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  • Writer's pictureHennie Brittz

The nose knows: How the smell of leadership impacts your workplace

I recently had an eye-opening experience when I visited a company and stepped into the parking lot. Immediately, I noticed something was off. Employees sat in their cars, scrolling through their phones, waiting for 8 am to hit before heading inside. As I walked inside, the sluggish pace and lack of energy struck me. It seemed like no one was paying attention to each other or even to me as a visitor. I waited for half an hour before my presence was acknowledged.

But what really hit me was the contrast between the company’s stated value of “customer service” and my experience of it. This disconnect got me thinking about “the smell of the place”, a concept coined by the late Professor Sumantra Ghoshal. It’s the feeling you get when you interact with employees and it’s heavily influenced by leadership style.

So in essence, the experience I had was a direct result of the leadership culture in the organisation. It was a powerful reminder of why it’s so important for leaders to understand their role in creating a positive “smell” and how it affects not just employees but also customers and clients.

Sniffing out the leadership scent

This brings us to the concept of leadership itself. The terms ‘manager’ and ‘leader’ are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Managers are responsible for managing people and processes, while leaders are responsible for setting a vision and empowering, coaching and enabling their teams to perform. When individuals get promoted to management, they are often expected to be both a manager and a leader. This can cause confusion and frustration, with ripples up and down the chain, as they struggle to navigate the expectations of their new role.

Have you ever worked with a manager whose main focus is on hitting targets and enforcing strict processes and systems? It’s a common scenario in many organisations, and unfortunately, it often leads to a sense of micromanagement and lack of autonomy among employees. This creates a “smell” of constraint, compliance, control and contract. In some instances, we’ve seen this play out when employees choose to go directly to their union or the labour court with an issue, instead of first having a conversation with their manager.

On the flip side, a leadership-driven environment fosters a culture of stretch, discipline, trust and support. When leaders focus on pushing their teams to achieve more than they thought was possible, it encourages risk-taking and builds a sense of ownership. Time and again, we’ve seen that when employees feel supported and challenged by their leaders, they are more willing to take on new projects and contribute to the organisation’s success.

And the research proves it - according to Deloitte's 2023 Global Human Capital Trends Report, to fully harness the potential of their workforce, organisations must adopt an all-inclusive, co-created approach. This means embracing different types of workers and their unique contributions while providing consistent support. Effective and engaged leaders are key to managing and leveraging this diverse workforce.

The leadership challenge

Why then, do so many organisations still struggle to foster visible and engaged leadership?

When managers are promoted or appointed, it’s often due to their technical expertise and operational strength. However, they are typically not equipped with the leadership skills required for the role and are not adequately coached. As a result, they can become untouchable for fear of losing functional capabilities.

In addition, managers often lack the necessary methodologies and tools to drive the culture and people processes that enable effective teamwork. During busy times, essential leadership practises such as communication, collaboration, feedback and recognition tend to take a back seat. There’s often a perception that regular meetings and other “nice to haves” are unnecessary and a waste of time.

Leaders, on the other hand, understand the importance of connecting and engaging with their teams and building trust and respect. They make time to review and prioritise activities, discuss what is working well and what is not, and plan for the next period. They understand the importance of building team fitness and cultivating desired behaviours that align with the organisation’s values. Especially during challenging times, leaders know that prioritising these practises will lead to success, and the numbers will take care of themselves.

Shifting to a “smell” of engaged leadership

What steps can you take to shift the “smell” in your organisation towards engaged leadership?

  • Create a leadership standard

Define a leadership standard, detailing the behaviours and practises you expect of leaders that will determine your culture over time. Once defined, back these statements up with concrete examples to help leaders understand how they can embody these behaviours and practices in their work. This involves identifying their daily operational actions as well as the knowledge, skills and tools required to do the job.

  • Align organisational systems

Review your recruitment, development and promotion processes and align them to the leadership standard. Assess the competency levels of managers against the standard, using psychometrics or on-the-job observation. This identifies where the gaps are, allowing for individual learning objectives and development plans to be put in place. Ensure that your incentive schemes support the right behaviours and balance your incentives to make provision for organisational and operational achievements.

  • Develop effective teamwork through structured team meetings

Regular, structured team meetings can be an effective vehicle for setting goals, devising action plans and reviewing performance. Using a team performance methodology, such as TeamConnect™, can ensure that these meetings are focused, productive and ensure execution. This enables leaders to become more effective in their roles, spending less time on daily operations and more time on the essential leadership practices that enable effective teamwork.

HOW your team works together to achieve performance is as important as WHAT they get done. Your team must understand the behaviours required to get the results. To keep your team future fit, ensure that meetings focus on goals versus achievements as well as the values demonstrated during the process.

This creates an environment of trust and support, where managers are not seen as ‘out to control’ but there ‘to help me win’. By operating in a context of trust employees will be inspired to adapt to change, take initiative and accountability and focus their energy on what really matters to your business.

How can 2Collaborate help?

Long-term performance starts with the right style and depth of leadership. If you want to develop a winning culture, built on visible and engaged leadership, talk to us.

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About the author

Hennie Brittz, Director and Head of Marketing and Technology at 2Collaborate

Hennie has spent 14 years in business and consulting conceptualising, designing and implementing large-scale performance improvement processes.

Get to know more about Hennie on LinkedIn

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