How social connections can inform your leadership ability

High-quality social connections aren’t just a predictor of happiness, they can also help people flourish at work and develop their leadership ability, say the authors of Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership

The new currency of the Internet Age and the IoE (internet of everything) is not intellectual capital; it is social capital – the collective value of the people you know and what you will do for each other.

When social connections are strong and numerous, there’s more trust, reciprocity, information flow, collective action, and elevated wellbeing. Having strong social relationships is the best predictor of human happiness, trumping wealth, income and material possessions; and research has shown that those who fail to achieve this most basic need experience loneliness, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, obesity, and anger.

You need to find ways to get connected to the information, resources and influence you will need to make a difference. In doing so, figure out substantive ways to connect your colleagues with one another and with those outside the boundary of your group or team who are part of other key networks.

The importance of social connections has been dramatically illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic. While nearly everyone around the world was ordered to maintain ‘physical distance’, the yearning for social connection increased. People invented all kinds of ways to continue to interact with their fellow human beings. Virtual coffee breaks and cocktail hours popped up immediately after people had to shelter in their homes. Residents stood on their balconies and sang to each other. Friends and family organised drive-by birthday and graduation celebrations. The demand for virtual gathering services nearly broke the internet. There was seemingly no end to the creative ways that people invented to stay connected to each other, even in the worst of the crisis.

Strengthening the bonds of connectedness

The most well-connected individuals are typically those who are involved in activities outside their immediate job function or discipline, and who avoid being too strongly typecast in one field, function, administrative body, or community. Find ways to meet people from a wide range of units, departments, projects, and professions. While specialisation has its benefits, from a leadership perspective you don’t want to get stuck in a rut. If your connections are only in your specialty, you will be less influential than if your connections cross a lot of boundaries. When it comes to social connections, there’s a payoff in mining deep and wide.

Greater connectedness can also be fostered when you and your colleagues have enough confidence in one another’s relationships to ask for help when needed. The impulse to give help when requested has been shown to be a powerful, automatic, and emotional response formed early in life. However, in many situations people underestimate how willing others would be to provide assistance when requested. There is a social cost to saying ‘no’ when someone asks for help. The person can be seen as uncaring, unreasonable, insensitive, and even cruel. Saying ‘yes’, by contrast, is a more positive and rewarding experience, and agreeing to help or cooperate strengthens the bond of connectedness between people. By making someone else happy, the person who has agreed to help also feels good about himself or herself and strengthens the bond of connectedness between them.

Researchers have demonstrated that people underestimate by nearly 50% the likelihood of receiving a positive response when requesting assistance, and this leads to lost opportunities, like prospective friends, colleagues, and clients going uncontacted, and squandering chances to increase connectedness. When you feel a sense of connection with someone else, you are more likely to volunteer your assistance, as is often demonstrated by onlookers who are most predisposed to help emergency victims if they feel they share something with them.

Developing leadership ability through high-quality connections

Feeling connected to the people you are working with enhances feelings of wellbeing and fosters greater commitment to colleagues. Research documents that high-quality connections contribute to people flourishing, resulting in better health, higher cognitive functioning, broader thinking, and stronger resilience. Individuals with high-quality relationships also have a better sense of whom to trust and not trust. They are more open, and they more fully understand themselves and the viewpoints of others.

You can more effectively develop your leadership abilities by connecting to people who can teach you about the skills you would like to acquire and the things you would like to achieve. Find out about their struggles, hardships and mistakes as well as their accomplishments.

Consider connecting with people who are not particularly well known but who nonetheless exhibit deep competence, unswerving dedication, and a good sense of who they are. Most importantly, select people who make you feel good about yourself. After all, the purpose of these relationships is to encourage and inspire you to be your best version of yourself.

Travis Carrigan, a senior engineer, told us that he’s been doing exactly this for years, which has led to some great opportunities and collaborative work. ‘These relationships,’ he says, ‘are phenomenal at helping me become a better leader, listener, and engineer.’

Limitations of virtual connections

What about virtual connections? Aren’t they a good way to foster collaboration and build trust? There is no question that virtual connections are prolific, and in a global economy no organisation could function if people had to fly halfway around the world to exchange information, make decisions, or resolve disputes. Proof of this can be found with the exponential growth in virtual communications during the global Covid-19 pandemic, and that demand has led to the development of new apps and platforms to meet the need. With a large percentage of people working from home and almost all educational institutions’ classes going online, virtual connections became the most frequent way in which people communicated, learned and conducted business.

That said, the stroke of a key, the click of a mouse, or the switch of a video doesn’t get you the same results that an in-person conversation does. In an era that is becoming more and more dependent on virtual connections, there’s a temptation to believe that such connections automatically lead to better relationships and greater trust. Unfortunately, virtual trust is much more difficult to both build and maintain than is trust developed in-person. Even among Gen Z employees, who make up 20% of today’s workforce, 72% indicate they prefer face-to-face communication at work.

Virtual trust, like virtual reality, is still one step removed from the real thing. People are social animals; it is their nature to want to interact face to face. Bits and bytes and pixilated images make for a very fragile social foundation. As handy as virtual tools such as email, voice mail, apps, and texts are for staying in touch, they are no substitute for positive face-to-face interactions.

This is an edited extract from Everyday People, Extraordinary Leadership: How to Make a Difference Regardless of Your Title, Role, or Authority, by James M Kouzes and Barry Z Posner (Wiley, 2021).

Leaders and entrepreneurs in focus: May Flanagan, Global Green Family

Pursuing purpose while running your own company and the opportunities presented by remote working to empower others. An interview with the Founder of a website that aims to ‘make sustainability simple’

‘I am able to get a positive message out there about saving the environment and our impact on it as consumers,’ says May Flanagan, Founder of Global Green Family, a website that aims to change the way people think about everyday products and raise the standards of sustainable living.

In this interview with Business Impact, Flanagan underlines the importance of networking for other budding entrepreneurs and outlines why Bill Gates’ penchant for lifelong learning makes him her ideal mentor.

Can you tell us a little bit about your current role and what it involves?

