What makes a great leader? That’s a question that’s been debated for centuries in countless books, articles and speeches. And even after all that, we’re still left to wonder if there is one all-encompassing answer.
There are certainly qualities consistently found in good leaders — integrity, motivation, inspiration and drive — but what do these leaders do that encourages those around them to perform at their best?
Simon Sinek, originator of The Golden Circle, postulates that good leadership is about creating an environment where employees feel safe. In this kind of culture, employees can focus on the work that needs to be done, and they’re more likely to work together to achieve it. Conversely, in an environment of danger, employees expend their energies trying to defend themselves. They’re distrustful of their coworkers and certainly of anyone in a leadership position, which can also negatively impact how they treat customers and suppliers. According to Sinek, that, in turn, weakens the entire organization. After all, if you’re focused on avoiding the internal dangers of the workplace, you may not even see potential dangers from the outside, like the competition taking market share away.
Fear brings along a bunch of unwanted friends, including rationalization, confusion and defensiveness. Leaders have to fight to maintain an environment where fear isn’t a factor. That’s not easy, because fear can come from the outside — a customer’s behavior or a supplier’s poor performance could compromise a healthy situation. It’s a daily fight to look at the internal culture of a company to make sure fear and its friends aren’t influencing employees and creating negative consequences.
So what encourages a fear-free environment in the workplace? The way a company treats its customers, suppliers, the community, etc., can contribute to or detract from a positive working environment because it often reflects how the company will treat its employees. For example, does the company have a spirit of generosity? Does it allow employees to get involved in giving back to those in the community?
Beyond how a company treats its employees, customers, suppliers and community, another factor affecting a secure work environment is transparency. Increasing transparency costs a company virtually nothing and, if done correctly, can have significant returns. A survey conducted by TINYpulse called the “7 Vital Trends Disrupting Today’s Workplace” found that management transparency is the number one factor contributing to employee happiness. Transparency promotes employee trust in company leadership, which, in turn, leads to increased commitment. Maintaining transparency requires an ongoing dialog between management and employees, whether it’s done through a monthly company meeting, a newsletter, employee intranet or anything in between. Keeping an active line of communication open is the only way to achieve true transparency.
“When safety wins over fear, the tone of a company can significantly change for the better, and the perception of its leadership by others in the company is equally improved.”
The survey also showed that only 42 percent of surveyed employees know their organization’s vision, mission or values. This is another factor in promoting a safe environment in the workplace. When management clearly communicates a company’s guiding principles, employees feel more confident in where the company is going and how they fit into the big picture. Often, companies communicate their vision, mission and values to customers, but fail to convey them to employees. It’s just as, if not more, important to communicate these elements to employees because they’re doing the tasks that keep a business operating and often interact the most with customers.
Consistency is also key to establishing an environment where employees can focus on the work at hand and not expend energy protecting themselves. Inconsistency from company leadership can breed distrust, which has a variety of negative effects. Rather than work to their full potential, employees may hold back out of fear. But when managers and leaders are consistent and provide specific direction, employees feel confident and are more likely to work up to and even exceed expectations.
Feeling safe is also determined by the nuts and bolts of a job, including a fair salary, having a clear understanding of your role and expectations, the security of knowing you’ll have a job to go to tomorrow and having opportunity for advancement. It’s also having a voice and knowing it will be heard, and being treated as someone worthy of contributing to the success of an organization.
When safety wins over fear, the tone of a company can significantly change for the better, and the perception of its leadership by others in the company is equally improved. Honesty, altruism and integrity are all characteristics of great leaders. And together, they create an environment of safety in which employees and companies thrive.