Is it time we retired top-down leadership to build better businesses?
Since time began, people have had bosses. And those bosses have had bosses, and so on. At this point, it’s hard to imagine businesses working any other way. So, is top-down leadership on the way out?
It’s a bad idea to tar every workplace with the same brush. Different companies have vastly different needs. Even companies in the same sector in the same city can have different cultures. There’s actually a range of effective leadership styles with their own strengths and weaknesses, and different businesses and workplace cultures can often require significantly different forms of management.
While an innovative tech company might benefit from a hands-off approach that prioritises autonomy, a big factory might do better under a more authoritative manager. A top-down structure cuts discussions in favour of one leader who drives productivity. But then, most factories are automated these days. So where does traditional top-down leadership, also known as autocratic leadership, fit in?
Autocratic management is too rigid for modern business
The problem with traditional autocratic management is its rigidity. The higher someone is up the management track, the more distant they are from the employee experience. Decisions that make sense from the CEO’s six-figure-salaried perspective might be the sort of thing that makes your staff tear their hair out like Homer Simpson finding out he’s having another kid.
A common example of this is the management in some businesses becoming increasingly metric-driven. Things like productivity tracking software can make perfect sense to an insulated executive trying to thicken those profit margins. In reality, it just ends up causing resentment and disengagement across the organisation.
Then there’s the fact that top-down leadership can stifle innovation. At the moment, employers are still hunting for solutions to low engagement and stress levels in the wake of the pandemic. And, for millions of office based employees, things like flexibility and personal autonomy have never been more important.
More collaborative, people-centric approaches are the way forward
When we say it’s time to throw out top-down leadership, we’re not talking about getting rid of management structures altogether. What we want to talk about is the idea of what’s known as ‘humble management.’
Humble management is the idea that, although the boss is ultimately in charge, they’re not expected to be the authority on every aspect of the business. A humble manager knows when to defer to the knowledge specialists, whether it’s to an in house lawyer, or technology experts.
Leadership must serve employees, and not manage top-down
Dan Cable, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, had this to say about the concept of humble management and the idea of what he calls ‘servant leaders’:
‘To put it bluntly, servant-leaders have the humility, courage, and insight to admit that they can benefit from the expertise of others who have less power than them. They actively seek the ideas and unique contributions of the employees that they serve. This is how servant leaders create a culture of learning, and an atmosphere that encourages followers to become the very best they can.’
But, although the term might sound a little insulting, he clarifies: ‘Humility and servant leadership do not imply that leaders have low self-esteem, or take on an attitude of servility. Instead, servant leadership emphasizes that the responsibility of a leader is to increase the ownership, autonomy, and responsibility of followers — to encourage them to think for themselves and try out their own ideas.’
Humility and autonomy are the key to moving away from top-down leadership
Ultimately, getting away from top-down management and taking a humbler approach is a path to more effective team work and successful innovation. Think about the tech company hackathons hosted by companies like Facebook and Google. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg wanders around those things demanding progress reports from everyone? No. The value of an HR hackathon is in organic team work where creativity can thrive.
Feedback-driven action is the best route to employee success
Assuming you want to move away from top-down leadership, how can you put humble management into practice? The simplest way to get started is to show your employees that you value their input. Ask them how you can support them in doing their jobs better.
The most effective leaders are the ones that encourage feedback. Humble management is no different, because effective feedback should be a two-way street. Feedback has always played a critical role at work. But Millennial and Gen Z employees have pushed it further up the agenda.
Give employees a voice with regular, two-way feedback
Two-way feedback means staff can open up to you about what they need to excel at work. Just make sure to listen and act on what your staff tell you. Otherwise engagement will be even lower than when you had autocratic managers. When employees are ignored, they lose faith in the communication process.
You also need to make sure feedback is regular enough to be timely. The problem with annual engagement surveys is that they can only ever give you a snapshot in time. Or it could easily be too little too late.
Regular feedback also enables you to build trust through dialogue. If you support employee wellbeing, then will make your staff more open to your advice. In other words, if you pay attention to their feedback, they’ll pay attention to yours!
Want a better approach to employee productivity? Grab your copy of our latest guide: Embracing continuous performance management below