As the Founder of Global Green Family, I am always thinking of what’s next for our organisation and the brand itself. I also spend a lot of my time strategising, analysing Google Analytics, and staying on top of trends to make sure that I am always aware of what’s going on with our organisation and what’s new in the sustainability industry.

Did your Business School/university experience help get your business off the ground? If so, how?

I did business studies and information technology (IT) at school as an A-level student in the UK. These subjects definitely sparked my interest to study accounting and finance at university. Looking back, I think having a good understanding of these subjects helped me get my business off the ground because I had the skills necessary for its upkeep, such as learning how to budget and having an eye for detail in all aspects.

What single piece of advice would you offer undergraduate and postgraduate students of business and management who plan to start their own companies after completing their studies?

If I were to offer a single piece of advice, it would be to network. There are a lot of opportunities that will come your way if you get your brand out there.

Mentorship schemes in business are becoming increasingly popular. Who would have been your dream mentor when you were at the outset of your career and why?

My dream mentor would have been Bill Gates because of the noteworthy qualities he possesses as a leader.

He has passion for what he does, which is supported by a deep knowledge in his area of expertise. Bill Gates also has this winning, ‘always learning’ attitude and an eagerness to gain more knowledge and expertise in the tech industry. Bill Gates is also resilient – he is committed to his craft day and night in the pursuit of success, even when faced with many challenges.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities you’re currently facing, both as a leader and as an organisation?

As a leader, I think the pandemic has had an influence on how people feel and this has definitely changed priorities for me.

Being flexible in my approach to running the company has been challenging. However, through remote working, new opportunities have arisen and I get to help make people feel more empowered during these trying times with my website.

From the organisational perspective, I find it challenging to keep organic search visitors increasing as user intent is changing. Plus, Google’s algorithms are updated regularly so it can be really challenging for my website to rank higher and remain one of the best in our niche.

Do you feel that leading a company has enabled you to make a positive impact? If so, how?

Definitely. Through Global Green Family, I am able to get a positive message out about saving the environment and our impact on it as consumers. I am happy that I am able to educate people and have an influence on sustainability.

Please outline the importance of sustainability to your company’s strategy and why you feel it is important to business approaches as a whole today.

Sustainability is everything we stand for, as exemplified by our organisation’s tagline, ‘Let’s Make Sustainability Simple’. It is our ambition to transform the way we all think about everyday products in our lives. We also aim to inspire people to use eco-friendlier organic natural materials that will enrich our own lives and have a better impact on the planet we live on.

Which three words best describe your approach to leadership (or your management style) and why?

Empathy, humility, and empowerment (of others).

‘Empathy’ because understanding the people that work with me and seeing how they feel is crucial to me because that has an impact on their work.

‘Humility’ because of the importance of understanding that the people that work with me have their own aspirations. I  try my best to help them on that journey by recognising their perspectives and letting them know they are doing well.

Lastly, ‘empowerment of others’ because I believe everyone is equal and unique in their own abilities and are presented with opportunities to succeed. I truly believe that if people are happy at work they will do their very best not because they have to, but because they want to. That’s what truly makes a difference, because as they say: ‘People are your biggest asset’.

May Flanagan is a digital marketer, fashion writer, and the Founder of Global Green Family, a website that aims to help consumers to be more mindful of their impact on the planet.

How to succeed as a first-time manager

Discover the skills, approach to others, and attitude to continued learning you’ll need to embrace the step up to management level and thrive

How do you succeed as a first-time manager? Start by thinking about your journey to becoming a manager. How is that you are in this situation? Did you apply for a management role? Did your manager volunteer or select you? Has it just happened by accident? It’s worth reflecting on these questions, not least because it’s likely to inform how you are feeling about the opportunity – excited, nervous, perhaps even daunted?

These feelings are perfectly normal. Everyone starting out in management experiences certain anxieties because managing is a challenging job. It’s not just about delivering tasks and rallying a team to hit certain performance goals. It’s fundamentally about developing people to be their best. And getting the best out of people is better achieved by nurturing capability, rather than applying control.

To succeed in management, you’ll need to master new skills – like how to manage a budget, manage organisational change or hire people effectively. You’ll be most successful if you take the time to think about, learn and experience key moments that matter across the employee lifecycle. For example, as a manager you may be required to induct team members, set objectives, and manage performance. You might have to recognise and reward people, deal with employment issues like grievances or redundancy. You might also need to consider how to best train and develop your team, spot talent, and manage motivation.

Of course, all managers need to communicate as well. Sharing company information is just the tip of the iceberg. To succeed as a first-time manager, you’ll need to learn how to inform people about key decisions, give and receive feedback and set expectations. The great news is that are plenty of learning interventions that can help you with this type of knowledge building, and hopefully these will be offered by your employer.

Management practice: learning from experience and from others

Becoming a first-time manager is also about creating a happy and healthy work environment. You’re not just managing tasks; you’re dealing with human feelings and emotions. This means you need to deal with the unexpected and manage situations that may not always appear logical or straightforward.

A good place to start is to remind yourself of your experiences in being managed by others. Which felt good? Have you experienced poor management practice? Knowing what ‘good’ management looks and feels like is a great way to set the bar for your own practice. If you didn’t like being micromanaged, do you think your new team will? If you were motivated by receiving praise for work completed, do you think that others will feel the same. Today, it’s common for managers to take a coaching approach to dealing with people. This means giving people appropriate feedback ‘in the moment’, rather than waiting to conduct a performance review. When you see good behaviour, a job well done – call it out there and then. If someone is a little off course, is struggling, or is perhaps exhibiting behaviours that are less than acceptable, then it’s important to do the same. Take people to one side and help them understand where they might be going wrong – offering ideas and support to get them back on track.

In addition to mastering these techniques and answering these questions, remember to listen and learn from others. Are there more experienced managers you admire? What can you learn from them? Would they be willing to mentor you? If you know other new managers in your organisation it’s also a good idea to get together and share experience. Successful managers aren’t islands – they seek out support when they need it.

Keep tabs on the development of your managerial identity

Take your time to consider how you feel about managing and what you’re learning about yourself as you grow. If something makes you feel particularly nervous, why might that be? Is there a skill gap, or do you lack confidence because of past experience? Always be ready to ask your own line manager for support and be honest with them if you are struggling.

