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The importance of behavioural flexibility

Ally Yates
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There is no one, perfect, formula for effective leadership. But it is commonly agreed that successful leadership is built upon the importance of these four practices: Establishing a clear vision; Sharing that vision with others, in a clear and compelling way; Providing others with the resources to realise that vision and Co-ordinating, the sometimes conflicting, interests of all stakeholders. Contributor Ally Yates, author – ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’.

A fifth, often overlooked characteristic, is the need for leaders to be able to flex their style, dependent on the situation. A business with its back against the wall, requires a different style to one which is enjoying a profitable, steady state.

Peter, a senior manager in a utilities business, described a situation where his boss failed to adapt her leadership style. They had to deliver on a 12-week programme and were 5 weeks behind schedule. Peter said: “She’s great at recognising where the problems exist, but she’s not driving the accountability for getting them fixed.” His boss’s high-level view wasn’t enough. At this project-critical stage, she needed to grasp more of the detail – both of the project and of the dynamics in her senior team. She was missing at least three of the five leadership practices and wasn’t adapting her style to the changing circumstances.

As people move into leadership positions and up into senior management, they need to develop a wider set of skills. Each leadership transition needs to come with a parallel shift in self-concept, for example, from an individual contributor to a team leader, or from a functional manager to an enterprise-wide leader.

The ‘Bingo!’ call for a full-house of leadership capabilities is dependent on persuasion and influence, networking, negotiation, team leadership, team working, cultural sensitivity, valuing difference, coaching, performance management and development, assessment, conflict management, assertiveness, strategic thinking, resource allocation, presentation skills and humility. Quite a demanding list.

The higher you rise in the organisation, the more of these skills are required. The distinctive leaders set themselves apart, not by adherence to a particular leadership creed, but by the way they behave. The wider their behavioural repertoire, the more effective their leadership.

The good news about behaviour is that it’s within your gift to change it. Most of the time you have control over your behaviour and can exercise choice about how you behave. Furthermore, behaviour breeds behaviour, and so what you say and do shapes the responses you get from others.

Back in the 1970s a band of curious psychologists started to investigate the behaviours that differentiated skilled performers from average or poor performers in a range of business interactions. Their studies resulted in behavioural success models for a range of interactions, most of which are included in the leadership Bingo! list. Since then, a group of enthusiastic businesses and individuals, has continued to test and amend these behavioural paradigms. Their work has enabled leaders to master the skills of, for example, influencing and persuasion, by learning the six skills underpinning the two most common persuasion styles: Push and Pull.

Each style is behaviourally distinctive and each is appropriate for different situations. The Push style goes like this: I have an idea or opinion that I share with you; I tell you the reasons why it’s a good idea and/or why I’m correct; You agree and you move your position.

Behaviourally speaking, Push style is characterised by three specific verbal behaviours: Proposing Content (suggesting an idea); Giving Information (providing the rationale); and Shutting Out (talking across others). The solution comes from the influencer and it’s the influencer who does most of the talking.

Push style persuasion is the most commonly used. It works well in conditions where the influencer has positional authority, as is the case with senior leaders.   And yet it’s only effective around half the time. Sometimes this is because you may be an apologetic or aggressive pusher. Another weakness is being a mis-judged Pusher, where you reveal your solution early. In so doing, you under-estimate the strength of resistance you will encounter.

Take Jeremy for example – a middle manager in a multinational business. He needed to create a new direction for his team. In doing so, he articulated a clear, coherent plan and instructed each of his team as to who would do what, and by when. For him, the logic was clear, the detail was exemplary and he was in charge, so the team was bound to agree. Push style was a no-brainer. However, Jeremy had overlooked a fundamental question: How important was it that he gain everyone’s commitment to the plan? If engagement is essential, then a Pull style is much more likely to work.

Pullers use three behaviours in particular: Seeking Proposals (e.g. How should we best do this?) Seeking Information (e.g. Who has the relevant experience?) and the rare but highly prized skill of Building – extending or developing a proposal made by another person. Building is used much less frequently than is warranted. This is usually because the persuader is much more interested in his own ideas and fails to harness the suggestions of others. If Jeremy had focused on engaging his team, he would have used a Pull style, rather like this: Jeremy asks the team for their ideas; they offer some options. Jeremy then asks questions to explore their suggestions; Jeremy builds on their suggestions; Together, Jeremy and the team agree a way forward. In this way, the level of commitment of the team increases in line with their engagement.

Pull style can also be effective in fostering collaboration and in coaching others to use their resources. Pull might take a little longer but the rewards outweigh the costs. For example, in a recent performance appraisal discussion, Sian wanted to convince Tom of the need to work on his presentation skills. If she had defaulted to a Push style she would have told Tom what she wanted and why. Instead, using a Pull style she was able to get a better understanding of why Tom’s presentation skills weren’t where they needed to be – the underlying need, not the presenting issue. They explored various options for addressing the shortfall and Tom was committed to the outcome. The effort was worth the gain.

The starting point for developing behavioural flexibility is to understand and practice what are known as “General Interaction Skills”. This is a collection of 13 verbal behaviours identified from research into effective team and group work. As a result, leaders are better able to manage meetings, develop solutions, work collaboratively, positively impact the climate, lead with questions, ensure shared clarity and manage participation from across the group.

The 13-category model is the basic building block for behavioural flexibility. Or, if you like, the four corners of your Bingo! card. The bigger prize comes with mastering the other leadership skills, each winning you another mark on your Bingo! card.

Developing behavioural flexibility is not just about knowing what to do and exercising those behaviours skilfully.  It’s also about knowing what not to do and avoiding potentially costly mistakes. When asked how he learned to be a leader, Antoine de Saint Affrique, the CEO of the world’s leading cocoa and chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, replied: “I made sure I learned not only from the great leaders I was lucky to work for, but also from the less good ones. From them, I’ve tried to learn what not to do.”

The humility required to reflect on your own and others’ behaviour as a leader and to then change and flex as required is the one element that a leadership Bingo! winner should never be without.