious on others; introverts tend to experience more contagion. Negative emotions are more ‘catching’ than positive ones (because negative emotions are usually related to urgent fight-or-flight matters of survival). On average, women experience more contagion than men.
But the number one influence on the degree of contagion is relative seniority. The more senior the leader, the greater the shaping influence. Again, this is Darwinistic in nature – we learned aeons ago to pay attention to the vibes from our tribe leaders. At a primitive, unconscious level, we can’t help feeling what those more senior than us are giving off. And the most senior leaders – CEOs and C-suite executives – have the most contagious effects.
From emotions to experience and ways of working
Let’s go back to that quote from Drucker. It’s not just that the moods of leaders affect our moods. It goes much further. And that’s why leadership, more than anything else, determines whether organisations will succeed in adopting new ways of working in the face of digital disruption.
It happens in two ways:
- Substantive leadership. Leaders may formally sign off the required changes. They may, in turn, approve the required budgets, hire or deploy top talent to introduce new approaches, change KPIs, restructure, replace old systems and processes with new ones, and so on. They may do these things quickly or slowly. They may provide committed organisational capacity for the transformation or they may allocate only marginal resources.
- Symbolic leadership. Regardless of what they do substantively, leaders may invigorate or kill the new ways of working through their words, tone and emotional contagion. They may express cynicism, nervousness or reluctance about the changes, or simply not convey much enthusiasm. They may give other matters priority or change habits slowly if at all, to adopt new ways of working. Or, they may be the first to shed their traditions, their trappings of power, their habits. They may be active in forming, supporting and championing multidisciplinary teams. They may be the epitome of the change itself.
“Don’t force people to have to drive the changes on top of a full existing workload”
Right now, leaders need to exhibit BOTH the substantive and symbolic leadership that can improve employee experience and embrace new ways of working in the face of digital disruption. There is no doubt that leaders are highly contagious. The question becomes: exactly what is it that leaders in your organisation are spreading, and what are people catching as a result?
5 steps for leaders to improve the employee experience through digital disruption
How can leaders play the best possible role in shaping employee experience and new ways of working? Here are five key steps:
- Go first. Be the very first people to take advantage of flexible working, use the new technology, and apply an agile approach to one of their own key projects. Show curiosity about what’s going on.
- Choose your stories. In large forums and meetings, as well as in more intimate settings, spotlight examples that support the new approaches. Make heroes of the right people, behaviours and initiatives. DON’T be critical of experiments that didn’t work out – remember that the point of experiments is that they aren’t always supposed to work.
- Be conscious in the vibes you are giving off. Show enthusiasm, calm and confidence, not reluctance, ambivalence or cynicism. It’s also okay to show your vulnerability – you don’t have to be superhuman, you just have to be supportive and constructive.
- Commit fully. Don’t force people to have to drive the changes on top of a full existing workload. Create capacity – whether that’s in the form of budget, time, talent or relief from KPIs.
- Create a robust change engine, with monitoring, review and rituals. It’s fine, if not essential, to change the details of the solution as you go, but don’t let go of the commitment to the core philosophies you are looking to embed. You’ll get there!