Your Workplace is a Community - Value Your Community Leaders

7 April 2016 By Chris Kotur, LV Leader in Residence

During my strategy and planning work with organisations, boards and councils I'm often reminded how the people in these groupings see themselves as members of a workplace community complete with its own culture, values, norms and customs, networks, politics and actual community leaders.

I'm not referring here to leadership based on positional power, rank or hierarchy but rather I'm thinking of people who are seen as leaders despite not having formal authority and who gain the voluntary attention, trust and support from others because of their character and the way they go about making their contributions to this workplace community.

This is an important insight because understanding more about the traits of its workplace community leaders can help an organisation grow and strengthen its culture, reduce risks, encourage loyalty and support everyone who is part of this community to give their best. It is especially important to value the insights of these community leaders in organisations facing change.

Workplace community leaders can be found in any location or in any role in the organisation. People say they're drawn to them because they come across as 'somehow good', as positive and authentic. They are likeable role models who inspire others to work harder and be better.

When they're talking they don't always come across as polished public speakers. People listen to them without rolling their eyes because they don't sound like they're selling anything and they're not using slogans or spin.

They are sought out by others for wise counsel because they are perceived as insightful, open-minded and fair.

It's as if they've arrived in this workplace community with a different sort of CV, one that isn't the conventional version with the usual description of job-related skills. It seems that their 'CV' demonstrates more about their worth as a person, revealing their values, character, conduct under pressure and their ability to listen and consider all sides before making choices. This kind of CV would demonstrate their interest in serving others and how they contribute to building a strong, healthy workplace community.     

Spot the community leaders in your organisation with this unconventional 'CV' and you'll have found the people who can make or break your culture, help or hinder attempts to bring about change and who can contribute to or dampen ideas to help you manage risk and grow and prosper.

Leadership is constantly under test. At no other time has there been so much scepticism about the ability of leaders to get things done.  The recent wave of scandals in banking, government, business, unions, churches and politics shows us that trust in leaders is perishable and that culture in workplace communities remains fragile. While regulators across all sectors are calling for greater attention to ethical behaviour and more systematic measurement of workplace culture, focus on developing workplace community leaders can help organisations avoid becoming complacent or indifferent to culture.  

Here are three actions and behaviours of workplace community leaders that organisations should tap into. These practices always yield valuable insights and data.

1. Community leaders understand the power of workplace networks.

Every organisation is hardwired with social networks which are especially concentrated in smaller groups like business units or departments where changes are seen and talked about at a micro level.  Smaller work units (groups of up to 10 or so) are where key relationships are strengthened or weakened, where grapevine talk ranges from gossip to gathering information and where change is supported or resisted.

Community leaders network to gauge sentiment, read the politics, recognise early warning signs of success, resistance or concern, look out for individuals who need support and detect opportunities to speed up or slow down the speed of change.

2. Community leaders can explain and motivate.

Community leaders can help develop and refine communication throughout the organisation because they're attuned to listening for reactions stirred by news of any change. The first word received about a possible new CEO, review, restructure, change in policy or strategy, relocation etc - has the workplace community immediately applying the self interest test - is this good or bad news, will I gain or lose, is this a threat or some advantage, will this improve or worsen my situation?

It's important to know that most people focus much more on perceived loss over any possible gain. Loss aversion is a very powerful block to making any change.  Consider the failure of politicians who haven't been able to sell an idea because their story comes across as threatening, confusing, implausible, disingenuous, inconsistent, too technical or somehow just 'off'. We quickly think people we don't trust are trying to take something we value. Conversely, we take bad news better from people we trust.

During times of change respected community leaders can offer confidence and hope.

3. Community leaders can help with implementation.

During strategic planning it is common for an organisation to lose touch with reality as people easily overestimate their own capabilities and regularly underestimate the time and resources needed to deliver a plan. Organisations often disregard the practicalities of implementation and repeat past mistakes.

Think of the public humiliation caused by the many projects which run over time and budget or fall over after soon after being touted as great ideas. Think of wasted public money, careers that end abruptly, bad publicity and difficulties in trying to rehabilitate reputations and then consider how these workplace community leaders can help if they speak out when they see where and how implementation isn't working.

So consider using the insights, connections and reputations of your workforce community leaders to assist end to end planning - from strategy through to implementation. Call on them to help devise and promulgate thoughtful communications and support and monitor the health of your workplace culture. There is no down side to encouraging and developing community leadership in your workplace community.

Chris Kotur, April 2016