Following the financial crisis in 2008, management thinkers and others have rightly questioned the role of business leaders in society.
Often fingers point at business schools, regarding their failure to incorporate ethics into programmes.
In addition, governance is back in the spotlight. As the UK department store British Home Stores (BHS) went into administration last week (a situation similar to going into “Chapter 11” in the USA), questions are being asked about how it was run to the detriment of employees and their pension fund. It seems that shareholder greed trumps employee and common interests.
A new term coined: responsible leadership
A new term has emerged for an elevated emphasis on ethical business practice: responsible leadership.
This new term includes:
- issues about sustainability and the environment
- risk analysis
- care for employees; and
- monitoring of subcontractors
For some of us who work in PR, who have incorporated stakeholder analysis into planning for many years, this sounds like basic issues identification and management with a bit of corporate social responsibility (CSR) added.
However, the focus on ‘care for employees’ is welcome. It is also heartening to see stakeholder engagement given renewed emphasis.
For example, according to Business in the Community, a UK-based organisation that aims to create a fairer society,
Business leaders must be seen to act and demonstrate their commitment to creating a fairer society and a more sustainable future by fostering a culture that will encourage innovation, reward the right behaviours and regain trust.”
But how do leaders go about doing this?
A new approach to leadership
Perhaps we need a new approach towards leadership—an approach that builds on the principles of responsible leadership highlighted above, but one that also focuses more on the importance of communication.
Much of the business studies literature focuses on transactional or transformational leadership.
Transactional leadership is based around formal exchanges between groups and leaders all pursuing their individual objectives.
Transformational leadership focuses on changing the goals of individuals or groups for the ‘common good’ of the organisation.
Often transformational leadership is viewed as a more contemporary approach, based on leaders who convey a strong and inspirational vision and purpose that motivates employees.
However, this approach is critiqued by Professor Dennis Tourish in his book, The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership. He posits that we cannot assume that goals proposed by leaders are necessarily of mutual benefit to employees. Furthermore, Tourish argues that the transformational leadership model ‘tends to preclude the possibility of corrective feedback from followers to leaders.’
Indeed, one of the dangers of transformational leadership is that some leaders can become ‘rock stars’ within their organisation, believing that their position and charisma is enough to gain sycophantic-like buy-in to their new strategies or dodgy practices.
In their excellent book on strategic public relations leadership, Professor Anne Gregory and Paul Willis cite Northouse’s definition of leadership as ‘a process through which an individual influences a group of other individuals to achieve a common goal.’ This is essentially a communicative process.
However, with an emphasis on ‘influencing’ employees, it may not take enough account of Tourish’s critique of transformational leadership.
In an article for The Leadership Quarterly, Professor Gail Fairhurst and Professor Mary Uhl-Bien argue for a more relational view of leadership, where it is seen as a phenomenon generated in the interactions among people acting in context.
At the core of this view is the assumption that leadership is co-constructed in social interaction processes. Fairhurst and Uhl-Bien conclude that communication is a key element of relationally-oriented leadership.
Other academics, such as Johanssen et al., identify a number of principles of communicative leadership, including,
Communicative leaders are willing to listen, receive questions or complaints, and share appropriate information in a truthful and adequate manner.”
An emphasis on meaningful dialogue
It’s an emphasis on meaningful dialogue that is most likely to lead to a culture of innovation and trust. Emphasising communication within responsible leadership is the starting point for ‘caring for employees.’
Indeed, we should really be talking about responsible communication leadership.
After all is said and done, leadership is actually communication. This includes the following core principles:
- Keeping employees informed about what’s happening in the organisation. At a minimum this includes where the organisation is headed, i.e., how it is doing what changes are planned.
- Giving employees a say about what goes on. This includes senior managers being visible and approachable, having regular meaningful conversations and actively listening to what employees say.
- Being open to feedback and constructive criticism. Critical to this is making it safe for employees to speak out.
An evidence-based rationale for responsible communication leadership
Senior managers have a responsibility to have conversations with employees on a regular basis.
In my PhD research, I found that ratings for senior management communication were inconsistent across the five organisations that participated in my study. Indeed the inconsistencies for senior manager communication were greater than for any other aspect of internal communication.
This suggests that senior manager communication is idiosyncratic. Some get it; others don’t.
If we want organisations to take their role in society more seriously, then we should recognise that it’s often employees who are first to spot when the organisation is going down the wrong track. Establishing responsible communication leadership as a first principle is one way towards some inoculation from Enron-like situations. But leaders really have to understand and value critical upward feedback.
Benefits from responsible communication leadership
There are also other benefits from responsible communication leadership.
I found that senior manager communication—which includes keeping employees informed about changes and listening to employees—is correlated with what employees feel about the organisation, as well as what they do to help it succeed.
Employees often said that when senior managers communicated well (this includes listening) it made them feel valued.
So when senior managers communicate well, the organisation is likely to be more successful. In addition, employees are less likely to be stressed, as feeling valued is important for mental health.
Moreover, until employee value is elevated to the same level as shareholder value we will, I fear, continue to see questionable business practice that sometimes leaves employees without a reasonable pension.
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Kevin Ruck, MBA, PhD, co-founded the PR Academy in 2007, following a long career in public relations and internal communication in the UK. He graduated with a distinction in his MBA and has recently completed a PhD that explored the associations between internal communication and organisational engagement.
Follow more of his writings via his Exploring Internal Communication blog (he recommends you also check out the PR Academy blog) and connect with Kevin Ruck on LinkedIn and Twitter or contact him by email.