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Leading a team successfully is not necessarily about having the knowledge, or even the experience in your chosen field. From a psychological perspective, leading and inspiring a team is more about the way in which you engage your team, than technical knowledge. Many businesses underestimate the impact of this, and they promote people to management positions based on the knowledge they have developed – and not on their ability to lead. The following tips can help you to positively manage your team, and inspire them to work more effectively.

Flexible working

With the development of technology and globalised business, home working is becoming more common. Employees no longer have to be in a fixed space at all times, and research has shown that both employees and businesses can benefit. How does this affect people’s ability to lead their teams, if they are not psychically together?

Firstly, it’s important to note that this is a different working environment. People are not used to working from separate physical locations, and emails can give rise to conflict due to miscommunication.

The best approach is to adapt your home working leadership skills for different staff members. For example, our research has found that outgoing and extrovert employees are more likely to be successful working from home. Personality is really important and home working won’t necessarily suit everyone. Using this insight can help dictate how you manage, for example, more introverted staff who are working from home; might they need a little more support and regular check-ins?

At Pearn Kandola, we have developed the iLEAD toolkit to support leaders developing the most effective teams. It provides them with ideas and practical advice on how to handle a wide range of work challenges, including how to motivate others, how to develop greater resilience, and how to generate a compelling vision.

Secondly, the technology used to enable home working varies. Many depend upon phone calls or tele-conferencing, but the best method is video-conferencing. Our research has shown that video-conferencing is a much more successful means of communication and it is the closest to face to face contact. It leads to less conflict amongst staff and enhances the ability to get the best from a team, whilst heightening employee productivity.

Empathy

Inspirational leadership always includes empathy. Research has shown that leaders who display empathy through their everyday behaviour are rated more highly in their leadership abilities. People with high levels of empathy are perceived to be interested in other people and they express concern and support for their welfare. Having a high level of empathy for employees can help leaders understand what best motivates them to change their behaviour and develop themselves as individuals.

Keep it simple with coaching

Meet with your employees regularly to coach and discuss their goals, but keep it simple. It’s best not to try and achieve too much in any one discussion, as having a long to-do list of personal development can often mean that nothing gets done at all. Set regular SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) mini-goals that can be achieved over a number of weeks or months, and check in on progress. Always close the session with clear next steps that your employees are bought into. Asking questions to check on motivation can help achieve this.

Helping your team reach solutions

When issues crop up in the workplace, your employees are likely to come to you with challenges and questions. Although it might be quickest to give them ‘the answer’ to their questions, the best way you can approach this is to help them come to their own conclusions. You can help them get there by asking question about their view of the options, or the best way forward. Try, where possible, to help them come to the final solution themselves. This will help them feel confident about how to move forward, and in time your employees will develop the confidence to solve difficult issues on their own.

To read more of Louise Weston's blogs on teams, leadership and and other related business psychology topics, click here.

January is that time where all thoughts turn to New Year’s resolutions. As ever the internet seems saturated with articles and blogs on the ‘best’ resolutions to make, the ones that will make us most happy and, of course, how to keep them, which includes the invention of a bracelet that gives you an electric shock if you don’t do whatever you have committed to doing. Yes, really.

So I had pretty much given up on the idea of writing about New Year’s resolutions this year, until I came across an article on the Harvard Business Review on mindfulness. I’ve been a fan of mindfulness since I came across the Headspace App last year and, for me, it’s a pretty helpful thing to do. Whether it has made me more creative, compassionate or develop better relationships, as the research suggests, I’m not entirely sure. I do think, though, that it has helped me to be more focused and less stressed at times when I have a lot going on.

Of course, I don’t practice it nearly as much as I would like, so it was already hovering on the list of possible resolutions when the Harvard article caught my eye. The article highlights a piece of research from Central Michigan University which found that individuals who had completed 10 minutes of mindfulness training had significantly lower levels of implicit racial and age bias, than those who had not.

This finding is consistent with previous research which demonstrated that mindfulness reduced our brain’s reliance on automatic associations. Research from INSEAD in 2013 showed that mindfulness reduced our susceptibility to sunk cost bias (our tendency to persist with lost causes because of what we have already invested in them e.g. watching a bad film until the end, because you’ve watched half of it already).

There are some caveats; this was a fairly small piece of research, so more is needed to replicate this and understand how meditation impacts on UB in more detail. It will be interesting to know how long the effect of meditation lasts, for example.

Nonetheless it makes sense to me that this could be a tangible way to help reduce unconscious biases. Any method that can reduce the automatic associations or automatic processes our brain uses as shortcuts is likely to be helpful in reducing bias. So I’m sold on mindfulness as my New Year’s resolution. It’s good for me and could be good for others too if it helps me reduce bias. Now I’m just going to need to make sure I stick to it. Where’s that bracelet?

I read some genuinely fascinating research out this week about the impact of the names of hurricanes. As you'll probably know, hurricanes are alternately given either male or female names, which cycle through the alphabet. The research from the University of Illinois looked at the last 60 years’ worth of hurricane data and found that, even though they weren't any more severe, hurricanes with female names had, on average, higher death tolls than 'male' hurricanes.

