Webinar Wrap-Up: How the Pandemic Changed Leadership, Leaders who Excel at Developing Others, Leadership Expectations and More

When you work as a coach – or in any role developing people – the individual is at the heart of everything you do. Each person you coach is unique, and their personal history, role, behaviors, motivations, and goals for the future all influence their developmental path. So where does research – studies that look at patterns across thousands of these individuals – fit into such personal work?

For MRG coaches and consultants, research is an important component of everything we do – from program structuring and development to one-on-one coaching. Research provides context, giving us a sense of what the working world is like in this moment. This can give us and those we coach a more informed understanding of what they are likely to encounter in their professional lives.

Research can also provide critical guidance on how best to support an individual in working toward specific goals. Taking a close look at which behaviors – our specific, observable actions – are most closely associated with our desired competencies – the things we want to get better at – is one of the best available ways to create an actionable plan for growth and development.

As MRG’s Head of Research, Maria Brown is constantly studying trends and changes in our assessment data, with findings that can be thought-provoking and sometimes surprising. In our most recent webinar, Maria revealed the highlights from some of the past year’s research and explores how they may inform coaching in the coming year.

Read on for a summary of the key points from Research Rundown: Timely Topics in Leadership, Coaching, and Development – or you can catch up on the full recording here.

Leadership and the COVID Pandemic

What has changed in our lives since before the pandemic? Maybe it’s easier to ask, what hasn’t? Our personal and professional lives have evolved in ways no one could have expected a few short years ago – and surely that has impacted the way people lead. But how?

In a study comparing leadership from just before the pandemic (2018-2019) to our current waning pandemic period (2022-2023), Maria found a few statistically significant changes.

What changes did observers perceive in leaders?

  • Greater deference to authority: more than in the past, leaders are sticking to the rules, showing organizational loyalty, and deferring to those at more senior levels
  • Greater cooperation: leaders are putting the team’s needs first more often, making more compromises, and looking for opportunities to help others
  • Less dominance: they’re being less forceful and authoritative, and taking a less competitive approach to leadership

What changes did leaders see in themselves?

  • Greater empathy: leaders see themselves being more generous and kind, building stronger personal bonds, and looking after others’ well-being. It is interesting to not that this is a self-perception that did not show up in the data from observers.

These findings suggest that, in the waning pandemic, leadership seems to be moving in a less forceful direction, with leaders seeking a more collaborative and accommodating approach.

It’s impossible to say whether these changes will persist or if they are a pendulum swing in response to the overwhelming upheaval of the past few years. We’ll continue to monitor to see where behaviors trend as life in the new normal continues.

Coaching Leaders to be more effective at Developing Others

Ability to Develop People is one of 32 competencies measured in the LEA Impact questionnaire, an anchored-rating assessment that accompanies the behavior-based LEA and asks observers to rate a leader’s effectiveness. Of all those effectiveness measures, why take a look at this one? Not only does it play a role in employee retention, growth, and succession planning, but our studies also find that it is the #2 most important competency to overall leadership effectiveness.

In a study of more than 14,000 leaders, Maria looked at the LEA behaviors that are associated with high ratings on the Ability to Develop People. The findings included nine associated behaviors that are worth exploring.

Leaders who are highly effective at developing others…

…place more emphasis on:

  • Showing empathy for colleagues
  • Leading in a consensual way and seeking input from others
  • Fostering cooperation and collaboration
  • Strategic leadership
  • Frequent communication
  • Being reserved and showing restraint

…and place less emphasis on:

  • Leading in a forceful or dominant way
  • Working in a self-directed manner
  • Providing frank feedback

These findings can help guide the creation of developmental goals, in conjunction with other coaching factors. And it’s important to remember that behavior change is a dial, not an on/off switch – in the case of behaviors that need to be dialed down, development is often focused on making room for other, complementary behaviors.

For those leaders who don’t just want to get better at developing people, but want to be the best at developing people, Maria found the 6 behaviors and the target ranges for those behaviors that can help leaders get there. In the webinar, Maria takes a closer look at these ranges – watch it here

How universal are the expectations we place on leaders?

Leadership expectations can be complicated. We have often observed that expectations for leaders in general have grown significantly as the workplace has evolved. But when we look at leadership expectations demographically, are there variations that make the landscape even more difficult to navigate?

Maria conducted a global study to explore whether we see significant variations in leadership expectations based on gender or geography. After exploring the data from participants in the LEA 360™ and LEA Strategic Directions™, a questionnaire that helps organizations identify the leadership practices they will need to focus on in the future in order to be successful.

