Perceptive leadership

Language - sCreating the context for accidental instruction…

We might not realise it, but every day, we’re all either shaping or reinforcing the culture of the workplace around us.

This isn’t just a CEO thing. Everyone in any position of influence is continually moulding, often unconsciously, the prevailing cultures within their teams and departments, while at the same time, the members of each of those groups are continually adapting their own styles and habits to better fit in, reinforcing those cultures over time.

You can see this dynamic at play when you look across most organisations. There will be different micro-cultures, different norms, and different styles of leadership that tend to emerge and dominate in different places.

In the best marketing and development teams, as in the most innovate design departments, in fact wherever creativity is at a premium, there often emerges a playful, high-trust culture, with little reverence for titles and positions.

Yet over in operations, where the risks of safety or safeguarding might be front of mind, or where procedure and consistency are paramount, it’s far more likely that a culture of deference and conformity will exist, and the leaders who rise through the ranks there will have developed personal styles and habits to suit that context.

And each works perfectly well… in isolation. Different contexts, different cultures, different styles and habits. The problems come when those teams need to work together, and even more so when leaders move from one context to another without consciously perceiving the difference.

Most, if not all our own adaptations, to the different cultures in which we’ve worked during our careers, have happened subconsciously. We rarely realise how much we’re adapting our behaviours over time, but we do. And those habits ingrain themselves, and people who move roles take those habits with them.

I recently spoke with a CEO, most of whose former career had been in fundraising and brand marketing, and who had been at the helm of his new organisation for around six months. He was worn down and frustrated with the lack of initiative throughout the whole organisation: “It’s like everyone is constantly looking up, waiting for someone else to make their decisions for them!”

A few days later I spoke with one of the senior managers in the same organisation, who was equally frustrated by the lack of clarity and direction: “It seems like in one meeting, the CEO wants one thing, so I go and rally the troops and we start work, and then a week later it’s something completely different!”

What for one person was a musing, a thought vocalised as an invitation to exchange ideas, a concept to kick around and play with, for the other was a suggestion that they interpreted as an instruction and passed on as an order. This is not a one-off example by the way, this “accidental instruction” behavioural pattern is far, far more common than most leaders realise.

Like all behavioural patterns it can be addressed, and like all cultures, theirs can be reshaped through team and leadership development, combined in this case with finding the CEO a separate, defined space for creative and exploratory conversations, while that transition matures.

It can all be addressed, but not until it is recognised. Not until the CEO perceives what’s creating this disconnect; what’s driving the dysfunction.

This is what I’ve come to call perceptive leadership – the ability to read and interpret the behaviours, norms, and cultural context of different groups in different contexts around their organisation, and moderate their language and style, subtly but consciously, to connect with and get the very best from each group.

It’s great to be authentic – to be able to bring your whole self to every interaction. And it’s great to define a vision for the organisational culture you want, and to start modelling it from day one.

But the most successful leaders that I’ve worked with have also been able to recognise where people are starting that journey from, and to find the flexibility they need to deploy, to get the best from them throughout every stage of that transition.

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