Becoming a better leader

Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults are running training for all our line managers. Each of us have had the opportunity to discuss our approaches with the trainer, which has given us the chance to reflect on what we do. It’s already been a worthwhile endeavour as it prompted a good discussion with my own line manager about our respective strengths and weaknesses.

I’ve previously blogged about my use of Servant Leadership, and I’ve generally found that it works well. However, it’s struck me over the last couple of weeks that my lack of familiarity with the organisation has meant that I’ve been very reactive in my approach so far. It’s basically meant that my colleagues have been identifying issues and I’ve been getting to grips with them as they’re becoming a problem or after they’ve occured. Our recent team day was an attempt to shift that somewhat, as we looked at broader issues that affect how we do our jobs and how we could better support each other.

Reality testing

My conversation with Karen Cove (our trainer) helped me to clarify what I’m good at, including my good theoretical grasp of our challenges. In my first four months at the organisation I’ve been focusing on how the organisation works, but Karen suggested that I could benefit from embedding reality testing as a pro-active behaviour. It’s something that’s been easy to do in previous jobs, as I worked in public engagement for Participation Cymru and held discussions with stakeholders for the Wales Audit Office’s shared learning events. It’s something that I will need to focus on again when we identify future learning approaches. I’m particularly interested in how I might link my work to the user testing that we’re doing for our online learning activities.

Building bridges

One of my strengths is that I’m quite good at developing interpersonal relationships and building bridges. However, I can have an over-reliance on those skills at the expense of being assertive. We discussed the difference between the “what” and the “how”, and when it’s appropriate to say “This is what we need to do, how do we do it?”

Karen suggested that I look at Patrick Lencioni’s work on the five dysfunctions of a team and to think about how they relate to my strengths and weaknesses.

  • Absence of trust, which is split into predictability trust (trusting someone because you know what they’re going to do) and vulnerability based trust (which comes from openness and honesty). Professor Roz Searle has undertaken some really interesting work in organisational trust that’s well worth checking out.
  • Fear of conflict, as Lencioni identifies conflict as a good thing. Without trust, he suggests that conflict becomes politics (trying to manipulate people to win), but with trust it’s part of a constructive improvement journey.
  • Lack of commitment, especially to new proposals. This is linked to a lack of openness and transparency, which makes accountability difficult.
  • Avoidance of accountability, where individuals don’t buy into a team vision. He says that bad behaviour often comes from when leaders say they don’t have the time and energy to hold people accountable for their actions. Essentially, that culture is derived from the behaviours that we reward and punish.
  • Inattention to results. This seems to be pitched at the private sector in particular, but I feel like I have to make the distinction between outputs and outcomes. If what we’re measuring isn’t aligned to purpose, then that creates a defacto purpose and waste in the system. Measures aren’t ends in and of themselves.

Some of these points on trust and conflict relate to Chris Argyris’ theories on double loop learning and moving from a model one behaviour to a model two behaviour. Model one behaviour involves pushing your views without explaining your reasoning. Anderson links this to acting defensively, which he describes as moving away from truths about ourselves.

“If our actions are driven by moving away from something then our actions are controlled and defined by whatever it is we are moving away from, not by us and what we would like to be moving towards. Therefore our potential for growth and learning is seriously impaired. If my behaviour is driven by my not wanting to be seen as incompetent, this may lead me to hide things from myself and others, in order to avoid feelings of incompetence. For example, if my behaviour is driven by wanting to be competent, honest evaluation of my behaviour by myself and others would be welcome and useful.”

Model two behaviour by contrast involves making use of good quality data and including the views and experiences of participants instead of imposing a view upon a situation. I found this table helpful in trying to understand the contrasting approaches and how they might feed into my personal perception of what a good leader looks like.


Lastly, Karen picked up on how I deal with stress. I’ve always been incredibly laid back, which means that I seldom get really stressed, mainly because I think that there are more important things in life than work. This is the first point in my life where I’ve had a sense of stress. As my circumstances have changed massively over the last 6 months, the margin for error has felt smaller. Whilst I’m ok at communicating where I’m at with my work (although there’s room for improvement), I don’t tend to talk about how I feel. All of a sudden it’s felt like there’s a lot at stake. Having the conversation with Karen prompted me to put myself out there and have a difficult discussion about how I feel with my Manager. I feel much better for it.

So the next step is to undertake the training itself, which I hope will give me a good opportunity to learn more about how my colleagues work and a chance to learn from their experiences. And if it gives me the opportunity to do those things, then it will have been a course that was worth attending.



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Dyfrig Williams

Dyfrig Williams


Cymraeg! Music fan. Cyclist. Scarlet. Work for @researchip. Views mine / Barn fi.