• Leadership

Leadership Attribution

Successful leaders learn to incorporate the views and preferences of diverse followers


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Leadership research and thinking tends to be very top-down. It is almost exclusively viewed from the perspective of the leader. This is an increasingly peculiar practice as the shift to a two-way interaction between leader and follower has been being advocated by leadership thinkers for the last two decades. Leaders today need to be not just self-aware, but aware of others, empathetic, good listeners, reactive as well as proactive, and curious about the environment they work in.

If good leaders and managers are to be skilled in managing change then their ability to motivate and lead teams cannot just be a function purely of themselves, but has to incorporate the views and preferences of those they lead too.

Robin Martin, professor of organizational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, has been exploring the attitudes of followers and how they impact the ability of leaders. “The problem is that followers are not passive” says Prof Martin, “they have their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours too.”

This makes the interaction between leader and follower more complex to map and understand – and to manage. It also carries a significant implication for all the thought-leaders currently advocating that the silver-bullet solution to better organizational performance is greater diversity. For, as Martin explains “the benefits of diversity come at a cost”.

The cost is that as humans we have natural biases to be with those who are like us. “Life is more comfortable and more predictable when we are with people similar to ourselves” says Martin. His recent research in association with Terry Hodgetts, Director of the Centre for Executive Development at Aston Business School, indicates that whether or not leaders like their followers, as individuals, and vice versa, has a profound impact on their ability to be successful. The research explores this ‘dyadic’ relationship between leader and follower, particularly around the perception of performance and what criteria leaders and followers use as perceptors for measuring the cause of good or poor performance.

The criteria fall into two groups: internal causes such as whether the individual works hard, is motivated or creative; and external, where the success or failure is unrelated to the individual, so performance can be associated with the brilliance (or otherwise) of the product or service, the support (or lack of it) the individual got from others and so on.

The results from Martin and Hodgetts’ data collection have been very consistent when they ask people to reflect on two individuals they have worked with in the past; one who they liked and one who they were not so happy to be with. They were then asked to describe the reasons they felt the project they worked on with that person went well or not. For those people the respondent liked any positive results were mostly ascribed to ‘internal’ causes, and if the project had gone poorly, then the cause was mostly thought to be due to ‘external’ issues, unrelated to the individual.

For those people who the respondent disliked, or was less comfortable with, the results were the other way around. Poor performance was assumed to be due to the individual, success was put down to external factors.

Prof Martin points out that this dynamic frequently is even stronger in the other direction, when staff rate their bosses for ability. The likelihood of success being apportioned to the leader’s intrinsic skills is much higher when the two get on, than when they do not. And more frequently to external factors when projects perform poorly when a good relationship exists, and to internal factors when a poor relationship is present.

The challenge with this dynamic for organizations is that the players involved are usually quick to pick-up that they can ‘get away’ with having success awarded to them if they get on well their manager , and so feel they may not have to try as hard. Equally, those who have difficult relations with their manager and feel under-valued and that their successes are not recognised, will be more likely to stop trying too. The outcome of either situation, if not well-managed, is that less effort is put in regardless of the manager relationship.

This all points to the fact that there is an ongoing requirement for managers to be trained how to manage diversity, and not allow unconscious bias towards people who are ‘more like them’ to allow performance to deteriorate. Martin stresses that this is not easy and requires extra effort to be focused on becoming aware of where the bias takes place. He suggests that trying to define where similarities exist across all groups of employees is a good place to start – essentially in common work-related goals, and to proactively work to build these, especially with those who are categorically different – that is by age, gender and background. As with all leadership practices, having awareness of the issue is the first step, only then can you take appropriate actions to manage the problem.

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