Across all the data, it became clear: when it comes to leadership priorities, people are remarkably consistent. Looking at all genders and dozens of countries, four behaviors emerged as the high priority for individual leaders:

  • Strategic: Planning for the future; thinking ahead; assessing and seeking to fully understand the long-term implications of decisions; objectively analyzing options and opportunities
  • Communication: Explaining things clearly and thoroughly; expressing thoughts and ideas readily; keeping others well informed; clearly stating viewpoints; being explicit about what is needed or wanted
  • Management Focus: Making things happen, being influential; willing to take command; providing guidance to others; taking over a group; acting as a facilitator
  • Technical: Demonstrating professional expertise; continuing to learn more in field; drawing on specific area of expertise to make decisions and evaluate issues; identifying with profession, using specialized skills

(The first three of these are consistent with the “Key Three”, which we have presented in the past. Learn more about them here.)

And looking at organizational expectations, participants consistently prioritize strategic behavior, and do not prioritize leaders acting outgoing or showing deference to authority.

Overall, the research indicates a reassuring consistency – but context is key. Every individual organization – and leader – is best served by engaging thoughtfully in a data-driven process to determine their own priorities.

That is just a sample of the research conducted in the past year. If you have suggestions for topics you’d like Maria and the MRG team to explore, please reach out at clientservices@mrg.com – we’d love to hear your ideas.

Catch up by watching the full webinar on-demand here, and read on for answers from Maria to questions that came up during the broadcast that we didn’t have time answer during the presentation.

Pandemic Research

Q: I see people looking for more authority especially from government as we continue into uncertainty. Do you see any of this? 

A: I definitely see this as being related to our finding that deference to authority is higher now than it was before the pandemic. When we think about why leaders might be more likely to defer to norms, organizational rules and more senior leaders, one highly probable explanation is that under uncertainty, we may need to defer to others who have more power and more information to be the decision makers. The pandemic created a situation where we were all faced with new data and information that we were not trained to interpret. In those cases, many of us tend to rely on those with greater expertise or access to more information to provide guidance. Senior leaders in an organization can fulfill that role in times of ambiguity.

The dimension of authority in the LEA also measures loyalty to the organization and the organizational mandate. There is a certain level of security provided by membership in a group, whether it is an organization or political unit (country, town, etc.) because group leaders will protect members as part of their efforts to thrive through the uncertainty. A tendency to demonstrate greater deference to authority during the pandemic may have been rewarded with a greater sense of safety and security for the individual. For example, my husband is a nurse. During the early pandemic, the hospital where he works provided us with masks, hand sanitizer, flour, eggs, milk and many other basic necessities that were difficult to find at the time. They also provided appropriate PPE to their employees to keep them safe. These things provided him (and us as a family) with the sense of safety we needed to feel safe in uncertainty and I’m sure that increased his loyalty to the hospital and its mission.

 Q: [In the pandemic,] I have found that good leaders have gotten better and average leaders have gotten worse. Does your research show this?

A: Thanks for bringing this up. Our research on leadership effectiveness has found that leaders are being rated higher on Overall Leadership Effectiveness in the waning pandemic when compared to the pre-pandemic period. However, because these are not repeated measures analyses, we do not have a way to see if leaders who were good in 2018 and 2019 have changed after the pandemic.

I do think that when circumstances change, it creates an opportunity for some leadership patterns to become more advantageous. Good leaders pre-pandemic may have possessed certain skills of behavior patterns that made them successful at adapting to the situation and that would have helped them adapt to the pandemic. On the other hand, the average leaders could have been average because their leadership style worked in some situations and not others, making them average overall. But they may not have exhibited the flexibility to adapt to the requirements of the pandemic.

Q: Does the pandemic research indicate any variations by industry? Especially since the pandemic may have impacted behaviors based on the state of certain industry types.

A: I agree that industry played a role in how the pandemic changed leadership. Industries were hit differently. For example, some people could work remotely, others couldn’t. In 2021 we presented some research on the effects of the pandemic on leaders in the healthcare industry. At the time, we found that it was one of the few industries where behavioral shifts were already evident. This comes as no surprise, since healthcare workers were one of the groups most affected by the early phase of the pandemic.

To answer your question I ran a comparison of leadership behaviors pre-pandemic and during the waning pandemic for two industries: healthcare and banking. It is essentially the same type of research I presented during the webinar but using specific industry samples. As would be expected, behavioral shifts were different in each industry.

