Can we stipulate that strong leaders and “best bosses” drive their business success through two fundamental qualities: professional competence and admirable character, arguably the foundation of trust?
Leadership dynamics, corporate culture, and employee expectations are top of mind as I seek to help my students assess pressure points in the legal and ethical business environment.
Are laws and company codes of conduct sufficient to guide a person’s decisions in the workplace? When and how do core values, principles and personal responsibility come into play?
The “boss behaviors” that employees seek out and hope to emulate when it’s their turn at the helm fascinates me. “The greatest gift of leadership is a boss who wants you to succeed,” a coach once said, prefacing a popular organizational development theme.
What might that look like on the ground? Can effective leaders nurture their people even when faced with discord, confusion, or uncertainty?
If staff and management are sensitive to workplace culture, what matters most? Over the years, three critical dimensions of leadership resonate with me, most often characterized by the trust historically enjoyed by one’s direct supervisor (different from more distant high command). From the employee’s perspective, a good boss:
- Sees myself as a whole person, not another cog in the machine, but a trusted and “needed” contributor with potential for growth. With clear goals, deadlines, resources and (lesson from Covid) greater flexibility in time and space, productivity and morale soar.
- Behaves authentically. By responding to impatience, frustration, and even negativity from below, these leaders are acknowledging their influence on workplace culture and “walking the talk.” They engage and draw disparate views to the table.
- Embrace humility, empathy and transparency. By refusing or transmitting for further study a premature or impracticable suggestion, the leaders share their reasoning. Adults can handle being told no. The explanation is appreciated.
These behaviors resonate with “top business professionals” who enjoy spending time with my students. Their deliberate investment in workplace culture aligns with an impressive MIT Sloan Management Review research study on important elements of corporate culture.
According to Sloan, based on Glassdoor’s HR data, knowing which elements of culture are most important to employees can help leaders foster engagement as they transition to a more remote and hybrid work environment. They focus on four main areas:
- The respect. In high culture organizations, employees are considered, treated with courtesy and dignity. Their views are taken seriously. Among the companies studied, negative scores are more common in industries with many front-line workers – for example, casual restaurants, grocery stores and specialty retailers – than in industries with a high percentage of professional and technical workers – for example, management consulting, healthcare, and business software. Making employees feel “respected” is by far the most important element of healthy ethics, reflected in the colorful language they use to describe the disrespect of feeling “degraded and degraded,” treated like children, second-class citizens or worse.
- Leadership. Solidarity leaders live by fundamental values. They remove barriers, respond to requests, respond to individual employee needs, offer encouragement and “have their backs”. Leaders’ actions are consistent with the core values of the organization. Although perfect alignment is not expected, employees appreciate the effort when they see it. At the other end of the spectrum is distrust of “toxic managers” and “pockets of unethical behavior”, factors that not only undermine corporate culture, but potentially expose the business at reputational or legal risk.
- Benefits and compensation. Benefits are important to all employees, but work dictates preference. For example, company-sponsored health insurance is a better predictor of culture assessment for frontline workers, while retirement benefits such as 401(k) plans and pensions are more important. for white collar workers. While each counts, neither will fix a broken culture. Digging deeper, the researchers find that “perks” such as discounted meals, free parking, team-building exercises, and tuition assistance appear to be reliable predictors of a high culture score. Also important are opportunities for educational and personal development and “exposure to senior executives,” especially future leaders early in their careers.
- Job security and reorganizations. While managers generally do not see job security as part of the corporate culture, “job insecurity”, including fear of layoffs, offshoring and automation, weighs heavily on the minds of employees when evaluating corporate culture. As for reorganizations, broad acceptance of their frequency and quality is a tough sell. Within the ranks, the pace of organizational change is perceived as “too fast” and the evolving strategy is inconsistent, unclear, or both.
MIT researchers provide useful context for leaders at all levels as they navigate the post-COVID-19 return to work. “They need to retain star employees, attract new hires and maintain a healthy culture” as the workforce adjusts to more remote and hybrid work.
— Lou Cartier is an adjunct professor of business and management at Aims Community College, an independent consultant, and chair of the Local Government and Business Affairs Committee (LGBAC) of the Greeley Area Chamber of Commerce. The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Order.