Bersin: Why companies need ‘right-brain leadership’

By: | April 14, 2021 • 5 min read
Josh Bersin writes HRE’s HR in the Flow of Work column. Bersin is an analyst, author, educator and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

The Josh Bersin Academy’s most recent Big Reset Playbook, published earlier this month, is focused on human-centered leadership—a recurring topic in the many working group collaborations we’ve conducted since March 2020.

The pandemic and its aftermath have highlighted the need for leaders who are empathetic, inclusive and highly flexible. The old style of management, with its at-all-costs focus on the bottom line isn’t working in this new world of work. Leaders today must embrace new management principles and demonstrate the ability to think creatively, to consider the wellbeing of their teams and to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the actual work.

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It may seem silly to use the phrase “human-centered” in a discussion of leadership, since the main function of a leader is to motivate and guide people toward achieving a common goal or purpose. But in reality, often the “people” part of leadership gets lost in the job. For instance, when you think of leadership, do you think of individual and team performance, deadlines, projects, status reports? Or do you think about the needs of the people who make work actually happen?

If honest, most managers would admit they think primarily of the first. Our research shows that it’s time for a rebalance. Of the hundreds of leadership models in the market, we believe they all fall into one of two main categories:

  • Business-centered leadership: Leaders focus on how to grow, optimize and improve the business, with a focus on innovation, marketing, growth, operations, R&D, manufacturing, quality and financial results. Companies embracing this style teach leaders about technology, the competitive marketplace, supply chains and competitive advantage.
  • Human-centered leadership: Leaders focus on hiring, developing, coaching, inspiring and pushing people to grow, innovate, serve customers and improve the company. Companies embracing this style teach leaders to understand what makes people thrive, what drives creativity and problem-solving in the company, and how to support people during times of change, stress or disruption.

We know that all great leaders focus on both areas, but in reality, these areas tax different sides of your brain. In a way, we are talking about left-brain and right-brain leadership, and it’s clear from our research that, today, companies are desperate for the latter.

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In every situation we face as leaders, there are business-centered and human-centered issues at play. Therefore, it’s important to understand the differences between the two when it comes to mindset and actions, skills and capabilities, and behaviors and actions.  (Our Big Reset Playbook includes such a breakdown.)

HR plays a critical role in helping leaders reconcile these two different styles and foster the capabilities needed for authentic human-centered leadership. Going beyond traditional leadership development programs, the most successful HR teams are taking innovative approaches to helping leaders develop new capabilities.

  • Learning from team members: A leader’s team arguably has the best insights into the leader’s skills, behaviors and daily actions. 360 reviews have long been part of leadership development programs, but some organizations take this approach in a new direction to accelerate leadership growth and development:
    • At Sanofi, employees rate their managers and decide which project to work on in its new internal gig work marketplace.
    • Sabre includes a leadership equality index in its leader development plan to encourage leaders to practice equitable people actions.
    • Dow uses technology to track the most popular leaders through its leadership effectiveness survey; then, these leaders are asked to share what they are going to work on from a personal development standpoint with their teams.
  • Learning from other leaders: Senior leaders set the tone for the organization and are important role models for leaders further down in the organizational hierarchy. When these senior leaders demonstrate that a safe environment, trust and empathy are just as important as financials, others follow their example.
    • Biogen’s extended leadership team was divided into groups of eight to 10; a senior leader was assigned to each group. Groups collaborated on topics such as creating trust, psychological safety and leading through uncertainty.
  • Learning to be better listeners: Listening is perhaps the No. 1 power skill of all. In our pandemic response study, listening and acting on feedback was identified as the most important practice.
    • Target engages senior leaders in facilitating listening sessions with employees on difficult topics like racial inequality. HR provides leaders and employees with ground rules to help guide behaviors and expectations with great success.
  • Learning through reflection: Human-centered leaders need time and space to sit back, think and consider how to do even better in the future.
    • Sabre builds in time for self-reflection time for leaders. The CEO pulls up leaders’ calendars to check for taking time outs, and the company uses Microsoft 365 Insights/Cortana to schedule breaks during the workday.
    • Biogen has a “no meeting week” three times a year; the practice has been widely acclaimed by leaders who report increased creativity and strengthened connections with employees.
  • Caring about employee wellbeing: Now more than ever, leaders need to be aware of factors impacting the physical, mental and financial health of employees. But most managers lack formal education in these areas.
    • Zebra Tech’s “Managing Your Energy” program encompasses sessions conducted by the company’s EAP, during which leaders learn how to recognize symptoms of burnout.
    • Pelmorex provides managers with specific and detailed guidelines on how to detect and respond effectively to employee stress and burnout.
  • Coaching and providing feedback: The best leaders today act like coaches, not managers. Throughout all phases of the Big Reset, the transformation of performance management has been a recurring theme.
    • Walgreen Boots Alliance shifted from a traditional performance management approach to continuous feedback, listening and coaching. The more frequent touchpoints were important for increased connection and engagement of employees.

One of the big lessons learned over the last year is that leaders need to put people before profits if their business is to succeed. I believe 2021 will be an exciting opportunity for transformation, change and innovation. Now is the time for leaders to lead in a human-centered way. HR’s role will be to define what this looks like and to put programs and practices in place to cement new behaviors into daily work.

Go to joshbersin.com to download the complimentary Big Reset Playbooks.

Learn about leadership in the new world of work at the free, virtual Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, May 11-13.

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