Your people aren't lab rats – so get to know them

19 February 2015 -

Lab rodent

CMI’s chief executive ponders both the science and art behind the development of successful management styles

Anne Franke, chief executive, CMI

“Knowledge obtained by observation and experiment.” Such is the Chambers Dictionary’s first definition of the word “science”. I figure that, under that simple definition, leadership styles qualify. We’ve learned what works. We’ve tried and tested it. It’s the putting it into practice that poses the problem.

Take CMI’s extolling of the Three Ps – Purpose, People and Potential. That’s a pretty simple equation of applied mathematics. Make sure you have a positive purpose as an organisation. And develop your people so their value increases. Get that side of the equation right and the other side – your potential – will skyrocket. As I say, simple.

But much of what is simple in theory is hard in practice. And management and leadership styles fall into the tricky category. Much managing is done badly, depressing the first two variables rather than boosting them. This crunching is rarely deliberate. Often it is born from lack of knowledge. Those who are ignorant of the consequences of their behaviour are unlikely to change it.

Management and leadership are affected by pretty much every branch of science. We are familiar with the simple mathematics of business success. How about the more complex discipline of neuroscience? The finding that fear destroys cognitive power is both compelling and terrifying. How many managers and leaders have given a worker cause for alarm and, as such, reduced their ability to do their job? What can seem like nothing to a boss can cause worry in their staff. If you make an unguarded remark about someone’s work, or forget to remind them about the security of their job, fear can set in quickly – and falling performance soon follows it.

The field of psychology is a rich source of management lessons. It is a growing problem that the creativity and innovation that introverts bring to the table are being squandered because we are being unscientific about how we use them. We wouldn’t – I hope – put our teams in boiling hot offices and expect them to perform. Yet we put introverts in what to them are hothouse atmospheres, broiling them in group brainstorms and rendering them uncomfortably red-faced with public praise. Management is in some ways a science, but it is also an art. You cannot treat human beings like identical lab rats, expecting each of them to respond to triggers in exactly the same way.

Peter Vicary-Smith, the successful chief executive of the consumer charity Which?, knows that every human being is different, and therefore he tailors the way he manages to each person. This is the interface of the science of management with instinct – the qualitative approach that complements the quantitative.

You can do a lot with maths. You can work out the two sides of the management equation and figure out how they interrelate. But you can’t do everything. The science of the human brain – and the art of being human – are more complex. But with emotional awareness, a willingness to learn and, above all, empathy, we can master even these.

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