Article: Seven hard questions to improve your leadership behaviour

Leadership Development

Seven hard questions to improve your leadership behaviour

You might not immediately recognise certain behaviours in yourself – but by asking yourself the right questions, you can get a better idea of how effective you are.
Seven hard questions to improve your leadership behaviour

Objective self-awareness and self-evaluation is one of the most difficult things for anyone to do, yet it is key to personal growth – and at a time when the qualities associated with good leadership have swung towards soft or 'power' skills such as empathy and collaboration, it is increasingly just as important to leadership development and succession planning.

Research has linked self-awareness to the quality of leadership. In 2014, organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich found that external self-awareness, or how well we understand the way others see us, is critical to the quality of leadership. And Eurich's research also identified two particularly effective ways of improving self-awareness: seeking out the right kind of feedback, and engaging in the right kind of introspection.

Specifically, Eurich and her team found that introspection focused on asking 'What?' questions can be very useful in leading people to understanding and resolving situations – or improving their own behaviour as leaders.

So to help you get started, here are seven 'What?' questions to ask yourself about your behaviour as a leader.

What am I doing that takes my attention away from the broader picture?

A leader's job is to keep at least one eye on the broader picture all the time. Examining your own activities and behaviours can help you see whether you are getting bogged down in something that would be better addressed in a different way, handed off to another person to manage, or even just set aside completely. For example, if the answer to this question is 'spending too much time scrutinising someone's work', then you have identified a problem either with that person, the work, or your own behaviour, and it's time to resolve it.

What am I doing that makes others less willing to give me feedback?

As mentioned above, and substantiated by a large body of research, the ability to receive feedback is essential to a leader's effectiveness. But people lower down in the organisational hierarchy may be reluctant to give feedback, especially critical. The answer to this question might be 'nothing', which is the best case scenario; or it might be as subtle as 'going along with workplace culture that discourages feedback', or it could be a more direct issue of behaviour such as 'reacting negatively to criticism'. Whatever the case, any of these answers will tell you something important about your own ability to develop as a leader.

What am I doing that impedes my ability to be impartial with team members?

Leaders need to be as objective as possible. Even if you are inclined to give preference to a particular team member, that preference needs to be rooted in clear, business-relevant reasoning: maybe the person is a top performer who has earned additional leeway, maybe they are undergoing some personal stress and need a little grace for a period of time, or any other reason that makes objective sense. But ultimately, you need to be fair with people whose pay, career prospects, and workplace comfort are heavily influenced by your opinion. So if you are answering this question with something like 'socialising extensively with only some team members', it's time to reconsider that behaviour.

What can I do to remove obstacles to my learning?

Leaders more than anyone else in the organisation need to be able to learn, simply because their responsibility for steering the business is so much greater. But they are also the most prone to face challenges to their learning – whether because they have difficulty carving out time, or because they are unable to find appropriate resources for their needs, or simply because they have a mindset that they do not need additional learning. These obstacles are often easy to pinpoint, and a constructive first step to addressing them is to ask yourself what you can do about them.

What am I doing that makes others less inclined to listen to me?

Credibility and ability to influence are core leadership traits, but not every leader is able to develop or maintain these. Sometimes, it may be a matter of personality – some leaders are more introverted – or it may be a matter of how the leader communicates. The answers to a question like this will give you insight into not only your own behaviour, but also the organisation's culture and the needs and expectations of the team. Some possible answers to this question might be 'undercommunicating', 'not providing clear information' or even 'softening a message too much'.

What am I doing that causes [x undesirable response] in my team members?

A constant challenge of leadership is that your team members, and in fact anyone further down in the organisational hierarchy, are always watching you and taking their cue from your actions and reactions. So it's a good idea to look at yourself the way they are looking at you, and see whether anything you are doing may inadvertently lead team members to responses, behaviour, or any kind of attitude not desirable in the workplace. For example, if you notice your team has a tendency to get anxious and you answer this question with 'reacting to setbacks with panic', you have immediately identified a cause and effect and can take steps to rectify it.

What can I do to encourage a desirable workplace culture that supports talent retention?

The same aspect of leadership that makes team members pick up on negative behaviours also means they pick up on any positive behaviours a leader is modelling. This is why tone from the top is constantly emphasised in matters of workplace culture: what the leader does, the rest of the team follows. Astute leaders can get an idea of the kind of behaviours and interactions that encourage people to remain engaged and satisfied in the workplace, and model these.

For some leaders, the answers to at least a few of these questions may be 'nothing'. Ideally, that means the leader is already doing their best; or it may mean that they aren't able to do anything, or simply that they have not yet recognised something in their own behaviour or the organisational environment.

However, that's not a red flag: research has suggested that the average person's self-evaluation is at best 29% accurate in comparison to an objective external evaluation, and self-awareness takes time to develop, with one 2022 paper describing it as an “individual iterative learning process”.

So even if answering these questions is challenging, just thinking about them is a step towards refining leadership behaviour and contributing to improvements in organisational culture.

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Topics: Leadership Development, Leadership, #ThemeOfTheMonth

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