Finally, as you get into managing, keep checking back on how your identity as a manager is developing. Managers who are fair, encouraging, team-oriented, and problem-solvers have a great chance of success. How would you describe you knowledge, skills and character as a manager, and how are things changing as you experience leading your team?

The key with management is not to feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities. Good management takes years of practice, and dealing with tough stuff will make you better, as much as celebrating the successes. If you have a coach or mentor – fantastic, put them to good use. Otherwise, try to retain an open and curious mind that is willing to keep learning and keep smiling.

Elisa Nardi, is a former Chief People Officer, now executive coach, mentor, author, non-executive director and CEO of professional development journaling company, Notebook Mentor.

The art of being heard

If it’s true that 90% of of career progression success relies on personal impact and exposure, your ability to be heard is crucial. Janie van Hool, author of The Listening Shift, offers some advice

In 1996, Harvey Coleman published Empowering Yourself, a candid and refreshing insight into what it takes to progress at work. His findings were impactful – just 10% of career progression success, he suggested, came down to being good at your job. The other 90% relied on personal impact and exposure. In the second edition, published 15 years later, nothing had changed, and I have no doubt it still holds true in today’s workplace. Your ability to make yourself, and what you are doing, known about is the art of being heard.

I use the word ‘art’ intentionally – art is an expression of skill and imagination, and to achieve the most from your talent takes dedication and discipline. It often involves the repetition of skill, practicing until it becomes core, and laying the foundations of confidence in our ability. So, what should you be working on to develop the art of being heard?

Are you making it too hard for your peers to listen?

Firstly, establish a connection between what you want to say and what others want to hear. We speak at around 160 words per minute, but we process at between 400-800 words per minute creating a gap that allows our listener’s minds to wander. Relevance is key to managing this challenge.

If your content is not relevant to your listeners – whether in presentations, meetings, or conversations – then you are making it too hard for them to listen. Invest time in finding out what is on your listeners’ minds. What matters to them? What do they want and need to hear from you?

For a presentation, ask your audience (or a proportion of them) what they’d like to know from you. For a meeting, have some targeted conversations beforehand so that you can be sure of focusing on the priorities of those attending; In a conversation, start by asking what would be helpful to the other person or what outcome they are looking for. This might feel like spending time you don’t have – but if you are granted the attention of your listeners, and are heard as a result, then it’s time well spent.

How concisely can you express what’s important?

Secondly, practice brevity. There are few things that switch a listener off more than someone who talks too much and for too long. While we might acknowledge the sentiment of ‘less is more’, being succinct in practice takes work.

To improve at this, you will need to put in some planning time. For presentations, test yourself by imagining a scenario in which you are asked at the last minute to present for two minutes only. What would you strip out? What really matters and must be heard? Look at each slide in your deck and apply the same thinking and then be disciplined about what you choose to add back in from your original content.

For meetings, decide on a point you’d like to make and distil it into one sentence. Practice it so that when you get to speak up, you will sound clear and confident. When it comes to introducing yourself, think long and hard about how you could make an impact in 50 words that cover who you are and what you do, as well as how and why you do it. In conversations, pay attention to how long you speak for… As a practice, have a go at limiting yourself to 20 seconds before asking the other person a question to test how concisely you can express your thoughts.

Make your emotional intention clear

Finally, work on how you sound as much as you work on crafting what you say. In a hybrid working world, your voice will become the most valuable tool to influence your listeners. Tone of voice reveals so much – from self-belief and confidence-level to your emotional response to what you are saying, along with many other inferences.

To make an impact, you need to make sure your intention is clear. How do you want to be heard by your listeners? Should they hear excitement? Challenge? Reassurance? These are very different voices, so choose your emotional intention – whatever is appropriate – and practice how it will sound by recording yourself on your phone. This is an important tactic in building awareness and skill as what you hear conducted through being in your head when you speak is not what others hear conducted through air as they listen. Recording yourself will help you hear your voice as others hear it – and there may be a big difference. Keep doing this, adjusting your delivery until you like what you hear.

If you can’t be heard, you can’t be trusted

With all this in place, it will be audibility that matters. Audibility correlates with credibility… If you can’t be heard, you can’t be trusted. Working online solves this to some degree, but back in the world of communicating in-person, you’ll need to make sure you are speaking at a volume level that is easy to hear. Among people aged 50 years and older, 42% have a hearing problem, according to the UK’s Royal National Institute for Deaf People, and they will switch off if they can’t easily follow you when you speak.

Again, recording yourself will help you understand where you might ‘tail off’, which words sound less clear and the level of energy and conviction you hear in your tone. Consider your audience profile and, when you speak, commit to doing so clearly with confidence and conviction to make it easy for them to hear you.

If you’re serious about being heard, ask people what you could do to communicate more impactfully, asking specifically about the relevance of what you shared, how brief and succinct they thought you were and how they felt when listening to you. Consider asking actionable questions about your voice for ideas to add to your skills practice. While your focus is on helping them listen, you will benefit by using their observations to improve your art and, ultimately, progress your career.

Janie van Hool is the author of The Listening Shift (Practical Inspiration Publishing, 2021).

Creating a high-performing hybrid workplace: what should leaders do?

Making the shift to a successful hybrid workplace demands a different leadership approach – one that moves away from micromanagement and towards a culture of trust and transparency, says Hult Professor, Vlatka Hlupic

The global economy has been left in a fragile state following lockdown measures, many of which have been prolonged at the time of writing this article, leaving further uncertainty on how businesses will recover. What is certain, however, is that business leaders and organisations must adapt and recalibrate to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic world and create high-performing hybrid workplaces.

Instead of a traditional top-down leadership approach based on command and control, hierarchical decision-making and micromanagement; high-performing hybrid workplaces will need a different leadership approach which is more shared and distributed. This type of leadership corresponds to levels four and five of a framework, called ‘The Management Shift’. In this framework, there are five levels of an individual mindset and a corresponding organisational culture at every level. Each level is characterised by specific thinking patterns, behaviour, language used, leadership style and organisational outcomes.

