Bridging the Leader-Employee Gap: Unleashing the Power of Effective Leadership Conversations

The leader-employee gap is not new but as the workplace is transforming and employee expectations have changed, its impact can be more readily seen in misalignment reduced productivity, diminished engagement, and The Great Resignation.

Bridging the leadership-employee gap is crucial for fostering a thriving work environment, maximizing human capital potential, and delivering accelerated results, yet many managers and leaders struggle to acknowledge or address this issue. Fearing a lack of control and not trusting their employees to take ownership and responsibility can transform the gap into a chasm.

Leadership Styles and the Leader-Employee Gap

Way back in the 1950s, Douglas McGregor proposed Theory X and Theory Y. These two theories contrast assumptions about human nature and their impact on leadership styles.

  1. Theory X: Theory X assumes that employees inherently dislike work and will avoid it if possible. It suggests that individuals are primarily motivated by external factors such as rewards and punishments, requiring strict supervision and control. Leaders who subscribe to Theory X tend to have a command-and-control approach, micromanaging their employees and limiting autonomy and empowerment. This leadership style perpetuates the leader-employee gap, as it creates an environment of mistrust, disengagement, and limited collaboration.

  2. Theory Y: Theory Y, in contrast, posits that employees have inherent motivation and derive satisfaction from their work. It suggests that individuals are capable of self-direction, creativity, and taking responsibility. Leaders who embrace Theory Y adopt a participatory approach, empowering employees, delegating authority, and providing opportunities for growth and development. This leadership style promotes trust, collaboration, and employee engagement, effectively bridging the leader-employee gap.

A more modern approach suggests that leadership style depends on the personality and mindset of the leader and will be effective when it aligns with the motivation and skill level of the employees in the appropriate context.

When the business environment is stable, and employees are happy and good at their jobs, it is easy to take a Theory Y approach. The challenge comes when the environment is volatile and the job requirements are rapidly changing. In such situations, driven by fear and lack of trust leaders can default to a Theory X approach, often with disastrous consequences.

There is an alternative approach that I propose in The New Leadership Playbook (Ocean Reave Publishing 2022).

Divorcing Leadership from Authority

In the Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Heifetz, Linsky, Grashow) the authors define leadership as

“The practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive”

One of the most important framings of adaptive leadership is the idea that leadership is not a job or based on authority but it is a practice that can be done by anyone. By divorcing leadership from role or authority we make space for ownership and collaboration. 

For such a mindset and behavioral shift leaders must have the self-awareness to move beyond the framing of their experiences and overcome the tendency to go from crisis to crisis (firefighting).

Managers and leaders who fear a lack of control, or whose self-leadership is not up to the task of empowering a diverse team will, in my opinion,  expand the leadership-employee gap and block the agility of the organization. The good news is that this mindset can be overcome.

Leadership as a Conversation

In 2020, the Chief People Officer of one of my clients asked for my help. I had worked with her Executive Leadership Team (ELT) but she wanted to cascade the leadership principles and behaviors throughout the company and asked if I would write a book to support creating this culture.

I agreed providing that I would own the intellectual property to publish myself and that we collaborate to make sure the book was current, relevant, and practical. She agreed, and the result was, The New Leadership Playbook: Being Human whilst Successfully Delivering Accelerated Results.

Using the sporting metaphor of a 'play', the book contains 7 leadership principles and 12 plays that every leader must master if they are going to be effective. In writing each play to address each leadership-employee gap, I realized that leadership is a conversation.

"Leadership is a conversation, a  one-to-one conversation, and a one-to-many conversation"

Effective communication is the foundation of any successful organization. When leaders fail to communicate openly, transparently, and consistently, employees may feel uninformed, undervalued, and disconnected from the organization's vision and mission. This breakdown leads to reduced employee morale, increased turnover rates, and diminished collaboration.

Leaders tend to be good at broadcasting, but by reframing communication as a conversation they can better address any mismatch in expectations, tap into employees mindset and motivation, and clarify right behaviors.

A recent survey of leaders showed that only 8% were having regular conversations using their existing digital platforms, perhaps they were doing more in person, but this lack of communication can be addressed by applying the above Leadership Framework.

Leadership conversations reduce the leadership-employee gap by aligning employees' expectations regarding, the desire to feel part of decision-making,  career growth, recognition, and work-life balance. and the leader's expectations about levels of ownership and accountability.

Effective leadership conversations build a culture of trust and empowerment: Trust is the bedrock of healthy leader-employee relationships. A lack of trust hampers collaboration, stifles creativity, and limits innovation within the organization.

Trust is a two-way street, and leaders may find it challenging to bridge the gap if they themselves lack trust in themselves or their employees. Past experiences, organizational culture, or personal biases can contribute to this lack of trust. Without trust, leaders may struggle to empower employees, delegate effectively, or provide the necessary support and resources for their growth.

In Conclusion

Bridging the leader-employee gap often requires a shift in leadership style and organizational culture. Some leaders may resist change, clinging to traditional hierarchical structures and outdated management practices. This resistance can hinder the implementation of leadership conversations, participatory decision-making, and trust-building initiatives, perpetuating the gap between leaders and employees.

  • Step one is awareness, and my signature keynote speech, Driving Accelerated Results through Self-leadership includes a model that accurately reflects the framing and firefighting that inhibit delivering objectives. 
  • Step two is action. The New Leadership Playbook contains examples of leadership conversations and I also provide online or in-person coaching to Executive Leadership Teams to put these conversations into action. 
  • Step three is reinforcement. By fostering trust, practicing leadership conversation, embracing change, and actively involving employees, leaders can bridge the gap, create an inclusive work environment, and unleash the full potential of their teams.





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