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Using situational leadership to tackle different tasks and teams

Adapting your approach to management can make a huge difference when managing across groups.

Managers need to rethink their attitude and their approach to different situations if they are to become better leaders, says Dr Patricia Zigarmi, co-founder and vice-president of business development at leadership training organisation The Ken Blanchard Companies .

“Most managers are not flexible and have a set way of doing things,” she explains. “So they implicitly say: ‘Because I don’t know how to do it any other way, do it my way.’ 

“There has to be a change of mindset on the part of the manager. You have to believe that some of the people you work with have your best interests at heart and are as smart as you– or maybe smarter.” 

“I constantly look at the next generation and say they know more than I knew literally at that age. They have a fresh perspective. They can see things differently. They can reinvent. 

“One person or a small group of persons doesn’t know it all. There is so much change in the world. How can you possibly know all there is to know? How can it be that a small group of people can command and control everything? You just can’t keep up with it.” 

Listen to employees is imperative, she adds. “Are people sharing good ideas? Are you doing all the talking at meetings? Are people willing to push back and offer an alternative point of view? If none of these things are happening, you probably are not providing good leadership.” 

Paul Murphy, Hong Kong-based director of client solutions at Ken Blanchard, says Asian bosses are often perceived as “seagull managers”. 

“They either take control of all decision-making, or they are very hands-off until something wrong happens and then swoop in to discipline the party at fault and take over,” he says. “In Hong Kong, situational leadership comes into play a lot with family-owned or quasi-governmental businesses that have traditionally been very command and control orientated, but may now be facing succession challenges as their teams do not have the skill sets to step up.” 

Improving these skill sets takes a change in leadership style, Zigarmi says. “We would not look at traits; we would look at behaviour. A trait is an attribute – something that you are born with, like charisma or influence. It is behaviour you develop over time. So we look at the directive side. 

“The manager would say: ‘Am I good at setting expectations, letting people know exactly what they need to do and when they need to do it? Am I good at showing and telling how? Am I good at creating the action or the learning plan?’” 

This is where situational leadership comes in. “It is task-specific. Managers look more at the people they are leading and adjust their leadership style depending on the situation, the person and the task,” Zigarmi says. 

“Situational leadership does three things. First, it teaches the language of leadership – a sort of shorthand for communicating quickly. Second, it teaches people to increase the quality of the conversation to be more focused and more aligned. Third, it helps people develop confidence, so they go from being dependent to independent,  from needing reinforcement to being self-motivated.” 

Zigarmi says some managers waste a lot of time having meeting after meeting to try to steer people in the right direction. “I think the big outcome of a shift in behaviour and leadership style is efficiency – that we can have one or two meetings and then spend time with people who really need our directions, and leave people alone who can do it on their own.” 

While people are motivated by autonomy, they some new hires will want direction. 

“People are motivated by collaboration and relationships. They want to be part of a team that does something together. They are motivated by confidence that is increasing over time. So if you are not learning, if you are not in a growth-oriented position, you could disconnect. You may not be contributing as much as you could be. 

“I think managers are learning that they can be more efficient and effective by helping people develop and become more self-reliant”. 

However, improving performance is not only the manager’s responsibility. “People need to speak up and ask for what they need,” Zigarmi says. “I find with audiences here in Asia, it is something that they have to learn to do. But they see the value of it; they see how much what we call ‘mismatching’ costs in terms of time and wasted effort and rework. But they have to work against what they’ve maybe been taught to do, which is to wait and see or to wait for direction that may or may not come. 

“The directions about goals and timelines might come, but the directions about how to do something may not come.” 

Murphy explains that managers face many challenges if they want to build their team’s overall capabilities, particularly in China. “They must nurture the ability to build trust, because there is often an assumption of negative intent by the direct report if a staff member speaks out,” he says. “There can be this feeling that, if I have this conversation, he or she will use it against me.” 

Zigarmi and Murphy said part of the organisational transformation is a sense that it is safe for both managers and their staff to adapt a new behaviour. 

A change in leadership behaviour ultimately could affect a company’s bottom line. “One company said they wanted to improve sales in a certain area, and increase the number referrals and renewals. These are three bottom line indicators. And we were saying that if your managers were more effective in developing the people, those three indicators should change. So we took stock a year ago, and we are going to take a look in December at those metrics. If those metrics changed, it would be because your leaders changed and they are doing more to develop your people’s ability to change those metrics,” Zigarmi said. 

“When you are providing the right style, you know it. There is a sense of synchronicity, alignment. There is a sense that it is working. People lean in. They have good eye contact. It is like we are communicating and working side by side. We are in a partnership.” 

The Ken Blanchard Companies has partnered with Classified Post’s Leadership Development Centre to deliver training programmes to Hong Kong leaders.