Five levels of overriding mindset and organisational culture

At level one, a dominant mindset is ‘lifeless’; culture is ‘apathetic’, based on fear and employees are isolated and disengaged. At level two, the individual mindset is ‘reluctant’; culture is ‘stagnating’ and people do the minimum they can get away with, just to get paid. There is a blame culture, and employees feel overwhelmed. At level three, the mindset is ‘controlled’ and culture is ‘orderly’. The leadership style is based on traditional command and control, employees are micromanaged, and they do what they are told to do, but they are not purposeful, fully engaged, or passionate for their work.

At level four, the dominant mindset becomes ‘enthusiastic’; culture is ‘collaborative’ and there is a strong teamwork ethos. Collaboration, integrity, purpose, transparency, accountability, and a caring culture are embedded in this level. This is also the level where a ‘Big Shift’ takes place and where highly engaged and inventive performance begins.

At level five, the mindset becomes ‘limitless’; culture is ‘unbounded’ and anything seems to be possible to achieve. This is where great innovations are developed and big problems for humanity are solved. However, this level can only be sustained for a limited time, as employees will ‘burn out’ if they work continually at this pace.

So how do leaders make the ‘Big Shift’ in their leadership styles to ensure their organisations are led in a way that gets the best out of their people in this new hybrid workplace?

Practices and behaviours that leaders should embrace

Leaders should support autonomy and collaboration and encourage experimentation with new ideas. They can influence employees indirectly through empowerment and inspiration, and create the conditions for change, where they delegate responsibilities, not tasks. Delegating tasks is micromanagement. When leaders delegate responsibilities, they show that they trust their employees to do their work well and employees will decide when, where and how they are going to do their work. They will be accountable for the deliverables – this is the key because, during a time of remote working, it is impossible to micromanage and control how and when the work gets done.

Leaders should also decentralise decision-making based on knowledge rather than a formal position in organisational hierarchy. People with the best knowledge, with the best insight into customer’s needs and requirements are best suited to make certain decisions, rather than somebody at the top of the hierarchy who doesn’t interact with customers.

Leaders need to develop cultures based on trust and transparency. This is particularly important for the hybrid world of work. It is vital to give a clear strategic direction for employees and communicate that well. That will create a sense of security and resilience, which will then also support the wellbeing of employees. Leaders also must support reward mechanisms that are based on contribution and meritocracy, especially as they cannot closely control employees that work remotely. They should focus on the results achieved, not on the time spent in the office or time spent at work.

Leaders need to use, and act, on feedback – and that should go both ways. In hybrid workplaces, feedback is even more important, not as a traditional yearly performance review, but rather as a continuous feedback conversation. Leaders should hone and use their social intelligence and emotional intelligence to get, and act on, the clues when something is not right even if employees are not directly sitting with them in the office all the time.

Successful leaders of hybrid workplaces allow some flexibility with procedures, rules and regulations, within reason. Even in heavily regulated and compliant environments, such as financial industry, there are still parts of the business that need to be creative.  Here, leaders can relinquish control and allow employees to take their own initiative, make decisions and pursue some of their own initiatives for the benefit of an organisation, especially when innovation is important part of what organisation does. Without that, no progress and no innovation will emerge.

Leaders that embrace a level four mindset and behave like level four, and occasionally level five leaders, will create the conditions that are conducive to successful, highly productive and engaging hybrid workplaces.

To this end, it is important to allow people to work from home for at least half of the working week. At the same time, leaders should create office environments which entice people to spend some time there, interacting and networking. Human connections often lead to the creation of the best ideas.

Every change starts with one single step that creates ripples. What is one action that you can start implementing from next week to help create a high-performing hybrid workplace?

Vlatka Ariaana Hlupic is a Professor of Leadership and Management at Hult Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School. She is the founder and CEO of the training, coaching and consultancy firm, Management Shift Solutions as well as the author of The Management Shift and Humane Capital.

Feedback is the foundation of high-performing teams

A true culture of feedback is rarely seen in organisations, yet how can we know what we’re doing well and where we need to improve without it? Julie Nerney, co-author of Own Your Day, offers tips for building feedback into your daily practice

There were so many things I enjoyed about doing my MBA. As I was doing it part time while I worked, I also had lots of opportunities to put the learning immediately into practice. Decades on, I can now see that the one thing that wasn’t covered on the syllabus is something which has been seen to have the biggest impact on teams and organisations: feedback.

That’s right; feedback. Why is it that this one word creates a sense of fear whenever most people hear it? Then there is that slightly sarcastic inference that ‘feedback is a gift’, when the process of providing and receiving it is something that most people dread.

Like all things we do, those that become habitual get easier. And like all habits, that starts with practice. When you think about all areas of management and leadership, some things come so naturally that when you’re asked how you do it, you really have to stop and think about it. It is so well ingrained that it has become a subconscious competence. In others, you’ll have had to practice and learn from experience – especially when things haven’t gone well – and it’s much more of a conscious competence that you step through every time you do it.

The detrimental impact of a lack of feedback

A true culture of feedback is rarely seen in organisations, largely due to the dread that the word creates. This means the habit doesn’t get formed and the viral impact of learning from each other continuously is lost. This is such a shame. Feedback isn’t just a gift, it is – as Boris Becker once said – ‘the breakfast of champions’. How can we know what we’re doing well and where we need to improve if no one tells us? Where are the opportunities for personal development and growth if that insight is denied?

Think about your own experience. How many times have you worked in a team when it’s obvious that someone is being carried by others, yet no one is addressing this? Can you remember the impact? The drain on morale and motivation of the rest of the team. The resentment that builds. The feelings of negativity that this creates towards that individual.

It works the same way for star performers. Those people doing well, but rarely having their contribution acknowledged. Having no opportunities to celebrate their success. No visibility for their achievements in a way that might aid their development or career progression. There is a palpable dip in motivation caused by this, both for the individual and their contribution to the team.

Not only does this have a detrimental impact on the individuals concerned, it also undermines team cohesion. It creates an implicit acceptance of a reduced sense of transparency and openness. An unwillingness to tackle difficult issues. Ultimately, this will start to reduce the value that group of people adds, so that its members are no longer greater than the sum of their parts in whatever endeavour they’re applying themselves to.

