Are we setting our leaders up to fail?

F grade at work
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Stephanie Morgan
Director of Learning Solutions
Bray Leino Learning
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Among the challenges HR have to contend with are the ones that arise from old-fashioned, top-down leadership cultures.

These generally expect one person, the one at the head of the organisation, to do the lot, and to know everything there is to know. Leaders are held up as the source of all knowledge, assumed to be constantly on top of their game, dishing out visionary leadership and unrivalled empathy all at once.

I don’t need to tell you that this is unrealistic.

Leaders are only human. If they stand alone, they may find themselves making mistakes. And leadership mistakes can mean – at the very least – headaches for HR.

However, HR have the power to stop leaders being set up for a fall, and in doing so, can avoid any resulting negative impact.

Impacts

This culture means leaders take on pressure when perhaps they needn’t, and make mistakes that could have been averted if they were better supported.

We’ve all read about it in the media — the gaffes made by CEOs, board members, politicians, and Silicon Valley founders. When an organisation is thrust into the limelight by a miscommunication or misjudgement, often there’s someone at the top who shoulders the blame.

If you’re not operating in a culture in which making mistakes can be learned from, when a leader does so, it can negatively impact the way people feel about their leadership, their organisation, and even their own role.

We know a lack of leadership can lead to absenteeism and disaffected employees, and poor leadership affects day-to-day engagement and effectiveness, performance and productivity.

Clear leadership increases commitment by letting people know where they fit in and how they can contribute. This results in increased trust, productivity and culture – not to mention reputation.

But what can HR do to create an environment in which leaders really can succeed?

Leading authentically

For one, HR can create a culture in which authentic leadership is valued. And while I don’t think leaders set out to be inauthentic, we have to question why it’s still a rarity.

This brings us back to leaders being human.

In an organisation in which failure is accepted and used as a learning opportunity, authentic leaders will feel more empowered to own their mistakes and develop.

Help create a culture in which this is not only okay, but in which people are comfortable with owning and learning from mistakes. This requires developing emotional intelligence, humility and perhaps even training in how to make a genuine apology (“regret, reason, remedy”).

Taking responsibility for them when these opportunities arise will, in turn, make leaders more self-aware and empathetic—traits essential for a successful culture of continuous development.

An active, pragmatic approach to improvement means HR can connect people (not just leaders) with development opportunities, creating a culture in which growth and high performance is the norm.

Cultural alignment

Another way to support leaders is to create and develop a senior team that shares the responsibility and workload of decision-making – and HR should definitely have a seat at this table.

When that structure is in place, you’ll need to make sure those people can take responsibility, feel empowered and do what’s asked of them. This can be less straightforward than you think.

Take a holistic approach to how you view these senior roles. You should look at their relationships, their skills, knowledge and behaviours and personal attributes—like resilience—to find out whether these people are going to be able to act as leadership support.

Considering all these viewpoints means you can offer development opportunities and are less likely to leave something out that might undermine them later.

Defining and promoting the right leadership characteristics is essential to developing the right people with the behaviours and outlook needed for these roles. Making sure the senior team have the right attitudes and are aligned with your organisation’s values will mean they live and breathe them, and will be less likely to stray away.

And be clear what those leadership values are.

“Most organizations, after all,” writes Peter Allen in McKinsey Quarterly, “value qualities such as integrity and intelligence. But when we combine these with “thinking like an owner”, innovation, and the ability to inspire others, we begin to define leadership in ways that really matter.”

This highlights the importance of having an ‘owner’ for each area within your senior team. Task individuals with a business area to own, and create a network among them to discuss decisions and potential impacts.

HR with a strategic mindset

Adopting a strategic mindset for HR can help tackle siloes and create bonds between departments, employees and leadership.

We know that leaving HR out of processes until it’s too late can be a big factor in grievances and affect employee retention. Creating a business partnership with our senior team means we can get access to the people and resources we need, and be part of the conversation strategically.

We already know about the importance of open discussion. However, because we hear all the time that many organisations forget to prioritise it, it’s worth keeping on your radar.

In an example discussed on NPR’s Invisibilia podcast, leadership consultant Claire Nuer helped oil field workers open up about their vulnerabilities and challenges. This invoked a change in culture that contributed to an 84% decline in Shell's accident rate.

By encouraging openness as a value, you can deliver change. And the result of your new, more open leadership will be that it’s one in which improvement is valued, people are more committed and engaged, and HR is made use of.

With this, future leaders can be developed who align with values, can lead authentically, and are overall less likely to cause HR headaches.

When your people feel secure in their leaders, we can also avoid the pitfalls of high employee turnover, and in the worst-case scenarios, grievances, sickness absence and tribunals.

In this type of culture, HR can be best effective, and processes will have the greatest impact, leading to better and greater workplace productivity and profitability.

About Stephanie Morgan

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