The Leadership Trap

It’s hard to lead any large organisation. Putting aside the business challenges that come with size and scale, it’s simply difficult to stay in touch with what’s happening on the ground.

(This is the first chapter from my book Employee Experience (EX) Leadership, which is available on Amazon now.)

As a senior leader, it’s all too easy to become remote and detached. A close circle of assistants manage who you meet with. You spend most of your time with a cadre of other senior people who know it’s in their interest to present things in an agreeable fashion.

It’s difficult for your communications to have an impact. The things you say are filtered through layers of management. Like Chinese whispers, they have been thoroughly distorted by the time they reach the front line. This often reinforces your remoteness in the eyes of employees, who think you don’t understand the day-to-day challenges they face.

Even if you make an effort to get out and about, your people know how to manage appearances to their advantage. You may sometimes smell the fresh paint in the lunch room when you make a site visit. That friendly employee group you met with was perhaps designed to achieve that effect.

In order to keep the organisation focused you reach out for help. The management consultants you hire are happy to give advice on how to restructure and transform your business units. Consultants are temporary partners with a focus on short-term outcomes linked to project goals. They will quickly move on to their next assignment. But long-term employees, with valuable customer insights and an understanding of work challenges, can feel overlooked and ignored. They may feel their experience is not valued as a result.

These organisational transformations come in regular waves and with soundbite names. This language is then incorporated into internal communications. This leads to employees feeling even more remote, as they’re not up to speed on the latest jargon. Again, it appears as though senior management have locked themselves into an ivory tower of their own making.

None of these problems are new. They are inherent in any large organisation. Senior leaders have recognised these problems and tried to build solutions, so they don’t end up falling victim to their own hubris.

In order to avoid this leadership trap, companies have invested in building trust through open and effective upward communications. Beyond other channels that may exist — such as hot lines, employee directors, unions and works councils — you need to keep an ear to the ground and ensure that you receive honest, unfiltered feedback. You need to be able to cut through the layers directly. You need to make sure that it’s safe for people to speak up.

As a senior leader, you need to be able to cut through the organisation’s layers directly. You need to make sure that it’s safe for people to speak up.

Over time, various devices have been put in place to make this happen. In the 1970s and 1980s, large companies began to routinely run employee surveys. These quantified employee satisfaction and allowed leaders to identify problem issues and hot spots.

In the 1990s and 2000s, surveys became fully-fledged engagement programmes, which provided all people managers with anonymous upward feedback. These survey activities were supplemented with things like focus groups, town halls, jams, open mic sessions, and so on.

This book looks at the rise and development of these approaches in detail. It takes the long view on employee surveys, climate surveys and employee engagement. It highlights some of the problems with these programmes and it pulls out the key success factors by looking at companies that do them well.

The best leaders have deployed these approaches effectively. They ask tough questions. They analyse the results in detail. They act on the feedback. They keep tabs on hot spots. They provide support to areas that need it.

I have been lucky to work with some great business people who are aware of how important it is to avoid the leadership trap in this way. This includes CEOs who read every single comment written in an employee survey. When I asked, for example, Ivan Menezes at Diageo, why he does this, he explained that there is no better way to keep grounded and to stay in tune with the day-to-day problems people face. Of course, being CEO of Diageo (the maker of Johnnie Walker whisky) means he can do this with a tumbler of something tasty to hand.

It’s not easy to do this kind of thing well, especially when there are so many demands on leaders’ time. But it is the argument of this book that it is more important now than ever to deploy effective listening methods and to avoid the leadership trap.

It is more important now than ever to deploy effective listening methods and to avoid the leadership trap.

This is because modern organisations succeed or fail based on the work culture they create. Competitive advantage now stems mainly from the innovation, creativity and service that your employees provide. In order to free people up to do their best work, so they can deliver fantastic customer experiences, you have to establish high trust and open and direct communication.

The problem is that there are forces at play inside modern companies that make this difficult. Specifically, leaders have to manage a tension between pushing responsibility and risk onto individuals versus the need to build loyalty, collaboration, and strong teams and networks. Moreover, this tension is intensifying with trends such as automation, digital transformation, and the increasing use of contract and independent workers. Employees feel less secure, at the same time as leaders need them to contribute even more. The trust gap that results in many companies is a significant drag on performance.

This is why many leading organisations are exploring new and innovative ways of listening and creating dialogue with their workers. The good news is that internal social media, pulse surveys and people analytics mean that there are new sources of data that are available. These provide the means for more continuous listening. This can allow leaders to receive useful feedback on an ongoing basis about the moments that really matter to people.

Many organisations are exploring new and innovative ways of listening and creating dialogue with their workers.

This is the opportunity provided by the new and emerging science of Employee Experience (EX). This shift, from traditional listening approaches, such as employee surveys, to EX data and analytics is the focus of this book. The aim is to help leaders understand how they can use EX to avoid the leadership trap, build trust and improve performance.

In all of this, the book is a mix of review, research and personal reflection. I have included old and new client stories, and I have speculated on future trends. It includes background and theory, as well as practical guides, best practices and tips.

The reason for writing this now is because I have been working in this field for twenty years. That feels like a personal milestone of sorts. So I want to look back over that time and pull out some key lessons.

It’s also the case that the employee insights world is going through a major transformation at the present time (like most industries). So I wanted to take the opportunity to think about the future, both the opportunities that result from new technologies and data sources, and the potential risks.

Throughout my career, both as a researcher and a consultant, I have always believed in taking the long view on things. So I want to put changes that are taking place in the world of work, and which are currently much hyped, in the context of longer-term trends and developments.

It’s clear to me that the new focus on employee experience builds on prior work on engagement, commitment and satisfaction that began many decades earlier and at a time when jobs, work and careers had a different set of meanings and expectations.

EX leadership refers to two aspects that this book delves into: those companies that are leading the way in developing this new science, and the key role that leaders play in shaping employee experience to build trust and engagement.

EX Leadership refers to companies at the leading edge of this emerging science; it also refers to the key role that leaders play in activating EX to build trust.

I hope that in this mix of stories and suggestions, there is something that you will find useful and relevant for your own organisation and your own personal reflection.


You can read more here.

Tags: #Leadership #EmployeeEngagement #Trust

This article was first published on Medium in May 2019

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