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Some coaches can spend hours poring over the latest research, diving into every detail in the data. Others prefer to glance at the highlights and move on. Most are probably somewhere in between. But even when time is limited, it’s wise to invest a little time in perusing the latest leadership research.
Not only do research insights help you to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in leadership, they can also help you lend deeper credibility to your coaching. They may even help you with forecasting, giving you a hint of the types of engagements and expertise you want to offer in the future.
At MRG, we’ve become fairly well known for our research: both how much we have, and how generously we share it. Last week, we offered up a sampling of recent findings in a webinar with MRG’s Head of Research, Maria Brown. She was joined by MRG President Tricia Naddaff for practitioner insights.
In the 75-minute super-sized session, we shared a few noteworthy findings from four recent research studies. All of these findings are preliminary, and studies are ongoing – so if they pique your curiosity, rest assured, we feel the same way. Be sure to subscribe to the blog and follow us on Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter for new research releases throughout 2021.
You can watch the entire webinar and bonus Q&A session here (or here if you’re part of the MRG network); read on for highlights, and answers to your questions.
The Pandemic Effect: Is Leadership Changing During COVID-19?
For most of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has changed just about everything about the way we live. But has it changed the way we lead? While it has certainly changed work logistics for many people, we wanted to take a closer look at whether leadership behavior has changed. We conducted regionally-based studies comparing leaders in 2020 to leaders in 2018 and 2019 to answer two specific questions:
- Are there differences in the behaviors most emphasized by leaders?
- Are there differences in how leaders convey effectiveness?
A few small but statistically significant changes showed up in the data:
- In the U.S., leaders report placing greater emphasis on delegation and empathy, and less emphasis on pushing assertively for results. Their observer data reflected no significant changes.
- In Europe, leaders report placing more emphasis on taking a long-range, strategic approach, and less emphasis on methodical organization and deferring to authority. Their observer data reflected no significant changes.
- In Asia/Pacific, observers reported that leaders are placing more emphasis on empathy and excitement. The self-reported data from leaders reflected no significant changes.
While the data do indicate a few subtle shifts, overall, this study seems to indicate just how stable leadership practices are. While our surroundings and day-to-day routines may have been turned upside down, the way leaders show up, and how those behaviors are perceived, haven’t undergone major changes.
Of course, just as the pandemic is far from over, surely its impact will be felt for a long time to come. We will continue to follow these trends and study leadership data from before and after 2020 to determine what impact, if any, this unique situation has made on leadership behavior.
We did find slightly more significant changes were apparent when we looked a specific slice of leadership: the healthcare industry. These leaders indicate that they are placing less emphasis on being the sole decision-maker (self) and more emphasis on communication. In 2020, they also received higher ratings from their observers on credibility with management; credibility with peers and direct reports; straightforward, open communication, and future potential.
This may reflect that leaders in the healthcare industry have experienced a greater degree of change than those in nearly any other industry; and also that as we look at smaller and more specific segments of leadership, we may see more significant changes.
Leading from Home: Does effective leadership look different when remote?
Across industries and around the world, one of the most significant logistical changes we have experienced during the pandemic is an enormous shift to remote work. We recently began collecting data from assessment participants about how much they work remotely (3 or more days per week, 1-2 days per week, or not at all). We wanted to know – is there a difference in how these groups show up in terms of leadership behavior?
Where we found differences.
Self-perceptions of the behaviors leaders emphasize. In a global study, we compared leaders who worked 1 or more days per week to those who work entirely in person. We found that those who work remotely place less emphasis on methodical organization and deferring to authority; they also place more emphasis on delegation, and on winning others over.
Where we found similarities.
- Self-perceptions of leadership competency. Remote leaders and in-person leaders saw themselves as equally competent in the areas of self-confidence, growth mindset, and authenticity in role.
- The behaviors and competencies leaders convey. Across all observer groups, there were no differences in how observers perceived leadership behavior, nor their perception of leaders’ competencies.
- The behaviors associated with conveying effectiveness. While there were some small differences among the three segments as to all the behaviors associated with conveying effectiveness, there were three behaviors that all segments had in common: strategy, communication, and management focus. This is, in fact, not at all surprising – as we’ll see in the next section.
The Key Three: The behaviors that consistently show up in effective leaders
One essential aspect of the MRG philosophy is that there are many diverse paths to successful leadership – there is no “right” behavior profile, nor is there a wrong one. Still, there is value in looking at what data can tell us about which behaviors are most frequently associated with high levels of effectiveness in leadership. Behaviors that frequently show up in effective leaders may be smart areas to focus on in development.
In more than three decades, in study after study, we have found that there are three behaviors that appear again and again in the profiles of effective leaders. They show up across genders, ages, industries, and roles – we’ve come to call them the Key Three.
While every leader is unique and every context may call for a different blend of behaviors, research indicates that in general, it’s wise to consider developing the following three behaviors to promote successful leadership:
STRATEGIC. Consider the impact of decisions; understand the implications of their actions; think before acting.
COMMUNICATION. Keep others informed; be explicit about expectations; explain things clearly and thoroughly.
MANAGEMENT FOCUS. Provide guidance; seek opportunities to be influential; be willing to take command.
The Eye of the Beholder: The relationship between observer identity and conveying inclusion
Diversity, equity and inclusion have long been touted as a priority at many organizations, but in the last year they have been viewed with a new level of urgency. We wanted to know what the data could tell us about which behaviors observers associate with inclusive leadership. We also wanted to look at whether those behaviors were different for leaders and observers of different races or ethnicities. In other words, what does inclusivity look like to different groups?
The results were intriguing, as they indicated that there is some variation in the way observers of different racial identities perceive inclusivity in leaders of different identities.
