My last blog had a heartening amount of response, with a few people nice enough to share their own thoughts and experiences of issues with companies avoiding asking their people what they think. Thanks to all of you who took the trouble, and everyone seemed to agree that the excuses leaders come up with to avoid surveys are not helpful.

Any road up, in said blog I said I would come back and talk in a bit more detail about the excuses people came up with – number one was “we know what they think anyway” – i.e. there’s no point asking because we know what people think about working here.

I said then that any team leader who is surprised by their survey results isn’t leading properly – and felt that this did deserve a bit more thought.

Now I could launch into an epistemological essay on the nature of knowledge, but maybe that’s better left to Freddie Ayer, who is better versed in such things than I. Instead, I’ll share some of my own experience learning about leadership and what I think leaders should know about their people.

Leadership, for me, starts with knowing yourself. What your values are, what motivates you, what makes you do what you do, what is important to you. Knowing this gives you the ammunition you need to act authentically – act in line with your own values.

If you are struggling with this try this simple exercise: ask yourself “what is important to me” – when you get an answer, ask yourself “what does this give me”. Keep asking, until you keep coming back to the same answer. I’ve don’t this with people dozens of times, and it usually comes down to a real, core value, like fulfilment, or security or safety.

Incidentally, and this occurred to me when watching a cavalcade of Xmas adverts on the telly this week, the core message of which seemed to be “acquiring stuff will make you happy”. Not once, when doing this exercise with a vastly different array of people, has anyone had a core value of needing stuff or acquisition. I would posit from this that the Xmas telly ads are lying, and acquiring stuff doesn’t, in fact, make you happy. But that maybe for a completely different blog…

Anyway, back to leadership. Leaders who know themselves, know how they tick, act authentically and in line with their own personal values. They make decisions based on these values, and act in a way that aligns to their core being.

The next trick is to know their people. Understand what is important to them, what makes them tick, how to motivate them. Some people, for instance, may be driven by an external sense of themselves – what matters to them is how others see them, and getting approval and support from others will be important to motivate them.

Other people get their sense of self internally, and you motivate them by giving them opportunities to of things which feel good about themselves – many such people are motivated by things like the satisfaction of them doing the best job they could possibly have done, so need autonomy and opportunities to do things for themselves.

Knowing how your people tick will clearly equip you with the tools to lead that team – you will know how to treat people within your team, what they need to perform and what will stop them performing.

One of my earliest leadership roles was as a news editor in a local newspaper, which basically involved giving reporters their assignments. One reporter, who, to be fair, wanted to be a sports reporter and had a massive sense of entitlement, sadly unmatched by his capability, collared me once and told me i was big unfair. “You treat different reporters differently,” he said. “It’s not fair.”

The core of his complaint was that I’d sent him to do a vox pop – standing out in the cold collaring members of the public to ask their opinion on some great topic of the day, such as the number, depth and muddiness of puddles in the open market. Another reporter, our budding John Motson noted, was not asked to do vox pops. Ever.

Said other reporter was the local government reporter, who spent several evening a week cultivating contacts with the local council, tapping up trade union leaders, talking to political activists, getting under the skin of local politics and coming up with some really good stories about deals done to get budgets passed and the like. Not the most interesting work but, in my humble, pretty important to democracy – local newspapers, in fact, at their most valuable and purposeful. What our local government chap was no good at all was getting members of the public to give them a quick sound bite about puddles and transforming this into a fun two-page spread with photos of lots of local people.

So, I didn’t ask him to do vox pops because his time was better spent doing things he was good at. Our friend the budding sports reporter could do a passable vox pop, but wouldn’t be able to schmooze a shop steward to get the skinny on bids for the housing maintenance contract any more than fly to the moon. So he got asked to do what he could do, rather than being set up to fail.

I wasn’t a very good leader in this first job, i had no training or development, no coaching or mentoring and I pretty much made it up as I went along. I didn’t really understand my own motivation and values, but what I learned very quickly was that treating people all the same did not work and was not fair – a lesson that has stood me in good stead throughout my career and in life in general.

Knowing your team, then, is important, nay vital to being a leader of that team. Which is why I said, as I did way back at the beginning of this blog, that any leader of a team who is surprised when they get their results isn’t doing their jobs properly.

This clearly applies to teams, groups of up to 15 or so – any more and it becomes difficult to be a team. As your organisation gets bigger then it gets trickier to understand what matters to people. In large organisations (anything 250 upwards) then you’ll start to get the bad news filters coming into play – levels within an organisation that hide the bad news from the troops so as not to cause alarm and hide mistakes or disgruntlement from senior leaders for fear of being thought incompetent or unfit.

This is why employee surveys are vital – they bypass the bad news filters. Senior leaders who are told by operational/middle management that all is good, everyone is happy, get a very necessary shock when they find out only 12% of their staff are engaged.

In my experience it is unusual for senior leaders to know if people are unhappy – they may assume they are unhappy, and act accordingly, but that’s not the same as knowing – and, more importantly, if they are making assumptions that people are unhappy they are also making assumptions as to why they are unhappy. If they act accordingly, then they are acting on two assumptions, which is two too many.

No senior leader act based on assumptions about their income stream or sales or costs – they would make decisions based on data. Why do they act on assumptions about their people, when they can find out what’s really happening so easily?

So, have a think. Do you know yourself? What are your core values? Do you know your team’s values? Does your boss know yours? Do your senior leaders know how people are feeling in their organisation, or are they assuming based on the information they have to hand? Knowledge, as someone (Francis Bacon, apparently) said, is power. And it’s only knowledge if you actually know it.

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