Thursday, 16 September 2010

Leadership Under Pressure

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the pressure’s on. The current economic climate, the pressures of shareholders (whether in the form of the City for private industry or customers for the public sector), the media doom and gloom approach, and the increased rumblings of discontent across wide swathes of business and public sector all put pressures on leaders – regardless of where they are in an organisation. Against that background, it is only natural that the reaction to this emotional turmoil will be one of concern and uncertainty leading to defensiveness and a "belt and braces" approach. So just how do leaders respond to those pressures. Intellectually it is relatively simple – there is simply no other choice for all businesses but to change. Emotionally it is far more complex and people react to change in different ways from unbridled enthusiasm on the one hand, to panic and freeze on the other.

The dichotomy of change is that much of it is driven by the enthusiasm and willingness of leaders who want to be more prepared for the future, and yet much of the frustration in organisations is caused by the safety first, risk-averse approach of those same leaders and their direct reports. There will always be those in organisations who – under pressure – revert quickly to a leadership and managerial style of ‘protect, maintain, fear, tell and let me check everything’.  This is not done from negative intent, more an uncertainty about how to react to change - resulting in a natural fall back to doing what people have always done – “reverting to type”.

By reverting to type, I mean the inward looking protective approach that so often characterises organisations under pressure, and we have already seen examples of this in the form of a more adversarial approach to industrial relations across the country. Sadly, the one approach that is guaranteed to fail in the difficult times ahead is that protective approach in which (under the guise of ensuring value for money) everything is checked, double checked and checked again. That approach slows decision making by creating a "jobsworth" mentality, which in turn encourages managers to work at an unnecessary level of detail, which then prevents the thinking and actions that create the innovative environment required to maintain services with less resource.

But consider the impact of that revert to type. In all the dealing that we do, the vast majority of people recognise without prompting that the age of austerity is about to hit home (if it hasn’t already done so) and that more with less is the order of the day. Of course there are some for whom the answer is a naïve “provide more money/people/resources”, but most people are sensible enough to recognise the need for change even if they don’t like it. So “check, check and double check” is actually saying to people who are already on the same page “I don’t trust you!” Is that what we need our leaders to be saying in difficult times?

In fact if the necessary radical savings are to be made, then doing the same thing more carefully and spending more time checking is exactly the opposite of the approach that is necessary. I am of course not suggesting that all checks and balances need to be scrapped – you would quite rightly laugh me out of court if I did suggest that. However if any organisation is going to change yet retain high levels of service and value for money, it is going to have to ask different questions of itself, and its staff. Boxer’s maxim in Animal Farm of “I must work harder” has to be replaced with “I must work smarter”. Easy to say and less easy to do, but leaders at all level of the organisation have to get used to asking incisive questions such as:
·        What value does this add? (many processes are seldom questioned and become "laws")
·        What assumptions are we making regarding our customers top priorities?
·        What are the key measures? (the dials in our cockpit which demonstrate that we are flying the plane in the  optimum manner?)
·        How must we actively promote, recognise and reward innovation and creative thinking? (to use a well known space race analogy, will we be like the Americans and spend millions on inventing a pen that writes upside down or, like the Russians, would we use a pencil?)
·        What mechanisms must we put in place to gather and distribute best practice quickly and in a cost effective manner?
A recent study by (I think) McKinsey Consulting is revealing in the extreme. The study looked at current situations in a number of market sectors and asked what the future held for that sector. They asked two groups of people: the so called experts (consultants who regularly appeared on television to expound – probably at great cost – what the future held; and workers in the sectors. The latter were not CEOs and MDs but people on the front line. Guess what? The latter group proved to be correct in their estimation of the future far more often that the experts. So leaders under pressure don’t need to tell, they need to ask and engage their employees. So if you have to make cuts, don’t hide yourself and your immediate team away and decide what to do, tell your employees what needs to be achieved and ask them how they would go about it. The former is, it seems to me, to be the approach adopted by BA, and just look how UNITE reacted. The latter characterises those many unknown and unseen companies who consult, engage and involve their employees and who, like Waitrose, go from strength to strength, even in difficult times. So, if you are a leader under pressure, repeat after me: “ask don’t tell, ask don’t tell!”
Simon Hollington is a Director of Leading Edge Personal Development Ltd ( , a company formed to release potential and improve performance. He can be contacted at or 07811 332280

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