Over the course of this blog series, I’ve discussed how behavioural science can help organisations harness change and make it stick. One key driving force is leadership. That’s always been true, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So what are qualities of high-performing leaders that build trust, empower workers, and drive transformation for business performance?

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Leaders make countless decisions every day, with the best of intentions. However, decision-making isn’t completely rational and that means you need to be mindful of cognitive biases.

Bias shows up when we make decisions based on the most available information, rather than the most relevant (availability heuristic), or when we only seek information that confirms our beliefs (conformation bias). Cognitive bias can make us stick with initiatives that have outlived their utility, simply because we’ve already invested in them (sunk cost fallacy).

Our personal relationships can also be affected by biases. For instance, we tend to judge other people based on the ‘kind’ of person they are, and ourselves on our situations (fundamental attribution error). On a video call, we could potentially interpret someone on mute as being disengaged, when in reality it’s because of background noise on their end.

Some ways to address cognitive bias are through diverse teams and advisors to minimise blind spots—as well as fostering a culture where everyone feels safe to speak up and share dissenting opinions. Experiments, scenario planning, and data can force us to confront assumptions, especially when it comes to making decisions around making—and stopping—investments.

Responsible

Responsible leadership has always been important, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the World Economic Forum (WEF), Accenture published a report highlighting the importance of responsible leadership for the 2020s.

Responsible businesses pursue profitable growth in concert with positive social and environmental impact. And companies that prioritise trust alongside innovation and organisational performance generate a virtuous circle that propels itself. In particular, companies showing high performance in both trust and innovation outperform their industry peers—to the tune of an average 3.1 percent higher operating profits.

Agile

Agile leaders foster and model a growth mindset. They adopt the two-speed approach of enterprise agility by ensuring foundational base of leadership, culture, processes, and governance; combined with the speed of connected subsystems and capabilities that mobilise and respond quickly to external events and opportunities.

It’s much like learning how to ride a bike, in which you need both stability and speed. And agility pays off. For instance, Accenture research shows that in financial services, truly agile firms are more than twice as likely as the average organisation to achieve top-quartile financial performance (55 percent, compared to 25 percent).

If you only remember one thing from this blog post, make it this: workers want to trust their leaders.

Trust

Workers want to trust their leaders, especially right now. That can happen if workers believe their leaders care for each individual, the community, and humanity as a whole.

To feel safe, people must have their physical, mental, and relationship needs met. They’re all equally important, but they need to be addressed in a certain order, similar to Maslow’s hierarchy.

Competence

It may go without saying, but responsible leaders are competent, and their competence reassures the workforce. During times of disruption, leaders can steady the ship by leading with what hasn’t changed: vision and objective.

Leaders must show they have a plan. You may not know everything, but it’s important to be transparent about what drives decisions and where you don’t yet know the answers. By looking ahead proactively, a leadership team can respond, rather than react. And that can help reassure people during times of disruption.

Empathy

Many people are feeling fear and anxiety right now. When leaders acknowledge these feelings, their empathy enhances trust. That, in turn, can tap into what we know from behavioural science: that behaviours are contagious. And, that by modeling empathy from the top, leaders can encourage employees to show empathy to others.

Empathy can reduce the likelihood of making assumptions based on behaviour. For example, rather than dismiss someone who’s muted their video call as disengaged, an empathetic leader might assume they have a good reason, such as children or pets in the background.

Authenticity

Authenticity is one of the three key drivers of trust in leadership. Logic (sound judgement or competence) and empathy (caring for employees) complete the ‘triangle of trust.’ The old-school separation of work and life identities needs to be replaced by being truly human at work. My family have made cameo appearances on video calls, and I’ve gotten glimpses of my co-workers’ families and pets.

Responsible leaders can inspire team members to share their needs, preferences, and concerns, and make sure that people are supported and understood.

Vulnerability

As I’ve said already, no one has all the answers, and that includes you. Leaders that show vulnerability aren’t afraid to share the good, bad, and ugly—and they explain how decisions were made and where they don’t have answers. Showing vulnerability builds relatedness and trust. It also carries the understanding that workers are adults who can handle the truth—which sounds simple, but goes a long way to create a trust-based culture.

Engagement and belonging

Many organisations have pivoted to remote work, which requires a shift away from supervision and presenteeism and toward belonging, outcomes, and engagement. Engagement is a predictor of organisational resilience in times of crisis: if your people care about and are engaged in their work, they are more likely to bounce back from difficult situations.

That means ensuring all individuals are able to contribute in a virtual environment to stay engaged. For example, extroverts may be eager for regular video check-ins, while introverts may need more time to think off-camera. Each team and individual may need different things. Overall, a human, tailored approach can unite people and reduce infighting and team siloes.

The connection between leadership and behavioural change

Leaders make decisions all the time, but if those decisions are not well-communicated or made real for the organization, they can become just words on paper. In other words, the act of leading must be connected to people’s behaviour.

Some questions to consider:

  • You set a direction for the organisation that need to be translated into day-to-day actions and decisions. Are your vision and purpose clear? Is it emotionally and rationally compelling? Is it something that people can do?
  • You set an example individually and as a leadership team. What do people see? Is it aligned with what you say is important?
  • Followers will take cues as to what is good, acceptable, and unacceptable behaviour. What behaviours are you encouraging and condoning by your actions?
  • You create the environment for behaviours, and in particular, trust and safety. Are you creating a safe place for people to work, contribute, and speak up?
  • You control much of the processes, metrics, and structures of your organisation. Do these support the behaviours you want to see?

Seize the opportunity in the crisis

Responsible leadership is a component of managing change effectively, but it’s not the only one—effective change management also requires clear communication, collaboration, and the right tools. I encourage you to see this crisis as an opportunity to make the changes your workforce has been waiting for. It’s an opportunity to exercise choice in how people work, rather than falling back on what has always been done.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are developing new habits and tools that are already allowing us to conduct work and life in more environmentally sustainable ways. In many areas of life, people will be reluctant to go back to the old ways. By using behavioural science—and backing it up with responsible leadership and a culture of trust and psychological safety—we can harness the opportunity in crisis and move forward together.

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