Perhaps the biggest loss from the recent economic crisis was that of trust in business leadership. Publicly, the leaders of the country’s largest banks were cast as criminals. Inside many corporations, employee engagement levels decreased as layoffs wreaked havoc on morale, and trust in managers sank to all-time lows. Some employee angst remains.
According to a recent poll by Maritz Research, an employee satisfaction firm, just 10 percent of employees trust managers to make the right decision in times of uncertainty. What’s more, only 12 percent of employees in the poll said they believe their manager genuinely listens to and cares about them.
All is not lost, however. According to George Kohlrieser, a professor of leadership at business school IMD in Switzerland, there is a leadership model fit to promote and reignite trust in business.
His book, Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential Through Secure Base Leadership, aims to steer leaders to become a “secure base” for their employees so they feel more engaged and comfortable to stretch their limits in their work.
“A secure base leader is someone who creates the environment of trust [where] that fundamental interest, that fundamental caring, transparency and honesty creates the possibility of the [employee] then to take risk, to push their edge of talent development, to do what needs to be done outside the box and explore [to] their potential,” Kohlrieser said.
The human brain is hard-wired for survival, which means that employees tend to sway toward what’s safe. Like many organizations, this survival instinct has had employees — and the organizations they work for — playing not to lose instead of playing to win, he said.
Secure base leadership seeks to provide employees with a sense of safety to take risk, so they feel like they’re working in an environment where it’s OK to make mistakes, stretch limits and take control of their own professional learning and development, according to Kohlrieser.
Such emphasis on personal trust and humanity that the model is built on has grown even more vital as innovation and collaboration in firms have become valuable building blocks to success, said Rose Gailey, a consultant with Chicago-based leadership development firm Gagen MacDonald.
CLOs should not only aim to develop secure base leaders, but they should also work to embody the characteristics of one as they, too, work to become more advanced executives within organizations.
Kohlrieser said secure base leaders have the following characteristics:
Stays calm: They remain composed and dependable, especially in high-pressure situations. “You cannot [have] a caring environment if people are explosive,” Kohlrieser said.
Accepts the individual: They often accept the basic human worth of all people beyond their role as employees. “A secure base leader is able to deliver pain and then [have the employee] say thank you,” he said, meaning secure base leaders should feel comfortable giving tough love.
Sees the potential: Leaders must see employees’ potential talent as well as their current functioning ability. Secure base leaders don’t focus on short-term potential but are often looking at growth over a 10-20 year period.
Uses listening and inquiry: Secure base leaders ask open-ended and constructive questions, rather than talk and dictate instructions. Deep dialogue is one of the most powerful tools. “When you have a good teacher, a good leader, they’re always looking for talent. They’re always looking for what’s best for the individual,” he said.
Delivers a powerful message: Great leaders don’t necessarily ramble on in a long speech; instead, they have the ability to cut to the chase and say the right thing at the right time. “We train secure base leaders to say what they have to say in one sentence,” Kohlrieser said. “Then to say what they have to say in four sentences.”
Focuses on the positives: They help others focus on the positive and see their potential for learning, even when things may not be going well.
Encourages risk taking: “If you’re a leader, you put [employees] in situations where they can stretch themselves,” Kohlrieser said. Actively dare people to unleash their potential by providing tangible opportunities for risk taking.
Inspires through intrinsic motivation: They don’t motivate with money. Their followers act because they find their work engaging — not because of external pressures or rewards. “The chief learning officer has to build into the environment the intrinsic values that people have,” Kohlrieser said. “That means every leader must know what motivates someone.”
Signals accessibility: They are always accessible and available, instead of being too detached or busy. They don’t necessarily have to be available at all hours of the day, however; being supportive has more to do with a sense of the person and of the relationship rather than the actual amount of time spent together.
Frank Kalman is an associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.