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Is it time we retired top-down leadership to build better businesses?

Practically since time immemorial, 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?

Is top-down leadership still fit for purpose?

It’s a bad idea to tar every workplace with the same brush. Different types of businesses have vastly different needs, and even companies in the same sector in the same city can have diverging workplace 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 line might do better under a more authoritative manager who pushes their team hard.

The idea is that a top-down structure cuts out time wasted on unnecessary 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?

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, but in reality, just end up causing resentment and disengagement across the organisation.

Then there’s the fact that top-down management can stifle innovation. At the moment, employers are still hunting for solutions to low engagement and through-the-roof 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, so put down the torches and pitchforks for a second. 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 in their organisation, whether it’s to an in-house lawyer about the company’s legal obligations, or IT specialists about adding new software to the computer network.

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.’

Ultimately, getting away from top-down management and taking a humbler approach is a path to more effective collaboration 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?

Obviously not. The value of a hackathon is in organic collaboration where creativity can thrive. By adopting humble management practices and supporting employee autonomy, business leaders can take some of that hackathon energy and put it into their day-to-day business.

Feedback-driven action is the best route to a successful workplace

So, assuming you want to move away from top-down leadership, how can you put the idea of humble management into practice?

The simplest way to get started as a humble manager and to show your employees that you value their input is to ask them how you can support them in doing their jobs better.  

The fact is, the most effective leadership styles in the workplace are the ones that put emphasis on the feedback process. Humble management is no different, because effective workplace feedback should be a two-way street. While feedback has always played a role in the workplace, there’s been a big push for a more feedback-centric culture in recent years thanks to Millennial and Gen Z employees.

Giving employees a voice through two-way feedback means they can open up to you about what they need to excel at work. Just make sure not to ignore what your staff tell you, or it’ll make engagement even lower than when you began. When employees are ignored, they lose faith in the communication process.

Not only do you need to make sure you respond to employee insight with action whenever possible, you also need to make sure feedback is regular enough to have your response be timely. The problem with annual engagement surveys is that they can only ever give you a snapshot in time. By the time you’re actually able to respond to even the most common employee grievances, it could easily be too little too late.

Regular feedback also enables you to build trust through dialogue. If you can build yourself up as someone to be relied upon to support employee wellbeing, then it can have the added bonus of making your staff more receptive to your advice. In other words, if you pay attention to their feedback, they’ll pay attention to yours!

Want to see how a simple habit-forming employee check-in can redefine how leaders lead? Check out a quick intro to Weekly10…