When compared to 2018-2019, healthcare leaders in 2022-2023 are more likely to emphasize

  • Deference to Authority – valuing the opinion of more senior leaders, following the rules and organizational mandate
  • Communication – Explaining things clearly and thoroughly, being explicit about what is needed
  • Consensual – Seeking and using input from others

They were less likely to emphasize

  • Dominant – being competitive, assertive and forceful, authoritative
  • Production – setting ambitious goals and demanding a great deal from self and others
  • Excitement – engaging in a high energy manner, generating excitement

For the banking industry, leaders in the waning pandemic are more likely to emphasize

  • Deference to Authority
  • Empathy – Showing a real interest in people and their wellbeing, building strong personal bonds

This shows that there are differences in what changed during the pandemic by industry. Some of these are likely due to the pressures faced by leaders in that particular setting but also due to baseline values of certain behaviors pre-pandemic. If a behavior set was already high in a particular industry, it is less likely to increase further even during a pandemic.

Our general practice is to share multi-industry research as a starting point and to follow up with smaller subsets of the data as needed.

Ability to Develop People

Q: Have you ever done any studies on any competencies with test-retest, with coaches using target ranges in the time in-between? 

A: This is a great question. Because our data are collected through projects set up by practitioners, we don’t usually get to design a project like what you describe. Additionally, the research using ranges that I shared today is a new format for us. In the past we have really focused on the relative importance analysis, which provides insights on behavioral shifts rather than specific target ranges. With that said, I suspect that as we provide more of these data-driven target ranges, we will see more projects that incorporate them and that will include retest data. Stay tuned for updates on that research as more data become available…

Leadership Expectations

Q: When you use the term, “outgoing,” I assume you are referring to having an outgoing personality? 

A: Thanks for bringing this up. It is a great clarification question. The LEA dimension of Outgoing has to do with being friendly and outgoing when interacting with others. Leaders with higher scores on outgoing tend to be more informal and create environments where others engage with one another in a relaxed, casual way. While it has to do with being sociable and outgoing, it is not dependent on personality. Anyone can demonstrate those behaviors at higher levels when the context is right. 

Q: You clarified the definition of the LEA Behavior “Technical.” On that basis, would you ever consider changing Technical to Professional Knowledge/Ability?

A: The naming of dimensions is always challenging because we are choosing a single word to describe a reasonably complex dimension. So a dimension name can only ever provide the very initial introduction to the full definition it represents. We also have found over forty years of naming variables that getting even two people to agree (never mind the 2000 people certified in MRG assessments around the world) on what single word is best is very challenging. So as all assessment providers do, we recognize the limitations of dimension labels and seek to provide the best clarity we can with the brief definitions and, of course, with the expanded insights we make available in the reports and additional resources and the insights and guidance provided by the practitioners.

Additionally, your question brings up a helpful point of clarification about what the LEA dimensions measure. They measure discrete, overt behaviors that observers can identify easily. While the behaviors a leader displays regularly may be related to skills they possess, they are not the same thing. We like to make this clear because the behavioral dimensions are meant to be neutral in connotation. They should reflect what someone is doing rather than what they are good at. On the other hand, the competencies measured in the Leadership Impact Questionnaire can be defined as a collection of skills that allow a leader to be effective at achieving specific goals.

Looking Ahead

Q: Will you share more on diversity/inclusive leadership behaviors? Why these specific behaviors and how they look lived out? 

A: One of the changes in leadership that will likely lead to an evolution of leadership expectations is greater diversity in senior leadership. This will come in different forms but, during the webinar, I mentioned more women in senior leadership positions. Our research has shown that, when compared to men, female leaders tend to emphasize two behaviors at a higher levels:

  • Empathy – Showing a real interest in people and their wellbeing, building strong personal bonds
  • Control – Making sure things get done by following up to make sure things stay on track and people stick to their commitments

They also tend to emphasize 3 behaviors less than men do:

  • Restraint – Avoiding emotional displays, coming across as more serious and calm
  • Persuasive – Winning people over and changing minds, using compelling arguments
  • Delegation – Asking for and accepting help, and providing others the freedom to complete assignments without interference

I suspect that as more women reach positions of influence in their organizations, some of the behavioral patterns we see in women may be expected of other leaders in those organizations and beyond. Organizational leadership determines what behaviors are rewarded in leaders. If senior leaders start to reward a different set of behaviors, then we will start to see different behavior patterns in leadership and new expectations for leaders.

We have a fairly large library of studies on diversity and inclusion. If you are an MRG client, you can find those in the Knowledge Base by following this link.

Q: Are the upcoming norm updates for IDI as well as the LEA? 

A: We are updating all of our norms! There will be new norms for the LEA Suite of assessment, IDI, Personal Directions, and SPA. The new norms will be available in Quest on March 13 but you will still be able to use the old norms for 6 months. We do this to allow people to close out any projects that are currently underway.

About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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