In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment it’s the constant change that grabs all the attention. But there is still one constant for organisations: people. Businesses today may need fewer people than in the past, but that makes each employee more, not less important.

Organisational success relies on these people being – and staying – engaged. But there’s a piece of the engagement puzzle that often gets ignored: the engagement of senior leaders. Not only do leaders need to cope with the VUCA environment at a personal level, but they also need to guide and navigate a team or an organisation through this transition. Keeping leaders engaged is the key to success in both these personal and leadership challenges.

Most leaders are operating in revolution mode

Just how much change are leaders currently experiencing? In a recent survey of workplace leaders, Korn Ferry found that 61 percent of leaders indicated that they were going through a period of revolution, characterised by abrupt and rapid change.

Only 19 percent of leaders described their organisations as relatively stable, while another 20 percent of leaders described their companies as going through “evolution”, or modest change.

In other words, the majority of leaders are experiencing a fierce pace of change.

Fitting the leader to the environment

In fast-changing environments, it’s easy to miss engagement gaps among senior leaders. Senior leaders’ opinions tend to be more favourable about their work than those of employees at other levels, so it’s often just assumed that all senior leaders are on board.

In fast-changing environments, it’s easy to miss engagement gaps among senior leaders. Their opinions tend to be more favourable about their work than those of employees at other levels. Click To Tweet

Understanding how different types of leaders typically react to change can help identify engagement issues that may be bubbling under the surface of seemingly positive engagement results.

The difference is particularly evident when comparing the engagement of leaders with an entrepreneurial mindset with non-entrepreneurial leaders. Entrepreneurial leaders thrive in high-change environments. The opposite is true of non-entrepreneurial leaders, who find it particularly challenging to manage in fast-changing environments.

Entrepreneurial leaders prefer independence and freedom from organisational constraints and value employability over job security – all features of working in revolutionary environments. In contrast, leaders without an entrepreneurial mindset prefer structure; they want to identify strongly with the particular organisation and its collective vision which is difficult when the sands keep shifting.

The leadership challenge

Where there’s a mismatch between leaders preferred and actual work environments, the effect on them and their teams can be profound. The personal challenge quickly carries over to the leadership challenge as disengaged leaders are unlikely to be personally up for the transformational leadership behaviours required to keep their teams aligned in times of change.

Where there’s a mismatch between leaders preferred and actual work environments, the effect on them and their teams can be profound. Click To Tweet

If leaders signal to employees through their words or actions – whether express or implied – that they lack faith in organisational change efforts, employees’ trust will decline rapidly.  

Three ways to keep leaders engaged

  1. Assessment: The first step is to really understand where the organisation’s leaders vis-a-vie their work environment. This means that in a VUCA environment, organisations need to know if their leaders possess the agile traits that will make them motivated and successful in a revolutionary change environment.
  2. Authenticity: To keep leaders engaged, they need to address both the personal and the leadership challenge authentically. If leaders are open and honest with employees about challenges as well as what has gone well, then they and their people can move forward and learn from the experience.
  3. Tailor leadership development: The personal challenge (and its impact on the leadership challenge) will vary for each leader. Leaders need to build self-awareness around their own relationship with change and how to leverage their personal strengths within a given environment.

For more insights on how to close gaps of engagement in senior leaders, read Leadership in a volatile, uncertain world.

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