Great leaders care just as much about the little things as the big ones. Probably because they know the little things can in fact be the biggest and fastest destroyers of culture, opportunity and growth, if not properly remedied or addressed.
This is categorically not to advocate a style of leadership that means getting bogged down in detail, or micro-managing talented staff or being too tactical and operational and insufficiently strategic. What I'm talking about here is leadership perceptiveness and being culturally in tune with the workforce.
The linked article by the expert team at Bulldog Drummond and published by Gotham Culture, is a great illustration of why and how little, not so visible things, can rapidly bring down a business and silently suffocate opportunity and innovation.
What struck me particularly about the article was the insightful observation that passive behaviour, broad agreement and silent assent (or lack of evident resistance), which are often seen as collegiate and neutral, if not positive behaviours, may in fact indicate the beginnings of potentially toxic cultural problems. Left to fester unaddressed, they may become substantial barriers to opportunity, business growth and talent development and retention.
Whether you're leading a departmental team or a business, make sure your colleagues aren't just turning up to work out of a sense of duty, or agreeing with proposals due to apathy rather than positive buy-in.
There are a number of ways to guard against the consequences explored in the linked article. I've listed a few helpful tips that I've both experienced myself from great leaders that I've worked for and that I've successfully practised on my own direct reports too.
1. Make time to talk to your staff and peers. Progress begins within - and long before you start to consider sales and marketing messages. You can't sell an idea to the world unless you can first sell that idea with success to those who are going to be part of building and delivering it.
According to Laura Vanderkam, writing for the FastCompany in 2014, the magic number of hours that a leader should spend with his or her direct reports is 6 hours a week. ('As people rose from one to six hours spent with their direct leaders, they became 29% more inspired about their work, 30% more engaged (that is, likely to recommend their company as a great place to work), 16% more innovative, and 15% more intrinsically motivated (finding something interesting in most of their tasks).')
That's a fair chunk of time and if the 2014 research by Leadership IQ, on which Vanderkam's article was based remains correct, then it's definitely an implicit argument in favour of not having too many direct reports; something that I would always advocate in any event.
2. Listen hard. It's actually less about you talking and mich more about ensuring you hear what you need to hear - which means you need to be the recipient not the imparter of information. 'Small talk' is just as important as (and often far more 'honest' than) scheduled discussions.
3. Hold one-to-ones regularly, and ideally outside of the office. I always recommend a more relaxed place, like a coffee shop or go for a walk together.
4. Encourage dissent, challenges and the sharing of new ideas. Explore ways for staff to brainstorm and communicate ideas between themselves as well as with you.
Never be defensive or negative about topics of discussion that you don't like or agree with. Avoid the temptation to immediately counter something you don't like the sound of or that you believe won't work. Step back, cultivate an open mind and allow yourself, as well as your staff, to play 'what if?' to alternatives and changes.
Reach conclusions about optimum outcomes collaboratively. Encourage cross-functional and non-hierarchical project teams.
5. Take employee burn-out risks seriously. It's very heard to be positive and enthusiastic about something new when you're exhausted and feeling undervalued.
6. Put people in the right roles and support them. Delegate, accept honest mistakes and be positive about them. People who are not afraid to fail and who know they have leadership confidence, push harder and will make their success personally motivating.
7. Remove, respectfully but rapidly, people who aren't and may never be 'on the same bus'. This prevents negativity and toxicity from spreading to those who are committed and willing.
8. Act to show you care. As Bulldog Drummon conclude: 'In any organisation, there are a plethora of things about which it is said "who cares?" The answer, always, is, "A leader should and will".'
There are many ways to destroy a culture. It can be destroyed by arrogance, hypocrisy or hubris. It can be demolished through bad leadership, nepotism, unchecked misogyny or other unethical practices. But a pervasive lack of care might be the most effective way to destroy a culture... ... How are organizations to understand factors that are not yet seen as problems, as they seem too small and minute to be worthy of attention? These can often be the most problematic and toxic factors of all, and lack of care is an excellent example.