07 May 2018

Curating positive leadership skills

Nick Cutland,‎ ILM Director of Product Development, Quality and Operations

Why is it that a positive and successful company culture can be so elusive and hard to achieve? How do some organisations get it so right, and others get it so wrong? 

While there are many factors involved in building a productive, effective and happy workforce – including pay, benefits, progression opportunities and training – one which is often taken for granted is social learning: the process of learning by observing and imitating the behaviour of those around us. 

Although most employers understand the principle of social learning and indeed depend on it to help new or junior employees to integrate into the company, they are often less aware of the wider impact is has on their business. Social learning actually happens throughout an organisation, shaping people of all levels and experience, and is not always actively managed. Which could prove a critical oversight.  

Strong leaders at every level make for a strong business 

Employers today are facing a whole host of challenges. Businesses need to get into the best shape possible if they are to navigate the rapidly changing workplace of digital transformation, critical skills gaps, poor productivity and a looming Brexit.  

However, when it comes to ensuring their workforce can support the business through tough times, employers don’t just need people who can perform their day job to a high standard. Having employees who can help their organisation adapt and change at every level is imperative if it is to survive and thrive.

HR professionals are integral to creating a learning and development environment that will strengthen their business’ leadership at every turn. While formal training plays an important role in this, HR teams should also consider social learning a vital part of L&D; after all, it takes place on the job, and is therefore by far the most frequent type of learning individuals undergo. Left unattended, company cultures can easily slip in the wrong direction. 

Leadership behaviours spread contagiously 

Research carried out by the team at ILM late last year revealed how leadership skills and behaviours – both good and bad – are spread contagiously through an organisation. Professionals learn socially from their colleagues, copying what they say, do, and how they act. In fact, 74% of UK professionals said that they actively emulate attributes seen in their co-workers. Some of the behaviours that professionals most commonly imitate are the most critical for businesses to get right – including communication, copied by a fifth (18%) of workers, problem solving (9%), and customer service (10%). This can be great for employers – if employees are imitating exemplary leadership qualities, this can lead to a positive and consistent culture that is recognisable throughout an organisation. However, if poor quality behaviours spread across teams, departments and whole companies simply by osmosis, this can be extremely detrimental. 

When the stakes are high, social learning is strong 

The research also found that people are most likely to mimic traits they’ve seen in others in stressful situations, such as an unfamiliar or difficult professional position (50%) or when something has gone wrong at work (32%). If an employee hasn’t been equipped with, or had the opportunity to develop, the necessary tools to successfully cope with conflict or difficulties at work – which we all come across at some stage or another – they will turn to the example set by their colleagues. Again, this can be incredibly valuable if employees have been surrounded by positive role models to learn from, but there’s a risk that what they learn from their colleagues may not follow best practice, or be the right approach for the circumstances. 

In which case, an already nerve-wracking experience can quickly turn toxic. So, how can HR leaders harness the power of social learning so that it enhances their business and sets a positive tone across their organisation? Embrace it Social learning is a natural phenomenon. It’s something professionals participate in, whether or not they receive support and guidance to do so. In order to ensure their workforce is learning and demonstrating behaviours which support the organisation’s objectives and contribute to a healthy work environment, HR leaders should take matters into their own hands.

Lay the foundations with some positive values 

Taking the time to foster a more positive culture is worth the investment. This means creating a working environment where employees feel trusted and able to contribute and raise questions. One where coaching is the norm and problems are solved constructively. This can be helped by understanding the organisation’s DNA and objectives, and making these both tangible and shareable. Once a company has decided on a core set of positive values, this can help to build a successful culture. 

Top down isn’t the only path to success 

Although organisational decisions are usually set by those at the top, we found that professionals’ behaviours are most heavily influenced by the people they work with most frequently (according to 50% of respondents). Therefore, when it comes to communicating desired behaviours, these will be disseminated most effectively if professionals work with positive role models at every level of the business; if just one part of an organisation develops strong leadership skills, the overall impact will be limited. HR should make sure everyone in their business – from the most junior to the most senior staff – has the opportunity to develop leadership. This will encourage a common set of values and limit the potential for negative values – borne out of a lack of attention – to spread. 

Invest in training and prioritise ’human’ skills 

According to ILM’s research, almost two thirds (62%) of UK professionals said they are not “very well equipped” to do their job. To support them in developing new skills and capabilities, most (58%) would prefer more formal training. It’s clear that learning and development is just as important to employees as to employers. By including structured training in their staff development programmes, business leaders can both influence behaviour and improve employee engagement. And, to maximise the impact of training, core behaviours should be considered a priority. Communication and feedback (45%) and motivation, ambition and resilience (30%) are perceived by professionals as the most valuable attributes in their colleagues. It is therefore critical that businesses get this right, and do what they can to foster the kind of culture that will help individuals work effectively with and through each other, for the long-term benefit of their business. 

So, back to my original question, why is it that a positive and successful company culture can be so elusive and hard to achieve? How do some organisations get it so right, and others get it so wrong? While it’s near impossible to dish up a simple solution to a troubled company culture, HR leaders should consider social learning as a great tool to support and strengthen the workforce, in terms of skills and morale – and realise that overlooking this could be a costly mistake. 

By identifying and then implementing the values and skills that are needed to bring about positive change – and by demonstrating their own commitment to continual learning and contribution to social learning – HR leaders can make sure their organisation and employees stand in good stead for whatever lies ahead.


This article has been published in the HR Director on 07 May 2018.


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