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Future of Leadership: Human Leadership and Why It’s Important

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Artificial Intelligence and the future of work is a hot topic, but when it comes to the future of leadership, automation and machines take a backseat to something much less esoteric: “human leadership.”

Gartner HR Research identified human leadership as the next evolution of leadership in a study released in June 2022. 

“Organizations that are able to develop more human leaders will find that these leaders’ teams have less turnover, higher engagement scores, and better well-being,” said Caitlin Duffy, director of research in the Gartner HR practice. “Although these qualities may have been important for good leadership in the past, today they are non-negotiable – particularly to compete in today’s new talent landscape.”

Why Human Leadership is Important to Your Organization

The Gartner survey of more than 230 HR leaders and nearly 3,400 employees conducted in March 2022 found a yawning gap between management and staff when it comes to leadership needs:

  • 90 percent of HR leaders said that to succeed in today’s work environment, leaders must focus on the human aspects of leadership.

  • Yet only 29 percent of the employees surveyed conveyed that their leader is a human leader.

Human leadership is important to an organization because Gartner found a 37-percent increase in high engagement for those employees who worked for a human leader compared to those who worked for a leader that they did not consider a human leader.

“This increase is significant – highly engaged employees improve their team’s performance by up to 27 percent,” said Gartner.

3 Components that Make Up Human Leadership

The Gartner research identified three basic components that make up human leadership:

  • Adaptive: Enable support and flexibility that fits team members’ unique needs.

  • Authentic: Act with purpose and enable true self-expression, for both their teams and themselves.

  • Empathetic: Show genuine concern, care, and respect for employees’ well-being.

"Leaders should be role models for building relationships and start calls with questions about employees' families and personal life,” Mia Naumoska, chief marketing officer at Internxt told Kaya Ismail for his article published on CMSWire and Reworked. “Human leaders are essential to developing strong relationships in a digital workplace.”

Ismail writes that when employees are satisfied and confident in the leadership of their organization, then the way is paved for success. The key is for leaders to understand how to engage with employees in a way that makes them feel valued and included in the decision-making process.

Best Practices to Develop More Human Leadership

Gartner’s study found that there were three best practices that can help develop more human leaders:

  • Support Leaders’ Judgement by Limiting Scope and Ambiguity: 68 percent of HR leaders surveyed provided scenario-based guides and training to leaders to help them take specific action on employee needs but only 29 percent found that employees receive the support that fits their unique needs. The conclusion is that these guides can add more uncertainty to ambiguous scenarios.

    “Today’s work environment illuminates a striking dichotomy – asking people to show up to work authentically and bring their whole self while requiring leaders to deliver fair, equitable, and scalable outcomes,” said Jérôme Mackowiak, director of advisory in the Gartner HR practice.

    Gartner suggests giving leaders tools to quickly determine which actions they can take that will have the highest impact and reduce the scope of potential next steps and that HR can remove ambiguity from employee-leader interactions by helping leaders identify signs that their approach is ineffective so they can adapt in real-time.

    “Adopting these strategies to develop human leaders will enable organizations to increase the number of human leaders from 29 percent to 48 percent,” said Duffy. “To create more human leaders, HR can help them use their emotions to propel them forward.”
  • Teach Leaders to Exhibit Positive Behaviors Despite Fear: Nearly 50 percent of business leaders, according to Gartner, feel their actions are more scrutinized today compared to three years ago. Almost one-third who are ineffective at human leadership worries that mishandling sensitive issues could damage their reputation.

    “HR typically provides leaders with development and training on navigating sensitive situations and creating a psychologically safe environment, but these efforts are missing the mark,” said Mackowiak. “In today's environment, discomfort is inevitable as leaders address topics that can never be made comfortable or safe.”

    The goal is to not eliminate fear but to provide leaders with the courage to act in the face of fear by teaching them how to exhibit positive behaviors when afraid. HR needs to help leaders develop self-awareness to understand how their fears impact them and enable them to take ownership of their behavior. Organizations need to support more high-risk situations such as “ask-me-anything” sessions with employees.
  • Make the Case for Change by Leveraging Trusted Sources: 57 percent of HR leaders believe that implementing human leadership is a high-priority investment for the next year, but most business leaders do not trust the analysis and data provided by HR.

    HR needs to leverage trusted sources such as peers and employees themselves to gain business leaders' commitment to a more human leadership approach. HR can convene a dynamic group of well-respected leaders who believe in and act on human leadership. These leaders can set new leadership expectations for the organization that are both current and relevant to the realities of leaders’ roles while providing ongoing support.

5 Human Leadership Traits to Build Upon

Ismail in his article says that some people are natural-born leaders, but the constantly evolving business climate requires continuous improvement to adopt new ideas and techniques to get the best out of your workforce.

He suggests five human leadership traits that your organization can build upon:

  • Maintaining Transparent Communication: Ismail says that communication is the key to establishing and nurturing relationships. Human leadership requires establishing and maintaining transparent company-wide communication with colleagues.

  • Prioritize Teamwork and Collaboration: Ismail says that when leaders view themselves as part of a team, it changes everyone’s approach to work. Leaders can form a cohesive unit with employees by building on the underlying values of trust, fairness, and flexibility. Leaders should be granted the runway, and budgets, to pursue ideas that can foster connection and culture within their teams.

  • Support Employees' Growth and Development: Human leadership is about investing in people. Leaders who encourage the growth and development of those on their teams will not only have workers with better skills but will also increase innovation, loyalty, satisfaction, and overall performance. Provide employees with the flexibility and tools to help them succeed.

  • Encourage Feedback: As Gartner said, do not be afraid of “ask-anything” sessions with employees. Leaders need to support a culture of gathering feedback on a regular basis. A lack of feedback can allow a toxic work environment to fester and simmer below the surface and lead to conflicts and performance issues.

  • Give Recognition and Compliments: Human leaders understand the importance of complementing their employees' efforts. Recognition can take different forms, so leaders need to understand what motivates those individuals on their teams.

Special Challenge: Human Leadership in Hybrid Workplace

A special challenge to developing human leadership is the remote or hybrid workplace, where face-to-face communication is not always possible.

“This may require leaders to strive harder to be adaptive, empathetic, and authentic in understanding their staff's motivations, needs, and pain points,” writes Ismail.

Gartner's research showed that employee's and leader’s hybrid work desires are misaligned:

  • A November 2021 Gartner survey of more than 3,500 employees revealed less than half believe remote working is destigmatized at their organizations, while 70 percent believe on-site workers are more likely to be promoted and paid more compared to remote workers.

  • This preferential tone employees perceive toward on-site workers is directly at odds with executives’ own working preferences – 94 percent of executives whose work can be done remotely want to work remotely at least one day per week, and 24% of those executives want to be fully remote.

Yet 68 percent of employees whose work could be done remotely report that their employers have required them to return to the workplace in some capacity.

Gartner suggests that HR leaders must support leaders in understanding the value of hybrid work for employees at all levels and that they should lead the effort at shifting their organization’s culture to recognize hybrid work as an essential component of the employee experience.

“If executive leaders continue to push for a workplace return, HR should provide guidelines around how to structure an effective hybrid environment that includes how to balance both synchronous, co-located time for teams at the office and asynchronous work done at home,” said Piers Hudson, senior director in the Gartner HR practice.