Mother and daughter academic team – Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, Professor of Leadership, Bradford University School of Management and Juliette Alban-Metcalfe, Managing Director, Real World Group – are the first winners of a new Chartered Management Institute (CMI) competition to find the most useful research to practising managers. This article achieved the highest average rating from CMI members.
Even before the effects of the current economic crisis, organisations were aware of the need to be more innovative, handling rapid and complex change competently, and to be more effective in utilising organisational resources, including, most importantly, their people resources.
It falls to leaders to get more from their staff, in ways that do not reduce morale, not only for ethical reasons, but because damaging either will ensure that any benefits will be short-lived, with the most talented probably taking their talents elsewhere.
This raises critical questions about the nature of leadership and the use of human capital – the knowledge, skills and personal attributes that when applied in people’s efforts create economic value; and the sharing of social capital – the connections between people and groups that increase innovation, learning, and productivity in organisations.
We identified a model that enables organisations to build leadership capacity, and embed cultures of innovation, proactivity, and high ‘readiness for change’, while at the same time creating an environment in which employees can be more productive and experience higher levels of motivation and well-being.
This was tested with thousands of managers, in a range of organisations internationally, from petrochemical and luxury goods to healthcare and local government, and found to significantly increase levels of employee engagement. A second three-year investigation showed that this approach to leadership, when embedded in the culture of teams, has a significant impact on productivity.
This paper briefly describes the research findings from these two studies and the implications for managers and organisations in creating cultures of engagement, innovation, high ‘readiness for change’, and high levels of productivity.
1. What form of leadership produces high levels of employee engagement?
Notions of leadership evolve over time, affected by changes in economic, political, social, technological, and ecological factors.
US ‘heroic’ models of leadership, dominated the 1980s and 90s, including ‘visionary’, ‘charismatic’ and ‘transformational’ leadership, based largely on studies (often self-reports) of CEOs of large US-based multi-national companies, most of whom were male. Criticism of an emphasis on the ‘inspirational-charismatic’ aspects of leadership grew in the 1990s alongside awareness of the ‘dark side of charisma’, which might include arrogance, narcissistic and manipulative behaviours, and be associated with an inability to build and support a team. The focus of researchers on ‘the leader’ failed to acknowledge the reciprocal influence of the follower-leader relationship, or the concept of ‘shared’ leadership, that is, that leadership is not the sole preserve of those occupying formal leadership roles, but also emerges when people work together effectively.
Challenges to the ‘heroic’ models of leadership grew in the wake of the series of corporate scandals, including those involving Enron and Lehman Brothers in the US, and the Royal Bank of Scotland in the UK, which were attributed largely to the failure of corporate governance and the hubris of those occupying the most senior leadership roles.
In the wake of growing dissatisfaction with ‘distant’, ‘heroic’ leadership, new notions of leadership evolved placing emphasis on leadership as a social process – ie emerging as the product of effective interaction – and emphasising the ethical behaviour of leaders. These included models of ‘ethical’ and ‘authentic’ leadership.
However, while providing valuable contributions to the notion of what characteristics make an effective ‘leader’, they do not directly address the question as to how to engage employees in the work of the organisation.
The nature of the relationship between staff and their line managers became the focus of our first major investigation into the characteristics of ‘nearby’ (day-to-day) leadership, which ultimately enabled us to create a model of ‘engaging transformational leadership’. Our interest was to identify the behaviours of line managers that had “a particularly powerful effect on the motivation, self-confidence, self-efficacy, or performance” of their staff.
We argued that ‘nearby’ leadership was best judged by leaders’ direct reports, rather than by asking leaders what made them effective. These are the 14 dimensions in their four clusters.
Engaging with Individuals
- Showing Genuine Concern
- Being Accessible
- Encouraging Questioning
Engaging the Organisation/Team
- Supporting a Developmental Culture
- Inspiring Others
- Focusing Team Effort
- Being Decisive
Engaging the Stakeholders – Moving Forward Together
- Building Shared Vision
- Resolving Complex Issues
- Facilitating Change Sensitively
Personal Qualities and Values
- Being Honest and Consistent
- Acting with Integrity
2. A Model of Engaging Transformational Leadership
This model emphases working in genuine partnership with a range of other internal and external stakeholders, being sensitive to their agenda and needs, and being decisive when required.
Strong themes emerged relating to building shared visions, and creating environments in which empowerment, appreciation, curiosity, experimentation, questioning the status quo, and learning are highly valued. Such leadership is not confined to those who occupy formal leadership roles; rather, it is a process distributed throughout an organisation.
The 360-feedback instrument developed to assess these behaviours, the Transformational Leadership Questionnaire™ (TLQ™), includes 10 measures of the impact of leadership on staff’s motivation, job satisfaction, commitment, and reduced work-related stress, etc., enabling us to analyse the effect of specific leadership behaviours on staff. The evidence, based on data gathered from the 360 ratings of several thousand private and public sector managers, is that, whatever the organisation, sector, or occupational group, an engaging style of leadership does have a significant positive effect on staff attitudes and well-being.
While these findings provide evidence that these behaviours of leadership affect levels of engagement of employees, the most important question is whether they ultimately affect the performance and productivity of an organisation.
3. Engaging Leadership and its Impact on Performance & Productivity
We undertook a three year longitudinal investigation of the impact of the leadership culture of teams, on their productivity, using our model of engaging transformational leadership. We also assessed team morale and wellbeing, since this potentially impacts on sustainability of performance.
We controlled for a range of important variables (eg range of expertise within the team, resources available) that could affect the teams’ performance. Leadership was assessed using the Leadership Culture & Change Inventory (LCCI), which is based on a combination of the engaging leadership dimensions in the TLQ, plus the 14 leadership competencies, identified by experts in the field.
Analysis of the anonymous ratings of a national sample of 731 team members led to the emergence of three dimensions of leadership culture: ‘Engaging with Others’, ‘Visionary Leadership’; and ‘Leadership Capabilities’.
These were assessed along with 12 aspects of staff attitudes and wellbeing. All three leadership dimensions were significant ‘predictors’ of different aspects of staff’s attitudes to work, and well-being at work.