Saturday, May 28, 2011

People Orientated Leadership: The Spark of Spontaneity and the Touch of Totality

Amongst the various leadership models, the people (or relations) oriented leadership model and the task (or results) oriented leadership are the foundational ones. For long, these two models were seen to represent two distant or opposing poles of leadership style. The people oriented style of leadership is totally focused on people, with the leader constantly organizing, supporting and developing the people in his or her team. The people oriented leadership style facilitates a participative leadership style, and results in good teamwork and creative collaboration. On the other hand, a task-oriented leader focuses only on getting the job done, and can be quite autocratic. He or she will actively define the work and the roles required, put structures in place, plan, organize and monitor relentlessly, and often ruthlessly. However, as task-oriented leaders spare little thought for the well-being of their teams, this approach can suffer many of the flaws of autocratic leadership, with difficulties in motivating and retaining staff.

Regardless of the conceptual elegance in presenting two opposing schools of thought the two styles are not exclusive to each other. Highly, and solely, people oriented leadership style may provide significant feel-good ambience in the short term but typically fails to produce sustainable results in a competitive business world. A highly, and solely, task oriented leadership may achieve competitive results in the short term but typically fails to retain people in a business environment hungry for talent. The reasons are self-evident. An organization is essentially established to deliver results for the shareholders, a process which it must accomplish through motivated team members who are inspired to stay and grow with the organization and its business. In practice, most successful leaders use both task-oriented and people-oriented styles of leadership. For successful leaders, while the ability to positively engage people, and motivate and inspire them would be visible externally, the underlying theme would also be one of setting targets, defining a strategy, and monitoring execution. Aspiring leaders many times miss wood for the trees and focus on the charismatic and participative sheen of people orientation to the detriment of the need to develop people in true sense of the term and defining tough agendas for effective performance.

People orientation: natural or cultivated?

There is a considerable body of knowledge in organizational behavior, from the early Hawthorne experiments to the later day Abraham Maslow need hierarchy and Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, and the subsequent variations thereof to guide our understanding of the essential motivational triggers for people in an organization. Similarly, there is a considerable body of knowledge in transactional efficiency, from the early Frederick Taylor’s time and motion study to the later day PERT and CPM developed by the US Navy and Du Pont respectively and newer elemental project management techniques developed by Eliyahu Goldratt and others to guide our understanding of how to achieve competitive efficiencies. Both the streams of thought look at people in organizations from two entirely different perspectives; the challenge being that both the approaches are equally required. The essential difference, however, is that while the tools and techniques for task efficiency can be learnt and mastered though education and practice, the behavioral approaches for people motivation can at best be appreciated but not internalized merely through such learning and development programs.

The reasons behind the higher challenge in people orientation are simple. Firstly, each person in an organization is unique, and his or her personality type and motivational triggers vary significantly. These differences become evident in both individual and group interactions. Secondly, what motivates the team member is not necessarily one that motivates the team leader. The stress the team leader has in developing a comprehensive people orientation repertoire and the conflict he has in adapting his personal beliefs with the individual people nuances are real but not always evident.  Many leaders who cultivate people orientation as a managerial tool or leadership duty fail to be real people’s leaders. On the other hand, leaders who exercise a few basic people instincts rather than a complex inventory of people cultivation approaches often end up being more universally adored. Successful people leaders would aver that people orientation is neither about sophisticated word-smithy nor about charismatic rabblerousing; it is essentially all about the appealing to one’s brain, touching one’s heart and inspiring one’s guts.

The natural spark of spontaneity

Cultivated people orientation by which a leader or a manager practices a text book approach to people orientation is not only time consuming but generates more facades than are necessary in an organizational context. Group dynamics teaches us that successful team building is possible only when the facades which people put on are minimized, if not eliminated. Customer-centric behavior is a great approach that makes a leader a natural listener and positive responder, building trust and transparency with both external and internal stakeholders. If there is one approach that needs to be prescribed by organizations to enhance people orientation customer-centric behavior tops a rather limited list of prescriptive items. Customer-centricity is a great way to drive organizational growth and bringing about internal and external people alignment, simultaneously honing a few essential people instincts.   

While there would exist myriad factors that could affect people interactions and influence outcomes in a social context, the relevant factors are rather limited in an organizational context. An organization exists to serve its markets and customers. The team members of an organization exist to serve each other as internal customers to fulfill the overall organizational goal. A flair to understand the market place and the customer needs, an ability to empathize, and an inclination to listen and a willingness to serve are the four essential parameters of people orientation that dictate the team’s and organizational success in a business context. A leader who displays these characteristics as a natural and spontaneous part of his personality emerges not only as a truly successful people’s leader but also as an equally successful business leader. In contrast, any amount of time spent in interacting or indoctrinating people without the context of business or operation solutions could be ineffectual and in many cases counterproductive.

Neither carrot-and-stick nor iron-glove-in-velvet-fist

Leaders who enforce a totally task oriented approach believe that fear (and risk of non-performance) is the key to orderly and productive human behavior. There is some truth in the basic assumption of task management that without fear as a basic instinct other primordial basic instincts such as greed would take over human behavior and disrupt orderly organizational conduct. That said, most task oriented leaders have started realizing that making their team members shrivel in fear is counterproductive, and a degree of people orientation is necessary. Similarly most people oriented managers have realized that the responsibility of task execution is an integral part of people oriented leadership. Such dual style managers believe that a degree of unpredictability as to which style they adopt would help them lead their teams more effectively.

