What's your Signature Environment?

What’s left in the room, after leaders leave it.

4 min read

Look at any leader, observe them in different situations and scenarios, and after a while you will notice something. Around them, woven into the working culture that each tends to generate, will be some common features that mark it as uniquely theirs. While their impact will vary slightly in different circumstances, there will also be some consistencies that together form a distinctive imprint that they have on the people and processes around them. And this, is their signature environment.

For the past ten years, a growing global group of researchers have been investigating both the ways in which leaders can affect the working environment around them, and which elements of it tend to have the most impact on performance. The type of environment that produces the best performance is obviously different in different situations. But researchers have uncovered three elements of the working environment that stand out as both heavily influenced by how leaders behave and particularly important in driving performance. And interestingly, there is growing evidence that these components are cross-culturally applicable – that they are important no matter where in the world you are.

A. Trust

When you look at the research into the impact leaders have, one thing stands out above all others as critical for building a successful working environment: Trust. Leadership behaviors related to trust – such as honesty and integrity – are consistently among those rated as most important by followers. It has been found to be a key driver of both individual and team performance, and of organizational performance indicators such as sales figures and net profits. And it has been found to be more important in driving these things than how motivated employees feel, how empowered they are, or how much they enjoy their jobs. It may not get the headlines of other aspects of leadership, but make no mistake: If you want to drive business performance you need to build trust.

The reason why trust is so important can be seen once we get into trying to define what exactly we mean by ‘trust’. It’s much debated, and one recent study found as many as 38 different kinds of descriptions of what trust is and involves. In general, however, it is thought to consist of four core elements:

· Respect - do people believe that they (and their ideas) will be treated with respect

· Fairness - do people believe they will be treated and rewarded fairly

· Integrity - do people feel that they can believe what each other says

· Consistency - do people find each other’s behavior consistent and predictable

What makes these things critical are the types of performance they drive. Two things in particular. First, followers who trust their leaders show higher levels of what researchers call discretionary effort. This is the effort individuals put in over and above what is required by any job description or contract. It is the extra mile people will go to ensure success. The second thing trust drives is what is called employee voice: The tendency to speak up and speak out, to challenge thinking and keep information flowing. It is one of the most critical foundation needed for good decision-making and risk management.

Moreover, there is some suggestion that trust may be becoming even more important as business environments become busier, less predictable and more stressful. Because research from military and other extreme situations show that as stress and uncertainty increase, trust becomes more important for effective leadership. Without it, communication breaks down, information stops flowing and individuals become siloed.

So trust may not sound like something that is essential for performance. It may sound a bit soft and fluffy and not very business-like. But put the two things it drives on the table - discretionary effort and employee voice – and you have two of the fundamental building blocks of success.

B. Clarity

The second core component of a successful working environment is perhaps the most obvious one: Clarity. It is the understanding that exists about four key things:

· Direction - what is important (the direction and strategy of the business)

· Accountability - who is accountable (who needs to do what, and by when)

· Purpose - why certain things are important (the shared purpose of the business)

· Values - how things should be done (the values of the business)

Clarity is important because with it comes the essential alignment, unity and community that is critical for strategy implementation and business success. And through these things, clarity also drives both better team-working, and higher levels of employee commitment. Little wonder then, that a 2016 study into the most important leadership behaviors found that two of the top three were all about creating clarity (the third was about trust). And interestingly, as with trust, research suggests that as stress and uncertainty increase so too does the importance of clarity.

C. Momentum

The final key element of the working environment leaders create is momentum: the energy and strength for sustained activity. This element is a little less studied that the other two, and a little more diffuse, but is thought to include:

· Motivation - how motivated people feel by what they are doing and trying to achieve

· Confidence - the level of confidence people have in themselves, their leader, the organisation, and the people around them

· Belief - the degree to which people believe in what they are doing – that it is the best way to achieve success and something that is worth doing.

· Ownership ­- the level of personal responsibility and ownership people feel for what they are doing

Just as with trust and clarity, the importance of momentum lies in the results it is associated with. People who have higher levels of momentum are more likely to take the initiative, drive creativity and innovation, and show higher levels of entrepreneurialism. They have been shown to work harder, and persist longer when they encounter difficulties. And they are more likely to show loyalty to the organization and demonstrate commitment to it.

Working with Signature Environments

These, then, are the core components of a successful working environment: Trust, Clarity and Momentum. They are closely interlinked. The degree to which people feel trust can influence how able a leader is to create clarity. The degree of clarity that exists can influence the amount of momentum that individuals have. And the degree of momentum people feel can affect the amount of trust they have. They are the impact that leaders have. They are what leaders help shape and create through their characteristics, skills and behaviours. And they are a critical part of how leadership works.

It has been said before that leadership is the imprint left in the room after you leave. The way people respond to you even when you are not there. With Signature Environments, we now have a way to think about what this imprint is more clearly, to assess it, and to develop it.

For more information on this research, its findings, and implications can do, please contact us.

© Nik Kinley, 2024

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