Three top tips for building a culture of feedback

If you accept the premise that culture is an accelerant of performance, cultures with excellent feedback practice at their heart are those that make the biggest difference. Conversations between managers and direct reports are richer and more valuable. Successes are acknowledged and captured. Areas for improvement can be coached and supported. Where we’ve seen it work well in all types of teams, there has been an overt conversation between team members as to both the importance of feedback and how they’ll hold each other to account.

So here are three top tips for starting to build feedback into your daily practice and helping others to do the same:

1. Make it frequent, in the moment and brief

Feedback shouldn’t need to be a big conversation which you need to prepare for – that tends to mean that things have gone too long without any feedback. It should look like this: ‘The way that you opened today’s presentation today had real impact, I could see that the example you used really engaged the audience and made the rest of the session flow much more easily’. Or: ‘The way that you opened today’s presentation lacked impact compared with how I’ve seen you do it before; perhaps changing the example didn’t work as well as you thought it might.’ Simple. Short. Constructive. Objective. The best kind of feedback.

2. Stop thinking of feedback as positive or negative

There is no such thing as positive or negative feedback, there is just feedback. Just think of feedback as information which will help someone improve. From good to great. From under par to good enough. The only consideration is to make sure that when the feedback is provided it is done so with positive intent. With kindness. And in the spirit of encouraging learning and growth.

3. Open questions encourage ownership

You can tell people something, as in the example given in the first point. Or you can ask people: ‘What do you think was different about the way you delivered the presentation today?’. When you ask people it forces them to engage in the process of thinking about the question, and deepens ownership of the answer. Providing feedback by asking a series of open questions so that the recipient arrives at the point by themselves is a way of supercharging ownership and action on the back of this information. Sometimes telling people works just fine, other times you need to ask. The best kind of feedback conversations tend to start with a simple tell and, if it is more complex, continues with a series of asks.

If you’ve read this far and are now thinking, ‘yes, that’s all well and good, but I can’t do that,’ you should try to reflect on what it is that is getting in your way. And then do something about it. Getting good at this will accelerate your own performance and that of others.

If the only barrier is yourself and you find it hard to get started, then find someone you trust, share your desire to do this and ask them to hold you to account. Sometimes making a commitment public is all it takes to make a start on developing a new skill.

Julie Nerney is a serial entrepreneur, transformation expert, Chair, and guest lecturer. She holds an MBA from London Metropolitan University.

Together with Diana Marsland, Julie Nerney is also the author of Own Your Day (Practical Inspiration Publishing, 2021) 

BGA members can benefit from a discount on copies of Own Your Day, courtesy of the BGA Book Club. Please click here for details.

Addressing hidden identity threats in the diverse workplace

There are challenges concerning both minority and majority groups in the workplace that organisations must be aware of and act on, if diversity, equity and inclusion policies are to be effective, say UCL School of Management’s Clarissa Cortland and Felix Danbold

As workplaces become more diverse, many companies are already seeing great gains. Increased diversity in organisations has been linked to improvements in innovation and profitability, and it also plays a vital social purpose in reducing inequalities between demographic groups.

However, those who work at the forefront of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) in organisations know that growing diversity also brings its share of challenges. Being around members of different groups can activate deep psychological anxieties for members of minority and majority groups alike. Our research shows how group identities (for example, gender, race or nationality) can lead employees of any background to feel a sense of threat, and how this threat may undermine employee wellbeing and the ability to work together harmoniously. Critically, because these threats are rooted in identity, rather than more tangible sources like competition over material resources, they can be challenging to put a finger on. Without understanding and addressing these often-overlooked threats, DEI efforts are likely to fall short of their goals.

Threats for members of minority groups

Groups that are historically underrepresented in many organisational contexts, such as ethnic minorities, or women in historically masculine industries and professional roles, often face both the burden of being relatively isolated, as well as the stigma often tied to their group membership.

For example, women are often stereotyped as communal (for example, warm, kind and sympathetic) and more suitable for support roles, as compared to men, who are more often considered for leadership positions. Because of this, as women start to progress in their careers and climb the corporate ladder, they can face increasing pressure to disprove the negative and discouraging stereotypes about women and leadership success. The pressure mounts the more underrepresented women are in comparison to men – such as at the top levels of many organisations – as their numerical minority status exposes them to heightened scrutiny and judgment from others.

This fear of confirming negative stereotypes about an identity you hold is called ‘stereotype threat’. Stereotype threat can be experienced as in-the-moment distracting anxieties and concerns that can undermine performance on a given task or activity (such as giving a high-stakes speech or presentation). It can also be experienced as chronic long-term disengagement, where the constant pressure and burden to not confirm stereotypes can eventually take their toll.

Threats for members of majority groups

Members of majority groups often enjoy something akin to the opposite of stereotype threat whereby their group identity serves as a consistent source of inclusion and comfort. For example, while women in historically masculine professions may worry whether, by virtue of their gender, they can belong, men in these contexts rarely have to think of their gender as a factor in their sense of ‘fit’ at work. In academic terms, we say that majority groups are ‘prototypical’ – being strongly associated with the broader context in which they exist (for example, in their organisation or profession) and setting the norms to which other groups are expected to conform to.

Although being prototypical affords members of majority groups a sense of comfort, this can quickly fade when change is on the horizon. If members of majority groups see the representation of minority groups increasing, they may experience prototypicality threat. Members of majority groups experiencing this threat may fear that their default sense of belonging will be lost and that they will soon be the ones who feel like outsiders. This fear that their comfort and security may be lost is a powerful driver of members of dominant groups’ resistance to diversity efforts and prejudice against minority groups.

Recommendations for reducing identity threats

Once organisations become aware of these identity threats, they will want to act to reduce them. Fortunately, the awareness of these threats alone is a great first step.

Research shows that members of minority groups who experience stereotype threat are more motivated to improve diversity climates. Organisations might think about giving minority voices a safe forum to acknowledge and share these firsthand experiences with stereotype threat. This is one way to raise awareness, normalise these discussions, and galvanise change.

