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British style of leadership is harmful to business

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CEOs from a cross-section of UK business worry that a lack of engagement among the country’s bosses is having a harmful effect on British business, a new report has found.

The culture and system that operates within the UK’s businesses is a barrier to engagement, business leaders said, quoting outdated styles of leadership and the system’s focus on short-term results as problematic. Some also believe that hierarchy within organisations prevents honest conversations between employees and management.

The report, ‘Engagement through CEO Eyes’, was conducted by Ashridge Business School, on behalf of Engage for Success, a government-sponsored movement on employee engagement. It involved in-depth interviews with 16 independently sourced CEOs from public, private and not-for-profit organisations.

Current leadership models, which value attributes such as control and toughness, are “deficient”, said some of the CEOs interviewed. Command and control models of leadership are flawed, as is the all-knowing, all-powerful “hero” leader. Instead, respondents called for different ways of leading, where people, not just financial results, become the heart of organisational performance, particularly given the differing expectations of a multi-generational workforce.

With only around one in three UK workers being actively engaged, there is a lot of untapped potential which could make a big difference to the performance of the economy.

Amy Armstrong, a research fellow at Ashridge who undertook the research, said: “Through engagement, we can release the potential in all of us at work and with estimates of up to £26bn being lost to the UK economy because of dis-engagement every year, it is critical that our business leaders recognise their role here.”

One CEO in the report said: “I think big corporations have got a massive challenge if they think they’re going to retain talented people through command and control and not including them into decision-making and creative processes early on.”

However, a number of leaders made the point that they find it difficult to lead in an engaging way. In the current climate, they said, viability and survival have become their sole focus.

It is telling that CEOs recognise themselves as a potential barrier to engagement. Some stereotypical attributes within a CEO’s personality lead to disengaging leadership behaviours, such as acting in self-interest or an inability to show personal vulnerability.

Some leaders from large corporates voiced a fear that engaging styles of leadership within their area of the business would be viewed as “weak” by other parts of the organisation. Some talked about how prevailing ideas of “good” leadership are so entrenched, that experimental ways of leading are viewed with scepticism.

Ultimately, the report concludes, through engagement, there is a better way to work that releases the full capabilities of people at work, to enable organisational growth and ultimately economic growth for Britain.

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