Connective Leadership is Not Evident

Connective Leadership is Not Evident
Leaders are facing two huge challenges. First, they must guide unprecedented changes to successful conclusions. At the same time, they have to foster connections with others and remain composed, despite our world’s current lack of predictability. Leaders operating under pressure more easily make mistakes with decisions and behavior. That means they could use some help.

It need hardly be said that our society urgently needs systemic change on multiple fronts. Although this has been true for a while, recent developments made this clearer than ever: disrupted supply chains, rising social inequality, the energy crisis and other crises are all big red flags. All too often, leaders find themselves forced to implement extensive, radical change in their own organizations as well. If the digital transformation does not demand urgent attention, far-reaching measures need to be taken to deal with ESG policies or the war for talent.

Implementation is the trickiest part
Many organizations primarily focus on the optimizing and refining of existing products and services. The result is more of the same, or then a more efficient version of it. This model seems unlikely to remain sustainable. But, radical change and its concomitant ambiguities, can be a tricky endeavor. As Maslow demonstrated, following the need for food, sex and other biological imperatives, our greatest need is for certainty, safety and security. Radical change has the capacity to generate unrest (among employees or shareholders, for instance) and moreover, has no certain outcome.
It can be challenging for an organization’s leaders to guide the necessary change to a successful conclusion. Developing and formulating a vision is not really an art. Put even stronger, I in fact believe almost anyone is capable of it. Linking this vision with the execution is where most companies run into trouble.  Especially now that developments are happening faster and less predictable, plans and measures that appear useful and effective today may already prove outdated tomorrow.

Transparency and connective leadership
Agility is a prerequisite when dealing with complex problems. Transparency and connective leadership are key in this process. Leaders in an organization should not work from the premise that they can tell everyone what to do. Instead, you need leaders whose approach is, who listen to what others have to say and who make decisions incorporating such given information. Such leadership is characterized by consistency and grounded in values; not by financial performance, because that is not how you get people to care. Connective leaders do not operate from a special position but believe in practice what you preach. These leaders are tolerant of mistakes and give people in the workplace freedom to make decisions: This is how we learn, after all. Furthermore, they are highly communicative. They consistently demonstrate that they value everyone’s input.
Connective leadership generates trust. Connective leadership may not always result in swift action – after all, the decision-making process inevitably becomes more complex when more people have the opportunity to think, and talk, with – but it does make for better decisions. Connective leadership maximizes an organization’s ability to adapt well to changing circumstances. Change and connection definitely go hand in hand.

Pavlovian response
So where does it go wrong in practice? Much can go wrong, but most often managers, especially those at the top, make hasty decisions based on assumptions or results from the past. This happens when the focus is excessively on (fast) change. This may seem decisive, but it is a Pavlovian response and not well-considered enough to solve the, often highly complex, problems that leaders face. It soon causes others in the organization to feel disregarded: their mistrust of those in charge expands and their willingness to cooperate with such decisions diminishes. In other words: There is less connection.

Toxic behavior
Connective leadership is easier said than done. While leaders acknowledge its importance, their behavior does not reflect this. Leaders are under constant pressure. Research shows that behavior which may normally be functional and effective, can under pressure suddenly become dysfunctional and toxic. Behavior that, in the most extreme case, can even be damaging to the organization. Under prolonged pressure, perfectionism can lead to indecision and self-confidence can result in egotistical behavior and power games instead of collaboration with others. Another all-too-frequent issue is that people at the top do not receive much feedback, which can lead to tunnel vision. That makes communication much harder.
After all, what someone says does not always correspond to what they are thinking. What is said does not necessarily correspond to what is heard. And what is heard may not correspond to what will be accepted.

Get a psychologist on board
In short, connective leadership is not part of our system. What an enormous benefit would it be, though, to have someone around to point out the pitfalls and proactively advise you? Organizational psychologists are trained to recognize the signs and will intervene when the decision-making process threatens to derail. That means they can help a board of directors provide better leadership. Even more so if they act in an independent role, with no need to defend their own position within the company. An organizational psychologist who has a seat on the board of directors is part of the system. An organizational psychologist who can freely monitor interactions between board members and alert them to their own unconscious motivations, biases and blind spots as they see fit… an organizational psychologist who can advise leaders on ways to improve their collaboration and encourage connective leadership in their organization… I believe every board of directors could use such an organizational psychologist.

This essay was published in Management Scope 10 2022.