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  • Writer's pictureDennis Sullivan

Want more innovation and better performance from your employees?

Fighting the impact of a pandemic with a new social contagion

There is no script for turning around and growing your business in the face of the worst health crisis and economic collapse in more than 100 years. To overcome the challenges facing all businesses, leaders need a new social contagion: humility.

Leadership humility is emerging as the antidote organizations need right now that is generating better employee engagement, more innovative problem-solving and ultimately increased organizational performance. Leaders who can lead by example by truly demonstrating humility can have a positive influence on other managers and employees.

As I work with clients during times of crisis, the most successful turnarounds have often been with leaders who possess a humble leadership style. A recent McKinsey & Company report, Leadership in a Time of Crisis, described humility as one of the five most important mindsets that can result in a “deliberate calm” while unifying others behind solving challenges without overreacting. The worlds’ largest online shoe retailer, Zappos, lists humility as one of its top 10 core values. Google’s SVP of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, says humility is one of the traits he looks for in new hires because they concede they don’t always have the answers creating space for others to contribute to solving problems, as reported in Fast Company.

Humility is not about being helpless or meek. It is the ability to admit that you can learn from others. Why is that so important? Because it gives others the freedom to contribute ideas, feel valued and ultimately find better and more creative solutions than you could not have come up with on your own. A Catalyst study backs this up. When employees saw managers exhibiting selfless behavior, they felt more included and as a result, more new product ideas emerged, according to the study’s findings published in the Harvard Business Review. Selfless behavior among leaders included:

  1. learning from criticism and admitting mistakes;

  2. empowering followers to learn and develop;

  3. exhibiting acts of courage, such as taking personal risks for the greater good; and

  4. holding employees responsible for results

Employees who witnessed altruistic behavior as described above from their managers reported better performance, going beyond the call of duty, and feeling more included, according to the Catalyst study. This was true for men and women as well as employees from different nationalities.

Leadership humility is so important for a turnaround that we insist that ALL the key players in an organization – not just the owner or CEO – must be a part of any planning and strategy sessions. If not, we do not take the client. A leader who does not value the ideas and potential contributions of others, is far less likely to be successful in our experience. Employees have unique experiences working with customers, a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of competitors, and they have an understanding of the market that an owner does not.

The transformation is exciting to watch unfold. One by one employees begin to voice creative ideas that have been pent up. Innovative solutions begin to emerge. And they even begin to volunteer to take on new responsibilities as they get inspired by the future direction. The excitement, inspired by your humility, becomes contagious.

Humility is simply the ability to (1) understand your own strengths and weaknesses; (2) be open to new ideas; and (3) appreciate that you are a small part of something much bigger than yourself. Such leaders understand they do not have all the answers and actively seek contributions from others to overcome their own limitations, according to a 2015 study published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Here are 5 strategies to adopt a humble leadership style:

  1. Change your language. Avoid the temptation to voice your ideas. In meetings, ask: “What do you think?” Admit you do not have the answers. Tell them that the reason you invited them to the meeting was to hear their ideas. Encourage other ideas by asking, “What if…?”

  2. Listen more, talk less. Present the problem, sit back and be quiet. By including others, you are giving them permission to lead and take responsibility. Your role is a facilitator, not a problem-solver.

  3. Create teachable moments from your own mistakes. Share mistakes you have made in the past and the lessons learned. Your willingness to humble yourself gives others the assurance that they do not have to be perfect, which encourages more creative thinking and risk-taking that can lead to dramatic breakthroughs.

  4. Be willing to follow. By reversing roles, you are leading by example so managers and employees will also value others’ perspectives and ideas, all of which are critical to working effectively in unpredictable times.

  5. Conclude meetings with two questions: What do you need to make these ideas happen? What do you need from me? This is their opportunity to express any concerns about the direction. In addition, you are giving your employees the authority to take ownership of the ideas expressed.

Try these strategies in your next meeting with your employees and you will be pleasantly surprised by the ideas that emerge and how quickly your team will want to take on the role of leader. Research has repeatedly shown that employees want to feel they are providing value to the organization.

Isn’t it time you humbly take a step back so your team can take the lead?

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