Visibly highlighting the success of various minority employees can also be helpful, as role models have been found to have a protective effect against the pernicious effects of stereotype threat. This is due to the inspiring and empowering effect of seeing someone who looks like you achieve success. Additionally, visible examples of successful minorities can relieve the burden of any one individual having to prove negative stereotypes wrong. While these are good measures to include in DEI efforts, the responsibility to reduce these threats shouldn’t fall solely on the minority groups who are already facing an undue share of barriers.

To reduce prototypicality threat among members of majority groups, and thus forestall backlash against DEI efforts, organisations must also act proactively. Research shows that the more members of a majority/dominant group believe that their overrepresentation is legitimate, the more susceptible they are to feeling threatened by an increase in diversity.

One way that organisations may unintentionally lend legitimacy to dominant group prototypicality is by defining success in terms of traits that are stereotypically associated with the dominant group. For example, historically masculine professions might overemphasise the importance of assertiveness and strength, etc., in things like employee evaluations and recruiting materials that communicate what it takes to be a good employee. Making sure the definition of the organisation as a whole doesn’t align with the stereotypes of the majority group will help dispel myths that the majority group is naturally better suited for their job.

As we move towards more diverse and inclusive workplaces, organisations should be aware of these identity threats and strive to reduce their impact. By focusing only on highly accessible and obvious sources of tension, such as explicit prejudice, or anxiety about competition over jobs, organisations run the risk of overlooking the powerful undercurrent of identity threats and the negative psychological and interpersonal outcomes that can follow.

Clarissa Cortland and Felix Danbold are Assistant Professors in the Organisations and Innovation Group at University College London School of Management.

Top tips to be a better daydreamer – and how it will help you

When daydreaming becomes a practice, it can bring surprising benefits and help us become better entrepreneurs and leaders, says Nelisha Wickremasinghe, an Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School

Daydreaming was something most of us were told off for doing at school,  and if we do it now people say we are time wasting or that we have our head in the clouds. However, certain kinds of daydreaming can help us become better entrepreneurs, leaders, innovators and creators.

Daydreaming is supported by our imaginal capability (which some people associate with right brain activities) whereas being logical, verbal and orderly is supported by our rational capability – often associated with the left brain. To be at our best in business and in life, we need both capabilities – and brain hemispheres – working well together. 

This happens when, for example, we allow our minds to roam and dream actively before opening our laptops each day or when we take a moment each morning to remember our dreams before looking at our phones. Albert Einstein famously said he lived his daydreams in music. He was a rational scientist who was hugely influenced and inspired by his  imagination, and he frequently allowed himself to be carried away by music and dreams. For Einstein, these moments were the source of his brilliant ideas and theories.

Daydreaming as a practice

Daydreaming as a means of improving the way we understand people, or think and innovate, is different from the kind of daydreaming we do when we simply drift off in pleasant thoughts about, for example,  winning the lottery or moving to a place in the sun.  When daydreaming becomes a practice – like yoga or mindful breathing – and is something we do regularly and intentionally, it can bring surprising benefits.

We can experience inspiration, ideas, and insights that would not have occurred to us had we remained in our usual rational, problem-solving, hyper-busy routines. The conscious practice of stimulating both hemispheres of our brain means that those ideas and insights arise ‘around the clock’ – not just when we’re daydreaming. Although they will tend to arise more at particular moments – in the bath or shower, out walking, or on waking without an alarm.

Unfortunately, many of us do rely almost exclusively on our rational capability because as children we were not taught to use our imagination as well as we were taught to use our intellect. On top of that, our culture rewards rational logic and behaviour over intuition and feeling, which makes us value these things and shapes the way we relate to others and the way in which we solve problems.

People who are oriented to rational thinking are often are less empathic, less comfortable with novelty and the unfamiliar, less spontaneous, and tend to divide up the world around them into parts and categories. As a result, they fail to see the deeper meanings and connections between people and situations. Rational people might appear to be smarter but actually their thinking and behaviour is less complex than those whose rational and imaginal brain muscles are working well together. Rationalists will often struggle to ‘think out of the box’ or engage in creative ‘blue sky’ activities at work because their imaginal brain, rarely used, doesn’t have the skill or ability to help out on demand.

The reason our rational capability is less effective on its own is because it is a closed system that can only work with the contents already in it. If nothing new is offered then it will simply re-hash the same old ideas and theories to explain things and make decisions. But ‘explaining’ – which the rational brain is good at – is not the same as ‘understanding’.  The word ‘mansplaining’ is familiar to many of us and refers not just to a male habit of patronising women but also to the rationalist tone of talk with its preference for intellectualising, describing and explaining. When we understand something we see it in its context and experience it more fully and deeply.

Day (and night) dreaming dissolves the hard boundary between the rational and the imaginal and enables us to truly understand ourselves, others and situations. When we dream, we allow the contents of our unconscious mind to influence us and it is from the ‘Mind Palace’ of our unconscious that the clues and suggestions for solving life’s mysteries will emerge.

Five top tips to become a better daydreamer

  1. Give yourself permission to daydream and remind yourself that daydreaming is going to increase your potential and performance.
  2. Once or twice a day, lie back and stare at the ceiling or out of the window and practice the soft gaze. This is when we look into the distance but don’t focus on any one thing. Focusing stops our mind from wandering – which is what we want it to do when we dream. 
  3. Once you have mastered the soft gaze, practise ‘open attention’ by being interested in the comings and goings of your thoughts and feelings without getting stuck on them. If you do get stuck, turn your attention to your breathing. The in-and-out rhythm of your breath is soothing and can help detach your thoughts from worries and overthinking.
  4. Exercise your imagination by resting your gaze on an object – the tree outside or a coffee cup – and imagine yourself to be that object. What do you as tree or coffee cup want to say?  Engage in a conversation with the tree or cup.
  5. Practice ‘freefall writing’. Take a stem sentence from anywhere – a book, or a magazine, or even just words in your head. Examples might be: ‘all aboard the night train…’; ‘Some children…’; or ‘there’s a joke about…’ Now continue writing from that stem sentence. When you feel stuck it’s very important to keep writing. If you stop, you’ve been hi-jacked by left brain rationality that wants you to make this writing tidy and logical. Instead, just keep writing the stem sentence over and over again until you unblock and your imagination flows again. Write like this for at least three minutes (time yourself) and practise daily. You’ll be surprised at what comes out when the ink starts to flow!

