Six leadership myths debunked during the pandemic
Many beliefs about leadership, people and work have evaporated before our eyes over the past 18 months, and some of these beliefs have been held for so long that they became myths, writes IMD Business School's Susan Goldsworthy
The changes to our working lives brought about by the global pandemic have debunked six common leadership myths that are actually interconnected. As you read this article, reflect upon which ones might be most relevant for you or your teams and the steps you can take to co-create the conditions for a healthier, high-performing workplace.
Myth 1: It’s lonely at the top
Many executives commonly express this sentiment, however, while it may feel lonely from time-to-time it doesn’t have to be that way. The current crisis has highlighted clearly that it is necessary for leaders to become more emotionally intelligent and be open to both give and receive support. Former UK Chair of KPMG, Bill Michael, felt he had no choice but to resign after a virtual meeting for employees went viral in which he told people to “stop moaning” and “playing the victim card” and described unconscious bias as “complete and utter crap”.
His lack of compassion and empathic understanding ultimately cost him his job.
We are a social species. People cope better with life’s challenges when they have what we call secure bases. These are people who both have your interests at heart and stretch you, who care for and dare you. Imagine a trampoline. The more springs a trampoline has, the more support it has which means you are going to bounce back higher when you fall. It’s the same thing with secure bases. The more you have, the greater your resilience in tough times.
Secure bases adopt a Rogerian person-centred approach where they treat others with respect, where they are able to exhibit empathic understanding, and where they operate with a sense of congruence. Leaders who cultivate secure bases are courageous enough to be vulnerable, to seek advice and to ask for support from time-to-time. They can then be a secure base for others too. They no longer need to feel isolated.
Myth 2: There is no place for emotions in business
It is a fallacy that we can separate out our emotions from our professional lives. With the pandemic affecting everyone across the globe to some degree regardless of culture, race or socioeconomic status, people have felt a wider range of emotions on a more regular basis.
Since April 2020, I surveyed almost 1000 executives, who are mostly working in multinational corporations, about their energy levels.
Initially, around 15 per cent of executives said they felt they were operating in survival mode and 3-5 per cent expressed they felt they were experiencing burnout. By April 2021, the numbers had changed drastically with up to 60 per cent of leaders reporting they felt they were in survival or burnout modes. People’s emotional bandwidth is stretched much further than it was before. Leaders who previously managed the daily stresses in their stride now find themselves becoming more emotionally taut.
This is why it is so important to enable space and opportunities for people to share how they are feeling, without judgment or offering solutions, especially since the boundaries between home and work have collapsed. Neuroscientific research shows that if you allow people to express what they don’t like, in a safe space, without offering solutions, it reduces the negative emotion in the amygdala. Leaders need the courage to embrace their own and others’ emotions and to lead with compassion.
Myth 3: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
People are often slow to change when they are stuck in habits and where the impetus to change is low. As the pandemic lockdowns forced everyone to switch to working remotely, it was remarkable to see how quickly we all adapted to a new reality. (And, in actual fact, research with our canine companions shows that older dogs are frequently easier to train than puppies).
Whereas previously most leaders commuted to offices, global business air travel was a normal part of life and executive education took place on campuses across the world, suddenly we found ourselves confined to our homes or living a more ‘local’ life. Very quickly, we worked out how to adapt to work virtually, leveraging technology in the process. Many people who started jobs in the lockdown have not met their colleagues face-to-face and yet have found ways to connect and be effective.
The old adage, “neurons that fire together, wire together” supports the premise that we act our way into new behaviours. Neuroplasticity indicates that our brains can continue to create new neurons and make neural connections throughout our lives. A stimulating learning environment, combined with adequate sleep, can ensure that we continue to learn and adapt.
In a constantly changing and uncertain world, cultivating an attitude of curiosity can help people across all levels to find new ways of working, communicating and delivering. In the legendary words of Professor Bill Fischer, “Be interested rather than interesting.”
Myth 4: People can’t be trusted to work from home
At the beginning of the lockdown, a number of senior leaders expressed concern about whether people working from home would actually be working. Indoctrinated into the Taylorist model whereby presence is equated to productivity, some doubted employees would work as hard if they were not in the office. In fact, the opposite has proved to be true, as the lines between work and home have blurred. Factors contributing to this increase in work include the elimination of commuting time, employees carrying anxiety that if they are not visible they might lose their jobs and also people craving more interaction to keep a sense of connection.
