Telling the truth about SME life today

How Can Business Leaders Take A More Human Approach To Leading?

Professor Lynda HoltBy Professor Lynda Holt CEO, Health Service 360

Most leaders face ups, downs, and uncertainties across their leadership journey, it is an inevitable part of being human and leading other humans. One of the biggest challenges is that you’re often taught to be strong, to get on with it, and not to show your vulnerabilities. 

The uncomfortable truth of this approach is it costs you your authenticity, your credibility, and often your health, while at the same time reducing trust, connection, and support from those around you. In short, it erodes the basics of humanity in the workplace.

You might be thinking that because you run or lead an SME this doesn’t apply in the same way as for a big multi-layered organisation. It does, it might look different, but humans are humans wherever they work. Connection and contribution matter, people need to feel part of something and that what they do makes a difference. This is even more evident in younger workers, the Gen Zs, who frequently cite company values, culture, and flexibility as reasons for both staying and leaving jobs.

The bottom line is leaders and owners need to get braver about the way we lead. We need to embrace connection and being more human, and maybe unlearn some of the things we experienced and now use. That’s great in theory and sounds desirable, but in practice, it can feel tricky to navigate, without impacting productivity or potentially dinting your credibility as a leader.

Here are three tips on how to take a more human approach at work:

1. Vulnerability is a leader’s superpower.

Vulnerability feels horrid, after all, it’s about risk, uncertainty, and exposure and none of us really want to feel that. The thing is, vulnerability is your fast track to connection, it shows people your humanness, and that enables them to share theirs, immediately creating a more invested-in and connected work environment.

Boundaries are key. Vulnerability is not about spilling your innermost secrets, or simply saying you don’t know, it is about using your experiences and stories to build connection, it’s about enabling others to contribute. You get to choose what you share, and who you share it with, and you don’t have to give context all the time, it’s quite ok to ask for space without telling people all the detail. 

Remember, you might think your mask is firmly on, but the people around you will notice something is off – they may not know what, they may take it personally, they may just back off a little. You will create a disconnect that harms your leadership.

2. Connection is vital – we need more compassion and less judgement.

Humans are empathetic and compassionate by nature; we are designed to be connected and to exist in groups. The way we treat each other is sometimes a proxy indicator of how safe and connected we feel. Neurologically, we are designed to react to threat occasionally, and then return to a restorative baseline. 

Compassion for our fellow creatures helps us to maintain this. When we are compassionate, we are more able to pay attention to our own needs and to those of others, to listen, to seek to understand others perspectives, and critically to find solutions together. 

When we feel threatened, either by the other person or, as is more often the case, by our own internal dialogue (or self-talk), we disconnect, we neurologically prepare for fight or flight and in doing so reduce our capacity for logical thinking, judgement and impulse control decrease, and anxiety increases.

Running a business and leading people often bring a sense of ‘being always on’ or being available whenever, even if that’s just checking your emails or WhatsApp notifications. Your brain doesn’t get the time to restore, it’s constantly at a low-level threat. Judgement, or being judgemental, gives you a little temporary respite, it distances you from threat, but at a price.

When you judge individuals, groups, or maybe even whole chunks of your team by age, race, neurodiversity, etc, or by behaviour and attitude, what you are saying to yourself is I’m different, I’m not like that, this won’t happen to me. It is entirely fear-based, and born out of self-protection, but its consequences are disconnection.

Being compassionate and being judgemental exist at the opposite ends of a connection spectrum. Building humanity in the workplace requires connection and empathy, this doesn’t mean you have to agree with others, and it certainly doesn’t mean they need to get their own way all of the time. It does mean you need to hear what people have to say and work together to find a way forward, and sometimes you won’t be able to give people what they want but you can explain why.

3. We have one whole self – not a work self and personal self.

When we start to fracture who we are, adopting very different values at work to those we hold in other parts of our lives it costs us in terms of our wellbeing. Maybe not straight away, but the effort and energy that goes into fitting in, not letting the ‘mask’ slip, and being who you think you should be is huge. It erodes resilience, confidence, and connectedness.

For clarity it’s not uncommon for people to lean into different skills or parts of their personality at work or home, this is very different from having to hide parts of yourself or what you believe in order to be accepted at work. We should all be able to bring our whole selves to work and feel safe. 

When people don’t feel safe, they don’t speak up, they don’t contribute ideas or experience, and they may not even admit mistakes or what they don’t know, all of which pose a risk for your business and heightens disconnection. When you can model acceptance and inclusion you go a long way towards creating an environment that respects people’s individual needs and circumstances, honours their contributions, and protects mental wellbeing.

These three things have one thread in common, they support basic human needs for safety and belonging, enabling you and your people to engage from a more respectful and collaborative place. They lean into our core human attributes and allow us to really see and hear each other, which in turn amplifies the things most people want from work, which are meaningful work, a sense of contribution, and flexibility. 

When you run a small business creating a humane environment is critical to longevity for you and your team.


About Professor Lynda Holt MA, RGN, DipHE, CPBP, FinstLM, FRSA

CEO, Health Service 360

Lynda is a prominent leadership voice, author and change activist in the healthcare sector. She established Health Service 360, an award-winning development consultancy, back in 2001 and spends her time helping leaders and health professionals to lead courageously, make tangible change, value themselves, and empower their people.

She believes it is each of us, not big organisations, religions, or governments, that change the world, – little action by little action, and as a Professor of Social Leadership at the University of Salford, Lynda helps to equip people with the skills and mindset needed to act and create social change.

Follow Lynda on:

Twitter: @LyndamHolt



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