If you are leader, it’s especially important to understand that the people you lead watch you very closely and are acutely aware of how congruent your actions are with your words. The greater your span of influence and responsibility in your organization, the more people will be observing what you say and do. – CHARLES FELTMAN, in The Thin Book of Trust
A 2015 study by Joanna Paliszkiewicz, Jerzy Goluchowski & Alex Koohang identified 15 characteristics that effective leaders will demonstrate. Now, unless you’re superhuman, it’s unlikely you’ll ace all these characteristics at the same time. Therefore, with lists like this, I suggest to clients that they identify what they think their three strongest and three weakest are. We boost this by checking these assumptions out with others, such as the leader’s team, and once we’ve got a clear idea of strengths and weaknesses, we can get to work.
For those of you who don’t have the luxury of working with a coach, here are some research-based ideas to help you out, using the 15 characteristics in the study.
Characteristic #1: Leads organisational change
Boost this characteristic by ensuring there are sufficient levels of good quality communication during change.
David M Schweiger and Angelo S DeNisi looked at how employees in two, almost identical, factories responded to unwelcome and unexpected news. During the study, employees were surveyed immediately after the announcement. The responses showed it provoked widespread dissatisfaction, stress, and distrust in both plants. However, the amount and quality of communication varied between the factories. In one factory, staff received only vague communications during the subsequent three months. In the other, a detailed and extensive communication plan was implemented. As the change went on, employees in the high communication factory felt more secure about their jobs, less stressed, more committed and reported better job performance. Unsurprisingly, there were no such improvements at the other factory.
Characteristic #2: Leads innovation
Boost this characteristic by ensuring there isn’t innovation overload in your department or organisation.
In a study involving 84 managers and nearly 387 staff in organisations in China and Korea, researchers examined the conditions around innovation which can lead to helplessness, fatigue and burnout. The study found that the perceived intensity of innovation can lead to employees feeling helpless. In this instance, intensity refers both to volume (i.e. number of innovations) and lack of downtime between one innovation being implemented and the next one coming along. In addition, the perceived failure of previous innovation has an impact on the level of helplessness employees might feel.
Characteristic #3: Motivates employees
Boost this characteristic by helping people find find meaning in the work they do.
In their book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer detail the results of their ambitious research project exploring the day-to-day experiences of more than 200 professionals across seven organisations. Among the findings from over 12,000 days’ worth of data they was the idea that of all the things that can boost positive emotions, increase motivation and improve perceptions during a workday, the single most important was making progress in meaningful work.
Characteristic #4: Is grounded in clear values and principles
Boost this characteristic by communicating what matters to you and what you stand for.
A 2019 study of tourism and hospitality firms found that those which core highly for leadership and cultural values have higher staff satisfaction. Researchers analyzed almost 298,000 online review ratings by employees across 11,975 firms in the US to find the key elements of job satisfaction and employee turnover in high-contact services.
Characteristic #5: Leads healthy challenge and resolves conflict
Boost this characteristic by embracing conflict when it focuses on the task
In a diary study involving more than 90 people, researchers found that when employees were able to increase their job resources, they were able to be more creative. The study also found that task conflict, where there are disagreements between team members about the content of their job tasks, doesn’t always get in the way of creativity. In fact, moderate levels of task conflict could actually boost creative behaviour in a team. The researchers suggest that while managers should not intentionally create conflict, they should embrace and be open to conflict when it relates to the task at hand.
Characteristic #6: Listens actively
Boost this characteristic by showing people you value directness.
In a study looking at communication between nurses and doctors, researchers found one barrier to good communication was hospital hierarchy. The research found that hierarchy puts nurses at a power disadvantage, with many afraid to speak the truth to doctors. Recordings of conversations showed that nurses didn’t directly request what they wanted or express their needs. Instead, they communicated indirectly, which confused doctors, who then ignored the nurses’ requests and moved on to the next agenda item rather than ask for clarification.
Characteristic #7: Empowers others
Boost this characteristic by adopting a facilitative coaching style with your team.
