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Why the apathy towards quality of leadership?

Lorraine Mills, Principal Consultant - Right Management

One in ten British workers would not question the quality of leadership in any given scenario, including when there is an abuse of power, passive-aggressive behaviour, micromanagement, or poor treatment of a fellow colleague.

That’s according to a new survey*, which finds that 12% of British workers would not question the actions of their leaders in any scenario. Alarmingly, a similar number of leaders themselves (13%) would not question the quality of their own leadership in any scenario.

The survey of 2,046 people across the UK, including 1,793 employees and 253 business leaders, finds that building trust (33%), communicating with impact (21%), and inspiring passion (20%) are the top three behaviours that most people associate with an impactful leader.

“Trust works both ways, so it’s concerning that ten percent of workers aren’t willing to challenge poor leadership behaviours whatsoever. And how can leaders effectively build trust when one in every ten isn’t willing to question their own leadership style? Although they’re in the minority overall, any apathy towards leadership can have a detrimental impact on a workplace culture and the overall potential of an organisation.”says Lorraine Mills, Principal Consultant at Right Management. 

Right Management has previously found that 84% of organisations anticipate a shortfall in leaders in the next five years, while more than half (58%) of organisations say their top priority is to close this leadership skills gap.

“Regardless of the industry its operating in, a good business will drive a feedback culture, empowering employees to notice and highlight questionable behaviours at any level. A shortage of leaders is not an excuse for poor management to flourish and if anything, those companies lacking or struggling to recruit senior leaders must make even greater efforts to  encourage a workplace of openness and transparency,”adds Lorraine.  

Across both employees and leaders, apathy towards the quality of leadership appears to increase significantly by age.

Only 6% of British workers aged 18-24 said they would not question the quality of leadership in any given scenario, compared to 23% of those who are aged 55+. All leaders aged 18-24 agree there are certain scenarios that would make them question their own leadership. However, this self-awareness isn’t mirrored quite so strongly in the older demographics, as 6% of leaders aged 25-34 would not question their own leadership in any scenario, rising to 16% of those aged 35-44, and 26% of 45-54 year olds, before dropping slightly to 21% of leaders aged 55+.

Lorraine says: “It’s important to remember that most workers would bring poor leadership into question. The majority identified several reasons for calling out poor leadership, with the top three choices being because of an abuse of power (36%), leaders not listening (34%), and leaders failing to own up to mistakes (32%).”

The survey also finds that a much greater proportion of those aged 55+ say they would speak up to an abuse of power (43%) or to leaders who are not listening (43%) when compared to colleagues aged 18-24 (30% and 27% respectively).

Lorraine says: But this doesn’t take away from the fact that apathy on any level is an enabler of poor management practices and a springboard for distrust and weak or negative workplace cultures – all of which damage morale and productivity.”

“It’s interesting that apathy in leadership qualities appears to rise by age. Often age gaps can be more pronounced in the workplace and it’s easy to forget how younger workers will often look through a different lens their older colleagues, and vice versa.”

“Older workers may have a greater tendency to be apathetic because they perceive they have more to lose. While younger workers, at an early career stage, are less likely to have established major financial dependents and responsibilities, and so are more willing to challenge their employers. Employers need to ask how they can leverage these subtle differences to benefit the overall workplace culture; how do they listen to feedback from younger workers while encouraging older workers to step out of their comfort zones? “

The survey finds that while men and women are broadly aligned on the areas that would make them question the quality of leadership, a much higher number of women are likely to call out certain traits. These include an abuse of power (43%, compared to 28% of men) and not listening (41%, compared to 26% of men). 37% of women also chose passive aggressive behaviour and failure to own up to mistakes as reasons to question leadership quality, compared to 23% and 25% of men respectively.

A quarter of all leaders (26%) said an abuse of power would make them question their own leadership, while 26% also said they would do so if there had been a failure to own up to mistakes.

*Research by Right Management

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