With open plan offices being the norm, today’s leaders are inevitably ‘on show’ around the clock in a constantly connected world. Operating in a highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business world, leaders are subjected to a barrage of challenges which threaten to overwhelm their mental, emotional and physical faculties. A leader that is able to constantly replenish their ‘resiliency tanks’ can thrive in this environment, but those who struggle will be fragile and open to criticism from their followers.
A recent survey reported that only 5% of employees had received an apology from their manager when they had made a mistake, undoubtedly making a significant impact on relations between the manager and employee and also damaging trust. The research also showed that managers are reluctant to apologise more often for fear of appearing weak or incompetent.
This new world, where leaders are more immersed in the day-to-day office environment than ever before, is inevitably having an impact on how they lead their teams and remain strong and resilient in the face of various challenges. Perhaps leaders are so worried about showing any degree of frailty because they are more exposed than ever?
In the old world leaders typically has their own office – a safe haven where they could let their body language safely mirror their emotional state. Looking sad, worried, perplexed, or plain old angry behind closed doors was fine. In front of the troops it was about painting on the smile, shoulders dropped, head held high. Maybe the Blackberry /iPhone wasn’t always belting out twitter feeds, emails and alerts that distracted their attention and demanded their time 24/7.
The world was more predictable, with many ready-made solutions for problems that may have arisen – such as a key member of staff leaving, the power going out in a main building or new product launch going wrong. Of course there was a possibility that all of these could happen at the same time, but in the new world this challenging series of events can also be combined with a social media storm – perhaps with clients and employees publically complaining and damaging the brand.
Now, all of this can be taking place with the added pressure of taking personal calls, whilst monitoring twitter feeds, and needing to shortly join a Skype call with a business abroad in a different time zone, for example. How many of these things, which despite being hailed as making life easier and quicker, are actually creating a world of stress and is just too much for a leader – or indeed a human being – to handle? All of this can happen with the leader sitting in an open plan office, desperately trying to maintain their poker face.
How unruffled can someone continue to appear, whilst they’re bombarded with challenges and communications via a whole host of new channels, and are then expected to lead teams and present exactly the right amount of calm and authoritative exterior? There is every possibility that under this pressure, some managers might snap at their teams if they’re asked for help with something, even if their usual style is supportive and respectful.
As employees and followers, we may have learnt that our leaders are expected to be super human beings with a constant control on their emotions, always available and only concerned about how they can make your life better. They must be above reproach, slow to anger, upbeat, inspiring and with a ready smile on their face.
Can we re-contract and give each other a break? I am not saying for one moment that a leader should be anything other than resourceful, motivating, visionary and supportive for their teams. But occasionally, as a human being, they will get things wrong too. Life will become too overwhelming and their face will reflect the emotion or tiredness. Hopefully with a good relationship built with their team already, the leader will be able to show their human side and say, “sorry, but I am having a tough day. Please bear with me, normal service will resume later”.
If a mistake is made such as snapping at someone, when you are normally naturally cheerful, then an apology and a smile can put things back on the right footing. Running out and buying the team some fruit or a cream cake can rally people’s spirits, including the leaders too. It’s amazing how much empathy a team can show a leader prepared to show their human side – and by apologising or showing they care about their team morale and welfare, they are certainly not projecting a weak image to their staff. In fact, they are earning respect from teams who feel they can better identify with them.
Employees and followers can be a bit more forgiving of leaders too. They can pick up some great experience by offering to help out with problem solving. Even getting teas/coffees/taking notes, for example, can help a team or leader up against a deadline. Being someone a leader can rely on at times of difficulty is always appreciated, and better still, if you’re able to be intuitive and offer to help before it’s even apparent that it is needed, your support will never be forgotten. Helping to keep an open plan office cheerful, as well as productive, is something everyone can contribute to.
It’s a responsible, visible, and tiring but rewarding, job being a leader and a follower. If we show each other that we can give support in the good times and tough, the workplace will be whole lot happier and trust will go several notches higher. Who wouldn’t want that?
Bev White, MD of HR Consulting at Penna plc