If daydreaming exercises leave you feeling cynical or frustrated, remind yourself that much of our greatest literature, mechanical and technological inventions, medical breakthroughs and understanding of the universe has come from open-minded daydreamers who have embraced the novel, the absurd and the unintelligible. If more of us became daydream believers our workplaces and relationships would thrive as we start to see the possibility, mystery and beauty of the everyday and the ordinary.

Nelisha Wickremasinghe is a Psychologist and an Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. She is also the author of Being with Others: Curses, spells and scintillation (Triarchy Press, 2021).

Why the pandemic should drive sustainable business

The fallout from Covid-19 gives governments a degree of leverage over corporations. They should use it to impose the sustainability agenda, says Rotterdam School of Management’s Frank Wijen

With the ongoing rollout of vaccination campaigns, governments are now in a significantly better position to plan for our economic recovery, and hopefully a new and better future. 

There is no doubt that the spread of Covid-19 will continue to cause distress and chaos globally – in addition to the immediate impact on human health, the future continuity of millions of firms is on the line, threatening massive unemployment. Yet, although there are redundancies looming and the pandemic continues to cause havoc – amplified by constraining government measures – the fallout from Covid-19 has actually created an exceptional opportunity to change the world for the good. 

Many governments have provided massive levels of support to affected firms and their workers to stave off a tsunami of bankruptcies and job losses. This is truly laudable, since we have learned from the crisis of the 1930s that non-intervention will entail a vicious circle of further economic sliding. 

Halting economic decline is an important, yet insufficient, public policy objective on its own, because an upcoming economic crisis is likely to be followed by an even larger environmental crisis, with disastrous effects dwarfing those triggered by Covid-19. 

While many environmental issues threaten continued economic prosperity, the cost of inadequate efforts to curb climate change will be huge and will undermine future economic activities – as has been outlined by noted economist, Nicholas Stern, whose 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change covers the intertemporal costs and benefits of (in)action. Therefore, to best protect our economic futures, governments need to kill at least two birds with the huge stone they are throwing into the economy. 

Rethinking and reinventing

In my opinion, firms with sizeable carbon footprints should be required to vastly reduce their emissions in return for state support. In other words, governments should demand a quid pro quo, in that recipients of state aid promise to clean up their act, literally.

Energy company, Shell, for example, should be told that it will receive help for hydro, solar, and offshore wind projects, but not for traditional oil exploration, production, refining, and distribution. Similarly, airlines should only be rescued if they cease short-haul flights for which public transport alternatives are feasible, invest in highly energy-efficient aircraft, and accept substantial carbon taxes on all flights.

Farming is another sector that needs to rethink its environmental attitude. We need food, of course, but not at any cost. European farmers have been generously subsidised for decades but continue to burden society with the environmental costs from intensive farming practices, such as huge freshwater withdrawal and nitrogen oxide emissions. Construction is also a highly conservative sector in need of reinventing itself. We need homes to live in, but wooden-framed houses can be just as solid and robust as those erected from brick and concrete while involving much lower levels of carbon emissions. 

Some governments have understood the necessity to make their financial support to distressed firms contingent on environmental measures, while others keep on delaying as the ice melts. Two months after France decided to grant €7 billion EUR to airline, Air France, the Netherlands came to the rescue of KLM with €3.4 billion EUR in state aid. The French government attached green strings to its support of Air France, but the Dutch government still seemed to consider the sky the limit and asked only for symbolic environmental measures. 

Lack of leadership

The importance of attaching sustainability criteria to financial support needs to be interpreted against the backdrop of a lack of business leadership in making sustainability transitions that adversely affect their vested interests. While businesses are great at implementing practices that stimulate both environmental and financial gains (the ‘win-win’ opportunities, such as serving environmental consumers), they shy away from those that adversely affect their ongoing business. And they often focus on the short term. 

For instance, companies owning huge unexploited oil and gas fields will not voluntarily abandon these assets. Shell beats the sustainability drum, and its investments in renewables have recently taken off, but the amounts involved still dwarf those it dedicates to new fossil fuel projects.

History teaches us that huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions have never resulted from climate change policies alone. They have often been a by-product of public policy decisions or political events, including the UK’s closure of unprofitable coal mines and privatisation of the electricity sector (with the related transition to less-carbon-intensive gas, known as the ‘dash for gas’), German reunification (and the related investments in more energy-efficient factories in Eastern Germany), and – indirectly – the German safety-driven phasing out of nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster (and the ensuing scaling up of renewable energy, whose plummeting production costs in solar and wind power fuelled a global demand for renewables). 

Environmental strides

Since the corporate world is unlikely to adopt game-changing environmental improvements of its own accord, governments must take the lead and impose the sustainability agenda as they rescue firms damaged by the pandemic. 

Necessity is the mother of invention and change, and business will only walk its sustainability talk when forced to do so by ineluctable government requirements. The sustainability transition will only materialise, therefore, through targeted government support, in which economic and environmental recovery operate in lockstep. 

Since governments virtually always prioritise economic stakes over environmental interests, the sustainability agenda will need to piggyback on economic interventions. The exceptionally large amounts of public funding that are about to be poured into the economy provide a unique opportunity to make significant environmental strides while also propping up the economy. In this context, the EU is showing leadership by publicly pledging 30% of its €750 billion EUR post-coronavirus restructuring emergency fund will be financed by the issuance of sustainable bonds. 

Governments can save work, without necessarily saving existing jobs. A significant number of positions will almost certainly cease to exist over the next few years and others that we cannot yet even imagine will emerge. For example, new jobs in developing circular business and managing smart grids. 

One of the key challenges for sustainable growth is to help people and firms adjust to this series of dramatic changes. Business Schools and universities will become vitally important in ensuring a smooth transition here. 

A major threat is that governments will take short-term measures as they give in to powerful business lobbies and eschew measures that might displease their electorates. Unfortunately, unconditional business support is a short-term remedy that fills one hole by deepening another one. The failure to address major environmental problems head-on could well drive the next global disruption, such as a climate crisis of an even larger magnitude. The actions of governments in the next few months will clearly have important implications for the long run. As the French dictum goes: ‘To govern is to anticipate’. Governments with foresight must therefore ensure they attach solid environmental strings when pouring public money into distressed businesses.