The classic approach in the dual style model has been the age old concept of reward and punishment, or the more recent behavioral experimentation of incentive to perform and disincentive for non-performance, which correspond to the carrot and stick adage. Yet another variant is to cloak the tough task management approach in a soft veil of people-centric approach, euphemistically termed iron fist in a velvet glove. Neither approach provides the needed balance; the former is purely economic and is a post-performance influencer rather than a pre-activity performance enabler while the later is unpredictable and often leads to cultural shock and instability in the teams. Studies have shown that the best mode of dual style leadership is one of predictability, whatever the relative proportion of task orientation and people orientation in a leader’s style. Predictability of a leader’s orientation leads to better alignment and compliance amongst the team members.

Open teams, articulate leaders  

People oriented leaders tend to dwell on the impact of problems on people more than the contribution of people to the problems. They tend to ignore the fact that problems almost always are a resultant of people actions or inactions. Leaders need to certainly protect people from a fear complex that punishments follow problems as such a mindset is sure to curb all creativity. However, when people are ill-equipped or ill-tuned to avoid or correct problems, leaders are expected to be open about it. Pussyfooting problems in such a scenario with the goodness of people orientation causes more difficulties to the teams than solves any of their problems. Being excessively evocative is an infirmity of people oriented leadership as much as being excessively questioning is in the case of task oriented leadership.

The primary purpose of leadership is to provide vision, strategy and resources for execution with a close touch on performance outcomes and with a core competence in problem resolution. People, in today’s competitive world, more than ever understand the importance of performance. The cooperation extended by the Jaguar-Land Rover unions to Tata Motors, post acquisition reflects the recognition that problem solving is more important to people than filibustering. Cascading the analogy to micro-organizational levels, today’s workforce is as interested in finding productive ways of performing as having a respectful work ecosystem. Leaders who can only offer palliative comfort and cannot resolve competitive conflict cannot inspire confidence in the work teams and cannot therefore enable their organizations achieve greater performance.  An enlightened workforce of today’s world is willing to be hauled up for non-performance as long as the leadership is able to guide them to reach solutions. 

The touch of totality

People oriented leaders need to solve problems for their team members. This capability would come up from being in touch with the technology, commerce and in essence the totality of the work system. The simplistic view of leadership that it would suffice to be a generalist at the top is not true. All things being equal, organizations which have leaders with continued knowledge of the technical and commercial matters have proved themselves to be superior performers. By applying themselves to solving problems on the shop floor or in the market place, leaders demonstrate their willingness and ability to apply their shoulder to the wheel. Such a problem-solving ability of the leaders truly makes them people-friendly.  The famous Japanese concept of Gemba Kaizen mandates that problems be solved not in offices but in the workplace where they occur. The continuous improvements in Japan occur based on workplace interactions of the supervisors and workmen.

People oriented leaders, it may be hypothesized, have a greater responsibility that extends beyond providing general engagement to employees. Birthdays, anniversaries, dinners, high teas and other celebrations do have their place in employee engagement. Beyond these there is a more fundamental need for leaders to make better professionals of their team members. They need to be able to coach, mentor, train, and in some cases substitute for their team members. This alone is the core competence of people oriented leaders. Genuine people oriented leaders ensure that they retain their touch with everything they grew with from the beginning of careers even as they add new knowledge and experiences constantly. For example, leaders who time and again build new facilities and businesses tend to be in touch with the totality and positioned to be undeniably people-friendly.

Equidistance and maxi-potency

One of the hallmarks of effective people oriented leadership is that it is bereft of biases and is committed to equity and transparency. Leaders many a time fail to grow out of their attachment to their basic functional domains. They also fail to enlarge their core decision making teams to include new members as the operations and businesses grow. A people oriented leader can ill afford to be associated with only certain functions or be identified with only certain persons. The organization judges the leader on certain hard dimensions; for example, how equitable and how equidistant he or she is in all the dealings. The principle of equidistance requires that a leader must spend a proportionate time on each of the businesses, functions or regions, be equitably appreciative or critical of each of them and that the leader be accessible to all employees who would like to reach out to him, and be equally responsive to them.

The benefit of equidistance is that it enables the people oriented leadership to achieve maximum potency. Positive engagement across the organization will be supplemented by the teams feeling creative and empowered under the belief that the leaders have no favorites to play and no skeletons to hide. An organization that is bound together by trust and transparency among its team members would be best equipped to address its external stakeholders especially its customers with the needed product range and service levels. The examples set by industry leaders such as J R D Tata of the yesteryears and the contemporary Ratan Tata in terms of equidistance with all businesses and leaders of the large conglomerate group validate the hypothesis of people oriented relationship. Clearly, there is a correlation between genuine people oriented leadership that is marked by spontaneity and totality and organizational motivation and corporate growth that is spurred by creativity and empowerment.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 28, 2011     

1 comment:

Narayanan said...

Leadership styles and orientations tend to me viewed in a narrow context and this blog has eloquently made the case for a balanced approach towards people management. Regardless of the orientation, successful leaders provide a strong sense of organizational purpose, hold themselves and others accountable to high levels of performance and display authenticity in both professional and personal spheres. It does make one wonder why this approach is not practiced more widely in corporate settings? This is as much a reflection of an organization's culture as it is ignorance at all levels. The tone set by senior leadership in terms of how well they "walk the talk" is likely a major contributor to leadership orientation at the next level(s). An additional aspect is the imperfect (or at times seriously inadequate) understanding of how best to elevate organizational performance without resorting to theatrics or spending time and money on leadership development programs that tend to be superficial at best or a poor prescription for what ails the organization . Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan provide a compelling case for the same in their inspiring book titled "The Three Laws of Performance" based on true stories of organizational transformations... a must read for all!