Leadership performance: tips and ideas from science

Welcome to the latest Madston Black Singapore newsletter. In this edition, we look at the arrival of the evolutionary biologists to the business sphere and we revisit some of the themes from previous newsletters: the ripple effect of coaching and the application of neuroscience to leadership behaviour. We also link to the leadership ideas from CEOs Jonathan Klein (Getty Images) and Terri Kelly (W L Gore and Associates).


The invisible band – cooperation or competition

David Sloan Wilson, a leading evolutionary biologist is contributing to a new blog on Forbes.com that explores how theories of evolution can be applied to leadership and business. In the first post, he and Jonathan Haidt describe how cooperation within a species enables it to thrive, and how the same concept applies to organisations. Conversely, if a culture of internal competition is adopted where only the fittest survive, the ultimate outcome is self-destruction of the whole.

As an example, the authors point to the adverse effects of too much internal competition at the US department store, Sears where individual business units are managed as fully autonomous units. According to the article, the culture there is one of warring tribes that results in dysfunction of the organisation as a whole. Wilson and Haidt suggest that this silo structure ignores the concept of the invisible band – the bond that forms around groups that trust each other and work together toward shared goals. This is another reason for leaders to strive to increase collaboration between business units and break down silos where possible. Read the full blogpost Read more ».


The ripple effect of coaching

In the previous newsletter we referred to some recent research from the Sydney University Coaching Psychology Unit that considers the effects that individual coaching can have across a whole organisation. Essentially, the research showed that there can be a positive ripple effect not only for the person coached but also for those people connected to the leader through regular interactions.

One point worth noting however is that although the non-coached colleagues rated the coached individuals as having improved on transformational leadership measures, they did not necessarily rate the quality of the initial interactions as improved. A possible explanation for this is that the coaching process encourages the coached individual to try new ways of interacting to address difficult and challenging issues. However, for those on the other side of this new communication style, the interaction may be experienced as an unexpected, and potentially unwanted change in the previous nature of the relationship. The authors also note that the decline in perceived positivity of the coached individual’s communication may be due to a lag effect in learning how best to apply the new behaviours, i.e. there is an initial awkwardness until the style becomes ingrained. This goes some way to explaining why we often note a lag-effect in executive coaching assignments where changes in behaviour are not always positively rated until some months after the coaching assignment has been completed.

For talent leaders involved in selecting individuals for coaching interventions, the ripple effect should be considered when determining whom in the organisation is best suited to receive coaching. To maximise the benefit to the organisations, consider the informal network of the potential candidates and select those who are well-connected across the organisation. For multi-candidate coaching programmes, the question is what combination of individuals would maximise the benefit most broadly.

The research paper by Sean O’Connor and Michael Cavanagh may be viewed Read more »


Neuroscience update

At our previous forum for HR leaders held jointly with Deloitte, the featured speaker was Madston Black associate, Lyndsay Potts who provided an overview of the current research in how our brains drive behaviour.

We learnt how the imaging of brain activity shows that pleasure and pain caused by social stimuli produces neural responses similar to those resulting from physical stimuli. In the same way that we avoid pain and seek physcial comfort the drive to minimise threats and maximise rewards drives our behaviour in the social realm. This concept underpins David Rock’s model of five factors that have the most bearing on behaviour in organisations: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness (the SCARF model). Leaders need to be aware of how people perceive certain behaviours as either a threat or reward e.g. threatening behaviour under the Autonomy heading arises from people being micro-managed, having their authority undermined, or being contained by bureaucratic procedures. Conversely, rewarding behaviour involves people having a degree of freedom of choice and an ability to focus on the outcome rather than the process only.

At the conclusion of the forum, one attendee made the point that in his opinion, imparting an understanding of how the brain works and a self awareness of how behaviour triggers threat and reward responses should be the foundation of all coaching and leadership interventions.

To view a video of David Rock explaining the SCARF model in the context of influencing others, click through our resources web page Read more ».


Leadership principles of Getty Images

In another insightful interview from Adam Bryant’s Corner Office, the CEO of Getty Images, Jonathan Klein provides his viewpoint on a number of leadership issues including:

How it’s more important to empower team members than to interfere excessively in the pursuit of your concept of perfection.

How he develops and integrates culture by setting out seven leadership principles that apply to everyone in the company.

Why telling graduates to “follow their passion” can be meaningless advice.

The full interview can be read Read more ». It would be remiss of us not to note that Jonathan makes the comment, “I’ve learned a lot from my executive coach.”.


The Discipline of Innovation

Tim Kastelle of the University of Queensland Business School maintains one of our favourite blogs, The Discipline of Innovation where he provides ideas and tips for making workplaces breeding grounds of innovation. A recent post that caught our interest is one where he reviews the book, The Myth of Creativity by David Burkus. One of the myths that Burkus’ research dispels is that creative people are a breed apart. His research investigating whether or not creative people have a particular type of personality or have a genetic disposition to creativity shows that they don’t. He contends that creativity is mostly due to opportunity – if people are put into the right situations, their natural creativity will come out.

The post goes on to look at a company that exemplifies creating the opportunity for creativity, W L Gore & Associates, the producer of Gore-Tex fabric and other medical and industrial products. Within the post is a reference to a past talk given by the CEO, Terri Kelly at MIT Sloan where she explains how the company embeds innovation in its culture, including:

  • Internal knowledge-sharing connections are the norm (a lattice-based organisation)
  • Decision-making is based on knowledge (not intuition)
  • Organise as small teams – divide and multiply rather than just multiply
  • Everyone has a sponsor within the company who acts as their personal coach
  • An expectation of leaders is that they start with self-awareness
  • Leaders have no assumed authority – they must rely on influence
  • Ambiguity is embraced

For Tim’s full blogpost, click Read more ».
For the MIT video of the talk by Terri Kelly, click Read more ».