When looking at why this might be, the researchers concluded that people's behaviour changed according to the name of the hurricane.

One of the researchers, Sharon Shavitt cites:

"In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave.

This makes a female-named hurricane, especially one with a very feminine name such as Belle or Cindy, seem gentler and less violent."

This was also tested in experiments, where male-named hurricanes were consistently rated as being more intense and risky than 'female' hurricanes.

These gender stereotypes are deeply engrained in our subconscious and this research found that people imagining female hurricanes were also less likely to seek out shelter. That's a risky strategy, given that this behavior is likely to be directed by our unconscious bias associating the hurricane with feminine stereotypes such as warmth and lower aggression, when hurricanes are in reality named arbitrarily. However, our brains do like to take short cuts and such stereotypes are a quick and easy way of processing information. This is not helpful for effective decision-making at the best of times, but this is an example of where these gender stereotypes can have serious consequences.

I'm sure by now most people have gotten the message from our work and our blogs that unconscious bias is bad for business.This latest research takes it even further and suggests that, for some, it could even be deadly.....

Interesting article in the news today about fairness and racial bias in babies; a study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington shows that 15 month old babies show a strong preference for individuals who display fair behaviour, as measured by whether or not an experimenter equally distributes toys. That is unless the babies see that the experimenter unevenly distributed toys in a way that benefits a person of the same race as the infant. Where that was the case, they were more intolerant of the unfairness, suggesting an in-group bias from these babies.

We know that the in-group bias appears from an early age; research has demonstrated that three-to-five-year-old children systematically select same-race unfamiliar peers and adults as potential friends over those of another race (Katz and Kofkin, 1997; Kinzler and Spelke, 2011), however, this new research suggests that this bias appears even earlier.

This study has made news sites across the world, but even more interesting than the findings are the comments that accompany the articles. The majority opinion on one website I looked at was that this finding simply cannot be true. Some example comments I came across were:

“I found this whole thing disturbing and disgusting! Who the hell thinks up a study to show babies are racist and biased? Babies are innocent angels until taught by those around them. Babies are not born racist they are influenced by their parents, family and those around them.”

“People are not BORN racists/racially prejudiced, it's taught to them and to suggest that white people have some innate bias in them is just wrong (I am not white by the way).”

Of course, there are environmental influences that shape our thinking as we grow up, but the fundamental point is that actually yes, we are all biased, and the research suggests that in-group biases are there from very early on in our lives. Most importantly though, it’s what we do about them which matters. To suggest they don’t exist is more than just a fruitless exercise in denial, it is dangerous self-delusion – we know that bias has an impact on our behaviours and decisions, and if we don’t recognise this, how can we ever change it?

After my own blogs on the topic, I was delighted to read last week's letter to the Telegraph from the Agile Futures Forum (a group of 22 leaders of the UK's biggest businesses including Ian Livingston, chief executive of BT, Mark Ovenden, chairman of Ford Motor Company and Adam Crozier, boss of ITV). The letter highlights the fact that although many companies offer flexible working, the term has gained a bad reputation for being "a benefit for employees and a cost for employers".

However, their experience has been that "if implemented successfully by business leaders, workforce agility can offer sustainable business performance and engaged employees."

So, it looks like a rebranding of flexible working has been ordered and 'agile working' is born. To be honest, I don't really mind what it is called, the fact is that organisations can benefit from offering greater flexibility to their workforce and the technological advancements in the last ten years make this now very easy. It's time to start doing it!

So how do organisations really begin to put this into place? The AFF report identifies five golden rules to successfully implement workforce agility:

  • Be business-led. Do not leave it all to HR.
  • Understand the needs of your business and your workforce and find practices that support both.
  • Develop the agile working model bottom-up - focus on individual business units.
  • Consider big, strategic changes - ambitious plans can bring the greatest benefits.
  • Prepare leadership first and put in place sufficient management capacity.

I'd agree with all of their recommendations and from a psychological viewpoint, I would add another three further of top tips:

  • Demonstrate to managers that there is something in it for them. Providing case studies, examples of how it works in other organisations and personal experience of how it has been successful can help to engage them in the process.
  • Ensure managers at all levels are focused on outputs rather than inputs. Flexible and remote working can often mean less control for the managers. This means that leaders and managers need be very clear on outputs and milestones in the work they are asking their teams to deliver.
  • Plan how you will maintain communications and networks for agile workers. If it is a success, teams might rarely be in the same place at the same time. We know from our own research that for remote workers, extroverts tend to fare better than introverts because they are more likely to be proactive in staying in touch with their networks and so building in mechanisms for teams to connect on a regular basis can ensure that everyone feels included and informed.

The AFF research reports that agile working practices currently generate value equivalent to 3-13% of workforce costs. So while they may call it agile working and I call it flexible working, let's just make sure we don't call the whole thing off.

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