HomeLeadershipThe leadership secret to building happier teams (without sacrificing your own wellbeing)

The leadership secret to building happier teams (without sacrificing your own wellbeing)

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Research has repeatedly shown that higher employee wellbeing = higher productivity. Yet, as leaders, our own wellbeing can fall to the bottom of the priority pile.

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Research has repeatedly shown that employee wellbeing is essential to the success of high-performing businesses – higher employee wellbeing = higher productivity. Yet, as leaders, our own wellbeing can fall to the bottom of the priority pile.

Gallup’s new State of the Global Workplace 2024 paints a worrying picture. Not only did employee wellbeing drop to 34% last year, but manager wellbeing suffered too, with 41% of managers experiencing daily stress. As rising stress levels increase incivility between colleagues at work, managers struggle to cultivate collaborative and psychologically safe cultures while protecting their own wellbeing.

When managers thrive at work, their direct reports are 15% more likely to thrive in their wellbeing six months later. Given this clear link, HR leaders must help managers build happier teams without sacrificing their own wellbeing. What needs to change to achieve this?

Management isn’t evolving rapidly enough

In the face of mounting pressures to perform, it’s all too easy for managers to default to a traditional command-and-control style of directing, fixing and solving all of the problems brought to them as they firefight their way through each day. Being seen to have the answers brings its own pressures and means that managers become involved in even the smallest decisions. But in doing so, they’re adding to their own workload by taking elements of those problems onto their already overloaded work stack, which affects their wellbeing and of course increases their likelihood of burning out.

This is self-perpetuating, too—if we continually solve team members’ problems, then guess what? They’ll keep bringing us more problems, which creates a culture of dependency. Ironically, managers risk stifling team members’ progress by preventing them from attempting to solve problems independently and developing the confidence and initiative to act when they’re not there.

Whilst great efforts (and huge investments) have been made to transform managers into coaches, this much hoped-for panacea hasn’t panned out, and HR leaders everywhere have largely been left wringing their hands at the poor return on investment and their managers’ seeming inability to engage consistently and effectively with employees. And perhaps it’s no great surprise when time-starved managers are being taught Executive Coaching models to be employed in sit-down, formal coaching sessions. Even if they could get over the discomfort of coaching a direct report for whom they hold their own agenda, it’s simply not dynamic enough and doesn’t equip line managers with the modern skills they need to cope with a multi-generational workforce whose values and expectations have all changed since Covid. If we’re to reverse low employee engagement (10% in the UK) and moribund productivity levels, nothing short of a management revolution in purpose and intention is urgently needed.

Which is why a new management approach called Operational Coaching® has been making waves.

The secret to transforming management behaviour

Capturing the imagination of the UK Government, this new approach teaches managers to adopt new behaviours that help them utilise purposeful enquiry, bringing coaching into the flow of daily work. Put to the test by the government in extended academic research conducted by the London School of Economics, this exciting approach was found to win back about 20% of managers’ time as they increased the amount of time they spent coaching others by 70%.

As part of a modular learning journey, managers addressed their impact on others when responding to different situations in their typical way. As they developed their situational awareness they also learnt how to apply a new management model—STAR®—designed to help them adapt their behaviour in a split second. Specifically, managers learned to:

•     STOP—step back and change state.

•     THINK—is this a coachable moment?

•     ASK—powerful and insightful questions and actively listen, before securing a

•     RESULT—agreeing on an action or an outcome from the conversation.

In practice, this means that when a team member comes to you with a problem, STOP. Not every problem needs an overstressed manager doing all the thinking. Avoid providing all the answers or mentally trawling your own mind for solutions. Learning to bite your lip wins you a moment to THINK instead about whether the situation could be a coachable moment, i.e. a time when a deft prompt from you could help this person explore the situation and possible solutions themselves.

If you think the person might benefit from wrestling with the problem themselves (i.e. it is a coachable moment), adopt an enquiry-led approach. This involves learning to ASK authentic and powerful questions intended purely to stimulate the other person’s thinking, which will help them to consider and reflect on the possible actions they can take to begin to resolve the issue. A useful tip here is to focus on what? rather than why? questions, as the latter can imply criticism or blame, e.g., asking “What do you think is the reason this is happening so often?”, rather than “Why is this happening so often?”.

To secure a RESULT, you’ll need to ask a few more questions to agree on the appropriate follow-up. This not only raises the likelihood that actions will be followed through but alsoprovides an opportunity to give some appreciative feedback.

Why asking better questions boosts workplace wellbeing

Mastering how to ask more powerful questions using the STAR® model, until this becomes a completely natural second-nature behaviour, requires training – it’s not something managers have been taught how to do. As a developed skill, purposeful enquiry (as opposed to diagnostic questioning), can quickly encourage team members to step up and begin to share accountability for the team’s workload. It also builds resilience, confidence and trust within teams, key for effective delegation as managers can distribute their workload or particular activities more equitably. This ultimately boosts the wellbeing of both employees and managers, as it enhances a sense of ownership and fulfilment amongst team members and lightens the manager’s workload.

The aim is to encourage sustainable but achievable changes in managers’ everyday behaviour and how they relate to team members. As well as improving their capability across all nine competencies measured during their research, LSE indicated a positive trend of a sixfold improvement in employee retention between intervention group organisations (learning to apply STAR®) versus those in the control group.

If organisations want their employees to thrive in their jobs and be productive, our managers and leaders must be equipped with the modern engagement and communication skills that will help them thrive too. Not only will this positively leverage the extent of managers’ influence on the health and wellbeing of their employees, but its pervasive impact will also establish a coaching culture that has embedded purposeful enquiry and intentional enablement, creating workplaces and workplace cultures that enable the potential of everyone.

It sits with us. Our future will be defined by how well we, HR leaders, can lead the management revolution needed to release the massive flood of untapped potential and the willing engagement of our workforces.

Dominic Ashley-Timms and Laura Ashley-Timms are the CEO and COO of performance consultancy Notion, creator of the multi-award-winning and internationally certified  STAR® Manager programme used by managers in over 40 countries. They are also the co-authors of the new management bestseller The Answer is a Question.

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