Transform or Control? Resolving an Important Leadership Challenge

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Here is a quick “what would you do if” quiz.

Assume you take over leadership of a troubled work team or organization. Your employee engagement scores, customer engagement metrics, and performance measures all reflect significant cultural chaos. Which of the following approaches is mostly likely to achieve an effective cultural revolution:

a) (since crisis requires a direct approach) immediately impose your authority and control,
b) (since buy-in is essential to change) immediately seek input from employees and increase employee empowerment,
c) (since such dysfunctional cultures seldom change) get your resume prepared so you can find alternative employment soon.

While every situation is different and many effective leaders might stabilize the crisis by taking a directive approach, the science of employee and customer experience management suggests that option B – the listening and measured empowerment strategy – is the best long term course of action.

Take for example, a study published in the journal of Leadership and Organization Development that tested a conceptual model involving what is often referred to as “transformational leadership”. As you are probably aware, transformational leadership refers to leadership behaviors that influence the values and aspirations of followers and activates followers in the direction of higher-order needs. In essence, motivating the follower to go beyond their own self-interest for the sake of the organization.

In the Leadership and Organization Development study conducted by James Avey, Larry Hughes, Steven Norman, and Kyle Luthans, employee negativity and cynicism were significantly reduced by a leader who demonstrated positivity and utilized a transformational leadership approach. More importantly, the most effective mediator of staff negativity was the leader’s ability to effectively empower staff to have a sense of ownership and control over the change process. Many studies had previously demonstrated that controlling leaders often get compliance over the short-term but in the process they squelch dissent and drive passive acting-out behaviors.

So if you combine research findings on authoritarian leaders and transformational leaders and appreciate that most of us want not only to “right our organizational ship but also keep it sailing”, option B (the listening and graduated empowerment approach) is definitely the best bet.

For course, it is possible to inherit a situation so dire, that both options A and option C should be considered. Hit the command and control switch and have your other hand on the ejector button with a well-prepared resume available for a possible soft landing.

However, even in that scenario, a positive approach will still come in handy!

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