Ray Tak-yin Hui and Christina Sue-Chan looked at anxiety and the relationship with adaptive performance (understanding and adjusting to changes in the workplace) and the impact different coaching styles would have. They found that a facilitative style of coaching, where the coachee is encouraged to explore ideas and try things out, can enhance a person’s feelings of control and empowerment.
Characteristic #8: Good interpersonal communication
Boost this characteristic by taking more care with the language you use.
A 2019 study found how leaders use language can encourage staff to offer more ideas later, even if the leader doesn’t implement the initial suggestion. The researchers found that people who speak up at work only to have a manager reject their idea will nonetheless offer more suggestions later if their manager responds appropriately, i.e. sensitive and well-explained.
Characteristic #9: Influences well, while being flexible to other points of view
Boost this characteristic by taking the time to understand where people are coming from
A 2019 study from Stanford University found that we’re more likely to change others’ views or have our views changed if our values are aligned with the person doing the influence, or the person we’re trying to influence. Where are values are incompatible, we are less likely to influence the other person to change their mind.
Characteristic #10: High degree of self-awareness
Boost this characteristic by recognising how your gender might impact your self-awareness.
A literature review, by Professor Clive Fletcher, found that the gap between self-perception and other people’s perceptions was greater in male leaders compared to female leaders. The review found that in self-assessment and 360-degree feedback reports, men’s self-ratings were around 0.3 of a standard deviation higher than women’s. In other words, around 62% of men are likely to rate themselves higher than the average woman.
Characteristic #11: Proactively seeks feedback
Boost this characteristic by regularly asking your staff what it’s like to work with you.
In a study involving 465 top leadership teams across 65 small and medium Belgian and American companies, the researchers found that when CEOs proactively asked their top team for feedback it had a direct and positive impact on company performance. Although it’s important to note that this was dependent on how confident the overall leadership team was.
Characteristic #12: Manages time efficiently
Boost this characteristic by only attending meetings that are truly needed. Cull those that aren’t.
A joint project between the London School of Economics (LSE), Columbia and Harvard Universities examined how CEOs spend their time. Looking at more than 90 CEOs of top Italian firms and 357 corporate leaders in India, the researchers found that 60% of a CEOs’ working hours and 56% of a corporate leaders’ working hours were spent in meetings. It’s important to add that these figures didn’t include conference calls.
Characteristic #13: Makes regular time to learn
Boost this characteristic by identifying something you don’t know and then learning about it.
A study by Shirlene Wade and Celeste Kidd found that our doubts about what we think we know can pique our curiosity and motivate us to learn more. The research findings suggest that curiosity in and of itself is not enough of a driver to encourage us to learn. We need to doubt our knowledge too.
Why not try to the Feynman Technique, developed by the Nobel winning physicist, Richard Feynman? This four-step approach is a good way to help us learn. And since he was an undergrad student, Feynman also kept a notebook called ‘Notebook of things I don’t know about’ which he filled with things he didn’t know but wanted to learn.
Characteristic #14: Understands and respects individual differences
Boost this characteristic by checking you have enough cognitive diversity in your team.
Researchers found that teams have to have just the right mix of cognitive diversity in order to create the highest collective intelligence and better collaboration. During the study, participants were labeled according to three different cognitive styles: Verbalizers, spatial visualizers, and object visualizers. These style describe how the people receive and analyze information. The researchers found that some people will straddle two categories and that these tend to be group facilitators.
Characteristic #15: Builds and sustains positive relationships
Boost this characteristic by ensuring you don’t favour some staff over others.
Researchers found that when managers get too close to staff, it can have negative consequences for the team member. The study found that employees who are too close to their manager are more likely to feel obligated to drop whatever they’re doing in order to meet a request or favour. And it doesn’t matter if the manager doesn’t expect the other person to meet the request immediately. If it’s a member of staff who is close to the manager, then they are more likely to drop what they’re doing to meet the manager’s need, with those interruptions seriously impacting employee performance.
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