This is one myth many executives are still struggling with, as it is a learning process. In fact, recent research by the Centre for Transformative Work Design found that 60 per cent of managers surveyed either agreed or were unsure about the statement “The performance of remote workers is usually lower than that of people who work in an office setting.” However, as time goes by many are beginning to realise that they can trust others to perform based on intrinsic motivators. Human beings have two basic psychological needs: the need for acceptance, to belong (remembering that we are a social species) and the need to achieve, to find meaning, fulfilment and a sense of purpose.
Research from Gallup shows that leaders account for at least 70 per cent of variance in engagement and we also know that people tend to leave bosses rather than companies. This is important because when leaders don’t trust people, people sense it and therefore, are going to be less committed. There is a commitment-compliance continuum. Giving people options and choice within a frame creates commitment which, in turn, increases engagement. Leaders must realise that ‘trust is a must’ for creating the conditions where people can perform at their best.
Myth 5: The leader must have all the answers and provide solutions
This myth is a classic one. Before the pandemic, leaders may have enjoyed the ‘illusion of control’. The system encourages them to be ‘experts’ reinforcing the hero myth of the lone individual who has the answers to solve all issues and challenges. Often leaders who don’t trust themselves or their employees become micromanagers, believing that it is quicker, easier and more effective for them to control the work of others, quashing innovation, creativity and curiosity in the process.
Educational systems often train us to think in polarities; black/white, right/wrong or good/bad. In today’s uncertain environment, leadership is now far less about a leader giving the answers, being an expert and providing solutions. Leaders who adopt a growth mindset characterised by curiosity, openness and collaboration are able to let go of unattainable perfectionism and be kinder to themselves and others. Research by Professor Carol Dweck shows that companies that embrace a growth mindset have more committed employees while companies with a primarily fixed mindset report more cheating and backstabbing among employees.
When leaders become conveners who create the space and conditions for psychological safety, it enables diverse groups of people to co-create together. In the words of Professor Alison King, a leader must move from being a “sage on the stage” to being a “guide on the side”. In these inclusive places, creativity and innovation can thrive and atypical solutions can emerge.
Myth 6: Business is separate from society
As a species, in the past decades, we are accelerating what scientists have called the sixth mass extinction. There used to be an idea that business interests were separate from societal ones, however, as living organisms, everything we do is interconnected. COVID has also exacerbated political, economic, social and technological differences with greater disparity between the “haves” and “have nots”. The linear economy of “take, make and waste” is unsustainable on a planet of finite resource. There is very little point in creating great shareholder value if, in the process, we destroy the environment we need to live.
We are a part of the ecosystem, not apart from the ecosystem. Therefore, we must take a responsible, holistic approach to business. This is one reason that so many companies are starting to look at their purpose beyond the financials. McKinsey found that people “living their purpose” at work are four times more likely to report higher engagement levels. Gallup found that a strong sense of purpose and direction increased productivity and quality while decreasing absences and health and safety incidents. Furthermore, according to Raj Sisodia, author of the book Firms of Endearment, companies with a clear and driving sense of purpose, beyond the goal of just making money, outperformed the S&P 500 by a factor of 14 between 1998 and 2013.
Interconnected areas such as diversity, inclusion and sustainability were previously housed within separate departments operating in isolation of the core business strategy. Increasingly, these areas as united and the responsibility of the board and executive team as companies focus on and actin accordance with broader societal responsibilities.
An emergent role of leadership
It is important to remember that organisations are actually comprised of people, and people are living organisms. The actualising tendency of Carl Rogers reflects the biological fact that all living organisms have an inherent desire to grow. What makes the difference to how well something grows, be it a sunflower seed or a person, is the environment that surrounds them.
When people feel a sense of psychological safety, they are then able to focus on being playful and curious, unleashing the creativity and innovation necessary for finding ways forward in an emergent future. A focus on people impacts performance. Research by Dr. Paul Zak found high trust cultures are 70 per cent more aligned on company purpose, experience 40 per cent less burnout, feel 66 per cent closer to colleagues and enjoy jobs 60 per cent more.
Thus, leadership in the 21st century must seek to create conditions where both they and others can not only survive but also thrive. Becoming aware of and then letting go of the aforementioned leadership myths are necessary steps in co-creating efficient, effective and life-enhancing environments for everyone.
Susan Goldsworthy is Professor of Leadership and Organisational Change at IMD. She is a co-author of three award-winning books, an Olympic swimmer, highly-qualified executive coach and is trained in numerous psychometric assessments.