What can Business Schools do?

Senior Business School leaders need to recognise the impact climate change will have on businesses and their personal lives, and should work together with their students and the wider business community to help find solutions. 

Companies can provide a powerful incentive for greater Business School focus on sustainability. When executive education directors and careers service directors see this is a serious issue for business clients, action will follow.

Business Schools are training the leaders of tomorrow and have to take responsibility for that. Systemic thinking is about considering the wider and indirect effects of business actions, beyond the direct cause-effects we are used to. These effects are not just financial, and we need to teach good metrics that comprehensively capture socio-environmental outcomes.  Business actions need to go beyond the upcoming quarterly earnings, implying that the mindsets of students need to be adjusted to consider the longer-term implications as well. 

Furthermore, Business Schools with course materials that are predominantly based on North American and European ideas and practices need to develop the openness of mind to understand and support other managerial styles. This includes appreciating that eastern and southern businesses may be run differently while working towards the same sustainability goals. Finally, corporate responsibility needs to be duly incorporated into existing mainstream courses, rather than relegated to standalone ethics courses. In short, Business Schools will need to embrace a much more integrative approach, in which students develop the mindset and skills of systemic, longer-term, and open-minded thinking, acting, and measuring. 

Frank Wijen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship, Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), Erasmus University, Netherlands. 

This article was originally published in Ambition (the magazine of BGA’s sister organisation, AMBA).

Why businesses must develop greater integrity

There is a need for more integrity and a greater depth of character among leaders, says B-Corp Ambassador, Paul Hargreaves, pointing out that SMEs often get away with not doing the right thing because of their size

If you were described as an integrous person, you may wonder whether it was a compliment or not, but it simply means a person full of integrity. I heard the story of a man called James Doty, a neurosurgeon, entrepreneur and university professor, who early in his career was involved in developing the Cyberknife, an invention that netted him millions of dollars. At the turn of the millennium, he promised $30 million USD out of his $75 million USD net worth to charity – just before the dot-com crash of 2000 to 2001, which brought his wealth down to around the $30 million USD he had already pledged. Doty’s lawyers advised him that he could renege on his promise and get out of the pledge; surely people would understand the change of circumstances and he wouldn’t lose his standing in society. However, Doty was a man of his word and decided to do the right thing and go through with his promise, giving away the last of his fortune to charity.

In a much less costly example, at Cotswold Fayre, we announced in the spring of 2019 that we were going to become carbon neutral from August that year; this was based on some logistical change we had made to vastly reduce the carbon impact of our distribution network, meaning that the carbon offset figure for the carbon used in the distribution of our goods was attainable. The data came from our new logistics company, and either we misunderstood the data at the time or we were just given the wrong figures, but the amount we had to pay to sequester our carbon was considerably higher than what we had budgeted for within the business plan. However, there was never any doubt within our management team that we would go ahead and pay the higher amount, even though no one outside the company would know any different. Money doesn’t make decisions for us; doing what is right does.

These days, many companies want to link a social purpose to their products and make great claims about the percentage of their profits they are giving to social justice projects, such as charities working with street children in Brazil. They often push back when I challenge them and ask them how much they have contributed so far. Of course, many startup brands don’t make a profit for a few years, yet these brands’ products often carry such claims during this time. To my mind, this approach lacks integrity. Surely, it is far better for a young company to say that it will give 5p for each product sold, for example.

In many cases, SMEs can often get away with not doing the right thing because no one notices what small companies do. That is the great advantage of a certification process such as B Corp, where businesses must provide evidence of what they are doing and be analysed on how good they are for the world: both the people and the planet.

Doing the right thing when no one is watching

The Urban Dictionary definition of ‘integrity’ is based on a quote often attributed to [author of The Chronicles of Narnia] CS Lewis, but which might actually paraphrase a line by author, Charles W Marshall: ‘Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.’ It is all too easy to trumpet a high moral standing on social media yet not follow through when the heat is turned up a little. I am concerned that occasionally even renowned ethical companies and their leaders sometimes present a better view to the outside world than what is really happening inside of their organisations. There is a need for more integrity and a greater depth of character among leaders.

People detest hypocrisy more than absolutely anything in a leader, and it has been the downfall of many political figures – as seen by the huge furore caused when the UK prime minister’s closest advisor broke his own rules with regards to the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions on at least two occasions. Imagine a stick of Blackpool rock that you can cut through at any point to reveal the word ‘Blackpool’. Would people see integrity running through us and our businesses if they were to figuratively cut through us at any point?

The wonderful message from the James Doty story is that even though he ‘lost’ personally, he still went through with his promises. For some of us, winning is too important and can come at the cost of all else. I know the appeal of this, as, like many entrepreneurs, I am very competitive and hate losing, and I have had to temper that competitive streak to maintain my integrity. The former tennis player, Andy Roddick, provides a great example of this. He was once awarded a match when a second serve from his opponent was deemed to be out. However, Roddick saw the ball’s mark in the clay himself and made the umpire reverse his call. Roddick went on to lose the match, but he maintained his integrity.

The danger of overpromising and underdelivering

So, how, do we develop our integrity? Well, probably the most important factor is silence. If we speak too hastily and make promises, we are in danger of overpromising and under-delivering. It is best not to speak hastily and to even learn to say ‘no’ on some occasions, where we may risk losing our integrity and disappointing customers, suppliers or, worst of all, team members. One of the most common reasons people leave employers is when they have been promised promotions, money or bonuses that haven’t been forthcoming.

In these instances, circumstances may well have changed – as they did for James Doty, to the tune of being $45 million USD poorer; but he stuck with his promises all the same. Incidentally, Doty claimed to be happier than he had ever been after he had given that money away, saying: At that moment I realised that the only way that money can bring happiness is to give it away.Being integrous, or full of integrity, is not only the right thing to do, but we will almost certainly be more fulfilled and happier as a result.

Paul Hargreaves is a B-Corp Ambassador, and the Founder and CEO of food and beverage company, Cotswold Fayre. He is also the author of The Fourth Bottom Line: Flourishing in the new era of compassionate leadership (2021).