Being a great leader is important for many reasons: your team gets more work done, your staff are engaged and enthusiastic, and co-workers will invite you to their dinner parties. But there’s a lot more on the line than just your team’s performance. According to Gallup’s 2017 survey, the number one reason why Americans are quitting their jobs is to get away from a bad manager. That’s right: being a poor leader could cost you your best talent. And you know you can’t afford that.
So, how do you create a work environment your employees don’t want to leave? Rule number one is to stay flexible. A fixed management style is like a broken clock. Sure, it gets it right occasionally, but it probably gets it wrong most of the time. And as a manager, you want your team to be happy and productive all (or at least most) of the time.
Why situational leadership?
Striking the right balance between providing support to your team and giving them space to grow is one of the main characteristics of great managers, as Google found. In research study Project Oxygen, the company identified top qualities that make an excellent leader: being a good coach was number one while resisting the temptation to micromanage came at a close second. Still, for many managers, finding the fine line between being present and getting too involved in people’s work can be tricky. That’s where situational leadership comes in.
Developed by Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey, situational leadership claims that as a manager you need to adjust your leadership style according to the needs of your team. Your staff go through several stages of learning, from being complete beginners at first to becoming experts, and they need different levels of support at different points. For example, an employee who’s new to the role needs extensive coaching and frequent supervision. An experienced and confident report, on the other hand, will get frustrated if you don’t show enough trust in their capabilities.
What Google thinks
At a recent leadership workshop hosted at TQ City — TNW’s tech hub in the center of Amsterdam — we heard from Tatiana Silva, Google’s Global Programmatic Industry Manager. Silva’s a big believer in giving workers space to fail and learn from their mistakes and incorporates flexible leadership into her own management style.
I caught up with her to dig a bit deeper to find out what results you can expect from adopting this approach. “Implementing a flexible leadership style, which enables team members to learn, to be challenged, and to feel supported along the way, can be beneficial to every company,” explained Silva. “By balancing the needs of the individuals you are working with, and the needs of the company, you have a much better chance at creating intellectually curious, energized, and high performing teams.”
Despite the obvious benefits, situational leadership might sound a little bit daunting at first. Not only are you supposed to do all this extra legwork figuring out what learning stage your employee is at and how to best support them — you also need to adapt to new circumstances as you go. The good news is that the learning stages are pretty intuitive. Wherever you are in your career, you’ve gone through this cycle several times yourself so it shouldn’t be too difficult to relate to the needs and expectations associated with each of them.
So, let’s dive in to find out what level of support you need to give at each learning stage:
1. Unconscious incompetence
At this stage, the employee is completely new to their role. They don’t have the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in their tasks, but they’re enthusiastic about the job (maybe even a little bit over-optimistic about their abilities). What they need most from you as a manager are well-defined standards for a successfully completed task. You should give your employee clear directions on how to do their job right and where to find learning resources.
2. Conscious incompetence
This is the confidence-shattering stage: after making some pretty major mistakes in the first couple of weeks, the worker starts wondering if they were even right for this job in the first place. Of course, they’re more knowledgable now than in Stage One but that includes knowing their own limitations which can be a hard pill to swallow. What they need most from you is acknowledging the things that went right and help to figure out how to improve the things that went wrong (and a hug, probably).
3. Conscious competence
They got there! The employee knows exactly what they’re doing and they’re pretty good at their job. However, the demoralizing effects of Stage Two are still making them question their competence, leaving them a little bit uneasy. This is where you come in: you can show your employee they’re a valued team member by asking for their input in your next project. Your relationship should feel less like a boss-subordinate dynamic and more like a team collaboration.
4. Unconscious competence
This is the last stage of learning. Your employee is absolutely killing it at work without even trying — being good at their job has become second nature to them. The best thing you can do in this stage is to delegate tasks, withdraw yourself, and simply let them crack on. This might be a really tough one if you’re a micromanager but come on, don’t let your ego get in the way of brilliant leadership!
Am I a great boss yet?
The short answer is no.
If you’ve successfully guided your employee through all learning stages, you’re doing amazing. Unfortunately, the situational leadership framework assumes your job as a manager is never over (sorry). And that’s because once your employee gets really good at their jobs, things are going to feel too comfortable and eventually just plain boring leaving them unmotivated.
In order to prevent that, you need to keep challenging your team members with new tasks and responsibilities. It can mean bigger projects, new clients, managing a team of their own… anything to push them out of their comfort zone.
In a nutshell, you need to find a challenge that will send them all the way back to Stage One of the learning cycle. And yes, that means guiding them through the entire process again. Think of yourself as the Sisyphus of leadership if that helps. Or simply, as a good boss.
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