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What people don't know they want from leadership in the workplace

As humans, we want to be with other humans and be part of something bigger and better than we can create on our own. 

We love being part of an energetic team that has plenty of solutions, excited discussions and productive activity.

But the world has changed. The pandemic has separated teams, as it has separated friends and families. We no longer have the luxury of impromptu water cooler conversations, celebratory dinners or face-to-face brainstorming sessions.

Many people are in survival mode. Ground down by the relentless uncertainty, adherence to isolation rules and the inability to be around people.

Leading a team effectively has been turned on its head. And it’s unlikely that we will go back to how things used to be. Now, leaders need to know how to engage teams that are a mix of both remote and office-based employees.

It requires a shift in leadership style that takes into account how our people really want us to lead.

The Role of a Leader Today

In my new book, Trusted to Thrive, I found during my research that there were six things that employees want from their leaders today.  The thing is - they don't realise it, it's often hidden underneath all their fears.

1. Demonstration that leaders care about them - No employee ever said this out loud, but this is an underlying requirement that they couldn't articulate.  Employees are always observing their boss - reading their body language, watching how they talk to others, reading corporate communication cynically and interpreting what it all means.  Typically, they misinterpret intentions in a negative direction.  This is particularly the case when people are working from home where it's easy to miss non-verbal signals.  As a leader, you need to be transparent, visible and ready to explain the context behind decisions, so that people don't assume negative intent.  You have to be authentically demonstrating to people at least a few times a week that you are looking out for them.  Show interest in your team members, support them in their career and personal goals and align them to the company purpose.

2. Making the whole team accountable for success or failure - Your role is to create a team where people work together in service of a shared goal.  High performers get upset when a poor performer is allowed to perform poorly or treat others badly.  It smacks of unfairness. Everyone needs to be held to the same high standard.  Not only that, the whole team needs to realise how their contribution helps everyone - not just themselves.  This even includes making it clear that when they fail - you also fail.  Something most employees don't think about.  Ensure the risk of the team is evenly spread.  This means changing how you lead your team and how they work together.  

3. Role modelling and guiding the right behaviours in your team - Nearly every employee I spoke to, talked about the need for leaders to 'walk the talk.'  But they never think about what they need to do to build trust with their leader or their teammates. Any relationship is a social contract that places accountabilities on all involved.  While leaders must act with trust, so must employees. It's your role to role model how to do this. Your leadership abilities encourages people to engage in productive dialogue, rather than avoid it.  To strive for achievement, rather than wallow in a comfort zone.   Your goal is to move people from low trust behaviours into high trust ones.  Knowing that not everyone will follow you.  Each person has their path to follow in life.  Some people will choose the higher ground, others will feel mort comfortable blaming others and playing the victim.  All you can do is be exemplary in your behaviours and gently coax people to join you and play nicely with everyone.  Not everyone will.  In fact, expect to face some criticism from those who just aren't ready to play nicely.  But be rest assured that if you provide the right conditions and people aren't thriving, then you know they aren't the right fit.  

4. Foster a warm, collegial environment - One of the most important things you can do is create a supportive environment where interpersonal risk is low.  Every single person is subconsciously fearful of other people hurting them.  The result is that people don't commit to actions, hold back from talking about issues and fall into self-protection mode.  It's up to you to improve your team dynamics so that people feel safe, connected and that they have a future in their team.

5. Communicate clearly - You hear this a lot - but it's not always explained why this is so important.  When people don't know what's expected of them or what they need to do, they fall into fear and a suboptimal part of the brain.  Work hard at always communicating clear directions, expectations and customising corporate comms to the needs of your team.  Check in with people to make sure they understand what they need to do.

6. Create a trusted environment - As human beings we all wanted to be trusted.  Our deepest need is to be visible, to feel heard and that we belong.  We all thrive when we are trusted to do work at a high standard.  This has become more important when people can't be seen visibly working.  The good news is that even when teams are dispersed, you can still create a thriving team where people feel at ease, and as a result a happier, healthier and more productive overall.  Trust is contagious - when people in your team feel trusted, they are more likely to trust their peers, and you.  

The pandemic has necessitated that leaders treat employees like human beings - focusing on providing the emotional benefits of work, not just the transactional.  Yet, we are all operating under the old style of work making it hard to articulate that we want our bosses to care about us or our peers to support us.  

That's where leaders have become more important than ever before because you set the tone of your team.  It means observing employees and how they behave with one another.  It requires self-reflection on what you're doing well and what needs improvement.  And it requires acting like a cheer-leader: an enthusiastic and vocal supporter who believes in their people, ensuring they have the right resources and empowering them to fulfil the company purpose.  A positive leader who is enjoyable to work with and fosters a thriving, accountable environment.  That's what people want - it's just that they are too afraid to admit it or even vocalise it.

If you want help with this, you will find the strategies you need in my book, TRUSTED TO THRIVE: How leaders create connected and accountable teams.

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