For example, when looking white leaders, we found that all observers associated inclusive leadership with some behaviors: being empathetic, generating excitement, seeking input from others, and making decisions collectively. Black observers also associated inclusivity with clear communication, management focus, strategic thinking, and strong technical competency.
When rating Black leaders, all observers again found inclusivity to be associated with generating excitement, being empathetic, and making decisions collectively. In this scenario, Black observers did not associate any additional behaviors, but white observers also associated seeking input from others and working cooperatively with inclusivity.
Across all observers and leaders, two behaviors were consistently associated with being effectively inclusive, and they are hardly surprising: demonstrating greater empathy and placing less emphasis on autonomy.
These variations make an interesting starting point for future research, and we look forward to exploring this topic further. To facilitate this research and provide an additional tool for coaching in this critical area, we are introducing a new, optional section of the LEA: a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion questionnaire. This can be added to any LEA for both self-assessment and for observers. (MRG clients can visit the Knowledge Base for more information. And if you’re not yet an MRG client, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to start the conversation!)
There is so much more to explore in each of these areas – and in many other aspects of leadership and motivation as well. Are there topics you’d like to learn more about? Let us know! Connect with us at email@example.com any time to suggest topics or learn more about what’s available in our database. And if you are part of the MRG network, search the MRG Knowledge Base any time to discover what’s in our library of whitepapers, webinars, best practice reports, coaching crib sheets, and much more.
Please let us know how we can support you in making 2021 an empowering year for you and for all the people you coach.
Read on for answers from presenters Tricia Naddaff and Maria Brown to questions from our webinar attendees.
Questions & Answers
Q: We saw that deference to authority was down slightly in European leaders during the pandemic. Can you explain a bit more about that?
Q: You looked at all-onsite leaders compared to leaders who were at least partially remote. Can you separate the data to show those who are fully remote?
I agree that we will likely see differences between part-time remote and fully remote leaders. We will be looking at those different groups as soon as we have enough data. The remote work question was added to the demographics questionnaire in 2020. We are waiting for the sample size to grow and allow us to get different meaningful cuts of the data, including being able to create a profile of fully remote leaders.
Q: There were only very subtle differences in the pandemic effect research. Why do you think this is? Is it possible that the changes were so slight because leaders don’t understand or feel comfortable with the change the situation necessitates?
We covered a lot of reasons why we may not be seeing many changes in approaches to leadership during the pandemic. As we mentioned, we have seen this same gap between the more dramatic way we talk about the need for and expectation of changes in leadership and what actually changes in leadership when we looked at it during the recession in the early 90’s, after 9/11, during and after the string of highly publicized ethics violations of CEO’s and other senior leaders in the early 2000’s, and after the “great recession” in 2008-2009. We attribute the less significant shifts we see in response to these significant events to many things:
- People are generally less reliable observers of small changes in others
- During challenging times people are often more acute observers of their own experiences than they are of others
- It takes time to be consistent with a change in approach to leadership and it takes time for observers to register these changes
- And yes, it may also be that some leaders take a while to recognize the need for shifts in their approaches to leadership and even after the recognition, it can take a while for leaders to actually make the shifts in behavior.
Q: In the Fortune companies I work with, it was common for the leader to work remotely before the pandemic due to global responsibilities and reports. Did you take this into consideration in your data?
We have been interested in researching remote work and leadership for some time now. To your point, remote work has been the standard arrangement for many of leaders since before the pandemic. Unfortunately, because the item was added during the pandemic, and after many leaders were forced to work remotely, we cannot yet distinguish the behaviors of those who have always worked remotely from those who are only now doing so. However, this is ongoing research and we will continue to look at what differentiates remote leadership once things have settled down and those leaders who are temporarily remote return to working on-site.
Q: I would have expected structuring behavior to increase as remote work pushes leaders to be more organized, but that’s not the case. Can you comment?
Q: What about the feeling of connectedness during remote work? From a SCARF perspective, I would think Relatedness can be an area of concern in remote dynamics.
This is an interesting hypothesis. We are not asking the degree to which people are feeling less connected in their work relationships. Anecdotally we have heard both. Some folks are feeling more connected to their colleagues. We have heard this from folks who were working remotely before the pandemic while many of their colleagues were working together in an office. For these folks, now there is a more equal connection platform and therefore they no longer feel like the odd person out. We’ve also heard that people feel more connected, in part because they feel more seen. Their colleagues are seeing their home, their partners, their children, their pets and they are seeing the same for their colleagues. In some ways these “windows” into their more complete lives have led to closer connections. At the same time, we hear some people who are feeling more isolated from their colleagues. These folks talk about missing the informal conversations that happen in the breakroom or with a quick stop by someone’s office or cubicle. For those organizations that have many social rituals and activities associated with the workplace, the absence of those shared experiences can also impact the sense of connection (although many organizations have become quite creative in hosting virtual workplace social experiences). Finally, it can vary by individual preferences. Some people who thrive in a quieter, more private environments may feel they have the amount of connection that is enough for them. While others who thrive with more interaction and more engaged connection may be feeling depleted in this more virtual world.
Q: As we look at the diversity and inclusion data, my limited exposure has been that there are not very many people of color that have access to the LEA and the appropriate debriefing.
Your observations reflect the wider reality. Here’s a good article that explains a bit more about why with potential recommendations for a better way forward.
Q: The research and competencies part of the LEA questionnaire is already rather long. As you introduce additional research questions, will you take questions out?
Thank you for your feedback and bringing up this important point. It is a priority for us to not increase the length of the assessment. We will be removing some of the older competency items as part of the update process. This will ensure that the overall length of the assessment is not affected. Our clients will receive an email describing the specific changes, including which items will be removed from the Leadership Impact Report. This information will also be available in the Knowledge Base.