26 January 2017 Feature

Workplace 2030: leadership

Are you a compassionate, open-minded leader, or are you distracted by uncertainty and technology? CBI’s Workplace 2030 series of events tackled the question of how to guide staff through difficult times 

“When we ask people why they decided to leave an organisation, more often than not their immediate supervisor is cited as the key driver,” says leadership institute Roffey Park’s chief executive Michael Jenkins.

The British workforce suffers from what we call compassion blockers

A time of market disruption can only magnify the challenge of being that supervisor, so leadership was top of the agenda at the CBI Workplace 2030 event on 14 December. 

What is good leadership?

“One of the things we have identified as being really closely linked with productivity is compassion,” says Jenkins. “We have fairly solid evidence that the British workforce suffers from what we call compassion blockers. People want to be more human and have warmer relations with people in the workplace. But they also feel they need to hold people accountable and keep them on track with what the business expects.”

Three things are essential: trust, conflict and feedback. All three of those can go wrong

But it’s not all about making friends. Conflict is an important ingredient in the recipe for productivity, according to Centre for Synchronous Leadership (CSL) director Justine Lutterodt. “When it comes to productivity there are three things that are essential from a cultural perspective. One is trust, one is conflict, and one is feedback. And all three of those can go wrong.”

Conflict is often in plentiful supply in the workplace, but it’s rarely productive conflict, Lutterodt explains. “Or there's no conflict, which is just as worrying, because no one's talking, and we have to get people talking and sharing.” Unproductive feedback can only decrease trust, she points out. “If people are giving lots of feedback and it’s not necessary, then they hate each other.”

This characterisation of the workplace might sound extreme, but today’s pressures bring out primitive responses, Lutterodt says. “The pressures of uncertainty and faster speed bring out survival instincts that take us to a funny place around conflict, trust, and feedback. So being mindful and able to see our own behaviour in the moment is becoming ever more important.”


“It's not just about gender, race, age, or beliefs.” Diversity includes cognitive diversity – differences in the way that people think and solve problems. “It's about the way their brains are wired,” says Warren Partners director of research Tim Kemp.

There are three main ways to improve cognitive diversity in the workplace: recruitment, promotion and management

Improving productivity requires a step change, and disruptive thinkers can help an organisation achieve that change he believes. Together with ‘adaptors’, who strive for continual, incremental improvement, ‘disruptors’ can help an organisation become more competitive. “You need both of those types of people within an organisation. But how do we do something about improving cognitive diversity?”

There are three main ways to do this, Kemp says: recruitment, promotion and management. “It’s about taking on people with a competency set and the intellectual ability to apply skills and knowledge to a new sector can effectively bring about change. Rewarding people who are innovators within an organisation, who have different thinking styles. Managing by generating an inclusive culture - people have to feel comfortable bringing their ideas out into the open. But critical to all of this, Kemp argues, is open-minded, curious leadership.

Technology and trust

Technology as the means to greater productivity can be a distraction from the untapped human potential in a business, suggests Roffey Park’s Jenkins.

New digital media are challenging old models of top-down leadership. Authenticity is becoming important for organisations which can no longer simply market a reputation in order to lay claim to it,

Technology does not always facilitate communications. Remote working via email can cause all sorts of nightmares

because disgruntled employees will reveal any inconsistencies in social media. “You actually have to be the thing you want to market,” says CSL’s Lutterodt.

And technology does not always facilitate communications. Social psychology shows that diversity actually makes organisations and teams less productive, unless they have certain skills in how to engage with each other, she explains. International collaboration within organisations can be slowed by technology and dilute leadership messages.

“As soon as you get into remote working it becomes challenging, because people start to communicate via email, which can cause all sorts of nightmares in terms of trust and the relationships that people have within the work environment,” says Kemp.

Whether HR can provide some of the solutions to the leadership challenge will be one of the many questions posed by ongoing CBI research: “We'd like to take these ideas forward into some project work the CBI will be doing next year, both in terms of business' licence to operate in the societies in which we work, and in terms of our future economic success,” CBI director of people and skills Neil Carberry told delegates.

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