3 takes on collaborative leadership: Adapt your style (3/3)

Gwen Burridge




We expect our leaders to be great role models, treat us all consistently and with respect, and to understand us. But sometimes we fail to remember that they’re also human beings with human failings just like the rest of us; we’re happy to forgive small behavioural idiosyncrasies, but when they fail to demonstrate they understand and care about us, this can quickly erode the trust and respect we have for them.

We can all remember times when a manager has treated one-to-ones transactionally (see my second blog “Show them you care”), often adopting this manner in order to overcome their own uncomfortable feelings when interacting with someone different to them. But if they’d just taken the time to get to know us better and adapted their style a little, they’d have made us feel more comfortable and ultimately, understood.

I can recall many instances in the past where I’ve heard of managers “playing favourites”, spending more time with those they get on with better while side-lining everyone else, seemingly blind to the impact that has. Treating those they get on with more favourably in performance reviews and talent discussions, forgiving mistakes, delegating more high-profile work...all of these contribute to a “two-tier" system, and all because they failed to make the time and effort to adapt, to understand and appreciate other team members who are different to them.

Many years ago I used Daniel Goleman’s 6 Leadership Styles model in leadership sessions. It’s one of the most useful tools to help leaders identify their preferred leadership styles, and to understand the most effective style for each situation. I also love to use profiling tools such as Insights Discovery to help leaders understand their preferred work and communication style, and Clifton Strengths for their unique talents. All of these tools help increase self-awareness, and for leaders this is a critical exercise, but just increasing self-awareness alone isn’t enough. By understanding and utilising some of the theory behind these tools, leaders can greatly improve their ability to connect with others, and to get the best out of each of their team members by adapting their own preferred style.

In an increasingly diverse workplace this seems like a no-brainer, but in reality it’s a lack of adaptability that impacts on leaders’ ability to demonstrate inclusion, and can create a “them and us” situation where some employees feel misunderstood and undervalued.

Being more adaptable is by its very nature uncomfortable because it takes us out of our comfort zone, but with a better understanding of others comes the knowledge on how to adapt more easily. For instance, if you’re someone who talks a lot, make a conscious effort to ask more than tell with a quieter employee; ask “How are you?” more often, and really listen to the answer; provide a safe space for someone to let off steam, and don’t judge them too harshly; look at each team member’s strengths and skills and re-evaluate their contributions objectively; be more tolerant of those who are more/less emotional than you; use some of their words/phrases rather than your own.

Being more adaptable requires energy and the will to be more inclusive. It’ll feel a little clunky at first, but the more you do it, the easier it gets, and the better the results. Making it about them, showing them you care, and adapting your style will all contribute to making you a much more effective and inclusive leader.