Martyn Drake: Why managers need to develop 'perceptive leadership'

It is a prerequisite for connecting with and getting the very best from diverse groups of people

Every day, we’re all either shaping or reinforcing the culture of the workplace around us. 

This isn’t just a chief executive thing.

Everyone in any position of influence is continually moulding, often unconsciously, the prevailing cultures within their teams and departments, while at the same time, the members of each of those groups are continually adapting their styles and habits to better fit in, reinforcing those cultures over time.

You can see the results when you look across most organisations. There will be different micro-cultures, different norms, different styles of leadership that tend to emerge and dominate in different places. 

In the best marketing and development teams, as in the most innovate design departments, there often emerges a playful, high-trust culture, with little reverence for titles and positions. 

Yet over in operations, where the risks of safety or safeguarding might be front of mind, or where procedure and consistency are paramount, it’s far more likely a culture of deference and conformity will exist, and the leaders who rise through the ranks there will have developed personal styles and habits to suit that context.

Different contexts, different cultures, and each works perfectly well… in isolation.

The problems come when those teams need to work together, and even more so when leaders move from one context to another without consciously perceiving the difference.

Most, if not all our own adaptations, to the different cultures in which we’ve worked during our careers, have happened subconsciously.

We rarely realise how much we’re adapting our behaviours over time, but we do. And those habits ingrain themselves, and people who move roles take those habits with them.

I recently spoke with a CEO, most of whose former career had been in fundraising and brand marketing, and who had been at the helm of his new organisation for around six months.

He was worn down and frustrated with the lack of initiative throughout the whole organisation: “It’s like everyone is constantly looking up, waiting for someone else to make their decisions for them!”

A few days later, I spoke with one of the senior managers in the same organisation, who was equally frustrated by the lack of clarity and direction: “It seems like in one meeting, the CEO wants one thing, so I go and rally the troops and we start work, and then a week later it’s something completely different!”

What for one person was a musing, a thought vocalised as an invitation to exchange ideas, a concept to kick around and play with, for the other was a suggestion that they interpreted as an instruction and passed on as an order.

This is not a one-off example by the way, this “accidental instruction” behavioural pattern is far, far more common than most leaders realise.

Like all behavioural patterns it can be addressed, and like all cultures, theirs can be reshaped through team and leadership development, combined in this case with finding the CEO a separate space for creative and exploratory conversations while that transition matures. 

It can all be addressed, but not until it is recognised. Not until they can perceive and understand the reason for the disconnect; what’s really driving the dysfunction.

This is what I call perceptive leadership – the ability to read and interpret the default behaviours and cultural norms of different groups in different contexts. 

It is a prerequisite for connecting with and getting the very best from diverse groups of people. 

It’s great to be authentic - to be able to bring your whole self to every interaction. And it’s great to define a vision for the organisational culture you want, and to steadfastly model it from day one. 

But the most successful leaders that I’ve worked with have also developed their cultural antennae enough to appreciate, and adapt to what is, rather than wishing for what isn’t. 

They take the time not just to assess, but to understand and accept the nuanced landscape around them, recognising from where different groups of people are beginning that cultural journey, and consciously adapting their own style and habits, from one interaction to the next, to lead them more effectively through every stage of their transition.


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