Strategic Leadership and Creating the “Right” Environment

Recently, I was walking along the beach and my mind was free to wander. I was not having a problem thinking of creative ideas. I started to reflect on the times in my career when I worked in an environment that encouraged creativity and innovation. In my experience, great strategic leaders were able to create the "right" environment for their teams and partners: one that allows them to thrive and be creative. On the other hand, I have also experienced leaders who had the opposite effect.

Csikszentmihalyi identified a number of factors that help people enter a state of, what he calls, “flow” (I would recommend watching Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk “Flow – The Secret to Happiness” for more details). To maximize productivity of employees in respect to creativity and innovation, great leaders create an environment where employees can reach the state of “flow”. Great leaders are able to set clear goals every step of the way, i.e., leaders are able to simplify complexity goals. They focus on giving immediate feedback and they give recognition and feedback in real time. They are able to balance challenges and skills for their team members in the work activities they assign. These are common features of good managers and leaders.

There are a number of other points that Csikszentmihalyi raises to create “flow” that are less commonly considered. The first is that one of the roles of a leader is to protect their employee from distractions including those generated from their own actions. I am sure that we have all experienced the situation where your boss is looking over your shoulder (either physically or electronically) asking if a task is completed. The leader should protect their employees from interruptions and let them get on with their jobs. A related point is that a leader reduces their team’s worries about failure. Failure should be framed as opportunities to learn how to do things differently. If the team worries about failure they will do what is safe and not what is creative. We have worked in situations where it is clear that “failure is not an option” and this paralyses creativity. There is also the situation where employees are self-consciousness about what the boss and other people think of them. Performance reviews are sometimes a necessary evil and can identify opportunities for further development for the person being reviewed. However, performance reviews are too often seen as bosses judging the person’s abilities rather than the work they do. Under these conditions, it is not a surprise when individuals become self-conscious and are looking over their shoulder to those who are judging them. This is particularly the case in mergers and acquisitions or major re-organizations where individuals may find have to re-apply for their jobs and are “judged” by a new group of people. It is no surprise that these circumstances do not foster creativity or encourage “flow”.

Maslow, in his famous work, placed self-actualization at the top of the pyramid including pursuit of inner talent, creativity and fulfillment. For employees and partners to be at their creative best, leaders create an environment where self- actualization is the norm and can be achieved by everyone on the team. To illustrate this point, consider the example of organizational change. During change there is often a high level of uncertainty. Clearly if there is a restructuring of an organization, one result may be job loss and uncertainty can be greatly magnified. If this is happening, people are concerned about their job and it may mean that they are concerned about how they are going to feed their family if they are laid off. They may also have concerns about safety in terms of job security and stability. In my experience, having been involved in a number of downsizing experiences, a significant impact is also felt when it comes to social aspects for individuals. Key parts of your social network may be removed because of downsizing and established social networks are disrupted. Those impacted by the downsizing will clearly be moved towards the lower end of the Maslow pyramid, but even people not directly impacted will have concerns and be disrupted. This is illustrated by the concept of “survivor guilt” which I have experienced in organizations. Survivor guilt applies to people that are not directly impacted by job loss and remain in the organization. They may feel guilty about surviving the change with their colleagues and in some cases their friends being laid off. Their attention and concerns may move to the lower parts of the hierarchy of needs. Another example of a situation where levels of uncertainty is increased is during mergers and acquisitions. Uncertainty may start from the beginning of the process when rumors start to fly about a potential merger or acquisition and carry on through the integration process. This high level of uncertainty can paralyze an organization and some would argue productivity in areas like research and development are impacted for several years.

Great leaders have the ability to create the “right” environment for creativity through their strategies and actions. They do two things to minimize the impact of uncertainty and change. First, they are able to react to changes in their business environment in a measured and controlled way. Major upheavals in organization can be caused by a significant shift in the business climate, but more commonly major change is the result of poor or misguided business decisions in the past or the inability to think strategically and prepare for future scenarios. Great leaders are able to adjust and be flexible to changing needs and keep a high level of stability the system. Secondly, great leaders do well is to protect their employees from being impacted by the day to day organizational politics and power struggles that lead to uncertainty about the future of an organizational structure or team and changing work priorities. By creating a more stable environment for employees, free of unnecessary or repetitive change programs, they are able to focus on the higher needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, i.e., self-esteem and self actualization. Great leaders can also create an environment that encourages individuals to be in “flow” by setting clear goals, providing real time feedback, and balancing challenges and skill development. They can also minimize disruptions and protect their employees, reframe failure as a learning opportunity and minimize employee’s feelings of self-consciousness.

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