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The executive's new clothes: does your team really agree with you?

Saturday, March 26, 2016 - 18:19

By now, we've all heard the story of the two weavers who promised to create a suit of clothes for the Emperor, a suit that is invisible to anyone who is unfit for positions of power or incredibly stupid. While his own ministers pretended they could see the garments, the tale comes to an end when a young boy yelled that the King was wearing nothing at all.

The tale holds a warning for those in positions of power; are your staff simply acquiescing to a decision or do they wholly believe in the course of action.

While the parable has been told and retold for generations, it may be about time to apply the same thinking to the current role of management staff in an organisation.

Internal sources of critique

While executives are (hopefully) not walking around board rooms in their birthday suit, many may be unaware how their hierarchical positions impact the ability to communicate with employees and even other senior managers.

To overcome this, managers need to be able to look back upon themselves and identify how their organisational role may predetermine the answers and responses they receive from their team.

Within the social sciences and professional leadership training, self-reflexivity is a mechanism that many researchers use to induce awareness of the influence they have on the actions of others as well as the results they record.

For managers - much like the Emperor - influencing those around you is essential for most business workflows. However, it is also important to be challenged by those who report to you. By altering their own perspective, managers can become aware of how their positions impact others and implement strategies that mitigate this effect.

Fragmented perspectives and diverse opinions

While being able to identify one's own position in relation to others is important, no matter how much we learn about reflexivity and other reflectional mechanisms, they can only take a manager so far.

Not to mention constant reflection can diminish self-development and minimise the effect executives have on employees in relation to engagement and productivity. As such, having a team who are able to challenge your perceptions and opinions is an essential accompaniment to any reflexive mechanism.

A diverse team can help challenge preconceived ideas.

However, senior management teams, and organisations in general, can often come unstuck here due to a lack of diversity. For instance, according to BlackRock, women constitute only 18 per cent of key management personnel among the ASX 200.

But diversity is essential for creating effective performance. Research from MIT has shown that people who work within socially homogeneous teams overestimate their own contribution towards the group's success. The 2014 research found that this self-serving bias manifests five times more within socially similar groups than in ethnically diverse groups.

While both diverse and homogenous groups have the capability to impact how members think, make decisions and act on them, heterogeneous groups are more aware of where they stand in relation to other members. As an organisational leader, knowing the limitations of one's own ability is crucial. It can, for instance, lead to better recruitment targets that fill skill and experience gaps.

Driving performance through diverse teams

There is also plenty of proof that diverse organisations are better equipped for the commercial world than socially homogeneous groups. McKinsey and Company found that organisations with a higher level of diversity in their workforce than their competitors were more likely to have better financial returns than their competitors.

Managers therefore need to surround themselves with teams that hold a diverse range of perspectives, which can challenge dominant views and offer keen insights.

All of us are at risk of thinking like the emperor did - that's why it's so important to have a diverse team who aren't afraid to challenge us before we feel the cool breeze of a management failure.