Evolution is the long game. If the universe has been in existence for approximately 13.8 billion years, our modern ancestors developed about 200,000 years ago. And yet in that tiny speck of time, we have become the dominant species on earth and are the most complex species known. From our physical capabilities to our mental capacity, we have been highly successful. For all our intellectual capabilities and outward lifestyle, human beings are still driven by primitive wiring, emotional responses and the most fundamental of human needs alongside shelter, food and water: social connection.
As a leader, you may be challenged by the complexities of leading human beings, indeed for many executive leaders, the human aspect of the leadership role is often the most perplexing and unpredictable. With everything going on in the world at present, this may show up in your organisation as productivity issues, skill shortages, low engagement, retention challenges or a wish to build greater collaboration and self-starting creativity within groups. In a word, you may think deeply about how to build a thriving culture of high performance yielding great outcomes for customers, partners, and employees.
How can leaders access and harness employees’ full potential?
It may have been easier in past decades when hierarchical leadership was required to either organise humans into the delivery of physical tasks (the Industrial Revolution) or into the delivery of knowledge-based tasks (the knowledge revolution).
In the modern organisation, post-technological revolution, we are now in the Human Age. Leadership is about achieving outcomes through technology and people (and the interface between the two). We can seem a world away from the leadership approaches of the 19th and 20th centuries in industrialised nations. We now talk about inclusion and creativity, we have employee assistance programmes and flexible working, yet our working cultures still have room to grow.
Our job as leaders is to inspire people to move something from A to B, whether that is a creative idea to a product, or to serve a customer. We want everything that our amazing species has to offer: ideas, problem-solving, collaboration, and alignment. And yet there is still something which has yet to fully shift in order to make a difference to culture and human leadership. That is a full recognition that the job of leadership is first and foremost the job of understanding and building the conditions for highly effective human behaviour. The task and outcome are the results. The delivery of the outcome is facilitated by great conditions for humans to thrive, the outcome is not simply delivered by human bodies and brains. I am offering the suggestion that re-ordering primary leadership focus can create outstanding change. Human bodies and brains will deliver brilliant outcomes, by feeling connected at a human level first. If the human connection is not attended to, and we simply assume human bodies and brains will deliver the outcome, we will continuously find ourselves with those same challenges with productivity and engagement and so on.
Fully embracing human connection is a leap of faith for leaders
But it is the ticket to supercharge the human potential in your organisation. What can you do as a leader?
Connect with yourself. You are human too. To truly lead alongside other people successfully you need to be a constant student of yourself: Knowing yourself, how you show up, what you care about, how others experience you and to check-in that you are deeply committed to the purpose of your organisational endeavour and why. Invest in your practice of emotional awareness – you cannot build genuine social connections as an intellectual practice. It is an emotions-based experience.
Connect with others through reciprocity. All social relationships which are constructive and yield trust are built on reciprocity. This is the exchange between two human beings of information and emotion. It is the sharing and the listening. This takes time and commitment, like nurturing a garden of flowers, trust requires consistency.
Re-shape your priorities and lead with a new habit. Focus most of your time and attention on either giving or being open to receiving from others. This can be seeking exchanges with people by asking more questions, sharing stories, observing, offering praise or encouragement, and providing clarity about a direction or decision. These micro-actions in everything you do create new habitual behaviour for yourself and those around you. This creates trust upon which everything else will thrive.
So, if you are leading humans, consider how you spend your time and prioritise your energy: What we are doing and then taking that to the people to deliver? Or building the human connection as a foundation for engaging others towards a mission and shared endeavour.
About the author: Paula Leach has over 25 years of experience in HR, most notably as Chief People Officer at The Home Office and Global Chief People Officer at FDM Group. She now runs her own business, Vantage Points Consulting, and is the author of Vantage Points: how to create a culture where employees thrive.