Should leaders focus on results or people?

A lot of ink has been spilled on people’s opinions of what makes a great leader. As a scientist, I like to turn to the data.

In 2009, Mr James Zenger published a fascinating survey of 60,000 employees that sought to identify how different leadership characteristics combine to affect perceptions of whether a boss is a “great” leader. Two characteristics he examined were “results focus” and “social skills”.

Results focus combines strong analytical skills with an intense motivation to move forward and solve problems. Yet, if a leader was seen as being very strong in this characteristic, the chance of him being seen as great by his employees was only 14 per cent.

Social skills combine attributes like communication and empathy. If a leader was strong in social skills, he was seen as a great boss even less of the time — a paltry 12 per cent.

However, for leaders who were strong in both results focus and social skills, the likelihood of them being seen as great skyrocketed to 72 per cent.

Social skills are a great multiplier. A leader with strong social skills can leverage the analytical abilities of team members far more efficiently. Having the social intelligence to predict how team members will work together can also promote better pairings.

Often, what initially appear to be task-related difficulties turn out to be interpersonal problems in disguise. One employee may feel devalued by another or think he is doing all the work while his partner loafs — leading both to put in less effort to solve otherwise solvable problems. Socially skilled leaders are better at diagnosing and treating these common workplace dilemmas.

So how many leaders are rated high in both results focus and social skills? Mr David Rock, Director of the Neuroleadership Institute and Management Research Group, conducted a survey to find out the answer.

Thousands of employees were asked to rate their bosses on “goal focus” (similar to results focus) and social skills to examine how often a leader scored high in both. The results were astonishing: Less than 1 per cent of leaders were rated high in both goal focus and social skills.

How can this be? As I described in my book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, our brains have made it difficult for us to be socially and analytically focused at the same time.

Regions of the brain lying on the outer surface of the frontal lobe are responsible for analytical thinking and are highly related to IQ.

In contrast, regions in the middle of the brain, where the two hemispheres touch, support social thinking. These regions allow us to piece together a person’s thoughts, feelings and goals based on his actions and words, as well as the surrounding context.

Here is the really surprising thing about the brain. These two networks function like a neural seesaw. In countless neuroimaging studies, the more active one of these networks becomes, the more the other one quietens down. Although there are some exceptions, in general, engaging in one kind of thinking makes it harder to engage in the other.

It is safe to say that, in business, analytical thinking has historically been the coin of the realm — making it harder to recognise the social issues that significantly affect productivity and profits.

Moreover, employees are much more likely to be promoted to leadership positions because of their technical prowess. We are thus promoting people who may lack the social skills to make the most of their teams and not giving these leaders the training they need to thrive.

How can we do better? We should give greater weight to social skills in the hiring and promotion process. Second, we need to create a culture that rewards people who use both sides of the neural see-saw effectively. We may not be able to use them in tandem easily, but knowing that there is another angle to problem-solving and productivity will help us produce leaders with more balanced skills.

Finally, it may be possible to train our social thinking so it becomes stronger over time. One exciting prospect is the recent finding that reading fiction seems to temporarily strengthen these mental muscles. Wouldn’t it be great if reading The Catcher In The Rye was the key to larger profits? © Harvard Business School Publishing Corp


Matthew Lieberman is a professor and Director of the UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience laboratory. He is the author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect and a TEDx speaker.

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