Behaviour matters in leadership

Behaviour matters in leadership

Leaders who focus on goals at the expense of behaviour risk damaging an organisation’s reputation, writes Steve Whiddett

Leadership means different things to different people. We are all encouraged to embrace diversity in our thinking, but some ideas of leadership can lead to undesirable behaviour and unwanted outcomes.

We should not be too ready to embrace leadership that focuses primarily on the outcomes needed to meet an organisation’s expectations (vision and goals) over a style that also prioritises how those outcomes should be achieved (values and behaviour).

The behaviour of everyone in an organisation affects perceptions of it and its leadership. Behaviour influences the reputations and long-term viability of organisations.

Leadership behaviour

Ignoring the effect of leadership attitudes on behaviour contributed to the failure of The News of the World. In banking, this attitude triggered high-risk behaviour and the near-collapse of the system. In the NHS, it led to a focus on administrative performance at the cost of patient care.

Smaller organisations are even more vulnerable to outcome-focused leadership as commercial pressures are more immediately felt.

You may think that your employees know what is – and isn’t – acceptable. But can you be confident that a random selection of staff would agree on acceptable ways to achieve their goals?

Does your organisation make explicit its expectations about behaviour? I’m not talking about having lists of values and behaviours, I’m focusing on having behaviours embedded in all aspects of performance management.

Leadership values

Making values explicit does not guarantee desirable behaviour. Some famous ‘fails’, such as Enron, had wonderful values but some appalling behaviour. These organisations lacked operating conditions that encouraged behaviours consistent with their values.

Leadership that focuses on outcomes and ignores the conditions necessary for desirable behaviour leaves the reputation and fate of the organisation to chance. The culture, reputation and future of the organisation will be shaped by what people decide for themselves to be expedient rather than what the leadership might have expected or desired.

In an environment where people are expected to do more with less, poor behaviour – particularly in organisations that focus only on outcomes – is almost guaranteed.

Performance issues

When performance does not meet expectations, leaders’ attitudes to behaviour influence how this issue is addressed.

If behaviour is not seen as being influenced by leadership then unwanted behaviour is viewed as ‘belonging’ to the person who demonstrates it. Such behaviour is addressed through training, personal development, coaching and so on.

Where leaders recognise the influence of leadership and operating conditions on behaviour, the issue is viewed differently. Behaviour is recognised as a symptom of the influences of leadership expectations, operating conditions and the individual. All of these must be explored to establish the true cause and to find a solution.

If we look at stress or disengagement, outcome-focused leadership will respond with stress management training, resilience training or programmes aimed at re-engaging staff.

The outcomes and behaviour-focused leadership would seek to make work situations less stressful or identify what is causing staff to disengage – and remove or reduce these influences.

The first approach addresses the symptoms of performance issues, leaving the causes unresolved, while the second seeks to remove the cause. The first produces no return on investment for its interventions, the second is a genuine investment in the future of the organisation.

Leadership lessons

Leadership cannot afford to ignore attitudes to behaviour or the role of leadership in ensuring that necessary behaviour is possible and likely. Leadership will always influence the behaviour of others. For some, that influence will be deliberate and for others it will be unthinking.

Achieving desirable outcomes with acceptable behaviours will always depend on how much leadership accepts and manages its influence on individuals.

Three sets of influences are key to leadership: explicit expectations for outcomes and behaviour; operating conditions that support these expectations; and people able to meet these expectations in these conditions.


About author

Steve Whiddett

Steve Whiddett

Steve Whiddett is a qualified psychologist and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. He lives and works in the Wye Valley, Monmouthshire, but works and travels across the UK as well as in continental Europe and the US. His new book is entitled ‘Headlines, Headaches and the Human Condition’

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