I spoke to Jeffrey Pfeffer about the new relationship relationship between employees and their leaders, the most common misconceptions around leadership, why you should think twice about trusting leadership experts, if leaders are born or made and how to fix workplaces and careers.
Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He has authored or coauthored fourteen books and is a highly sought-after expert on the subject of power and leadership. He is widely considered one of the leading management experts in the world. Pfeffer has been a visiting professor at London Business School, Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University, and IESE. He has served on the boards of several human capital software companies as well as on a variety of public and nonprofit boards. His latest book is called Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time.
Dan Schawbel: What is the current state of the relationship between employees and their leaders?
Jeffrey Pfeffer: Every piece of data suggests that workplaces are in dire shape and there is low levels of trust in leaders. For instance, data on employee engagement from Gallup show that worldwide only about 13% of employees report being engaged with their work, and in the U.S., the number is barely higher at 20%. Job satisfaction has declined almost linearly since 1987 to the present. The Edelman Trust index indicates that the public at large has low trust in leaders, while other surveys show that employees do not expect their own leaders to make ethical decisions or to consistently tell them the truth about difficult situations.
In part, the poor relationship between employees and leaders is a natural, almost inevitable outgrowth of the increasingly “transactional” nature of work. Not only are there an ever-higher proportion of contractors and part-timers doing organizational work, but even presumably full-time employees face increasingly levels of economic insecurity including layoffs and, in the case of many retail employees, always-varying schedules that make predicting time demands and income almost impossible.
Seeing people as “costs” to be minimized, and the increasingly transactional nature of companies, means that the social relations that once bound people together and to their companies have largely disappeared.
Schawbel: What are some of the most common misconceptions about leadership?
Pfeffer: That “leadership success” is easily and unambiguously defined and measured. The most frequent question I get is, “name a successful leader” or “what can I do to be a more successful leader?” These questions, as asked, are meaningless, because the answers depend on what we mean by success.
One of the dilemmas in leadership is that the qualities and behaviors that make individuals successful in their careers—narcissism and self-aggrandizement, the ability to prevaricate with skill and without remorse, skill in acting and presenting oneself in ways that may not be how one is feeling at the time, among others—are qualities and behaviors that do not necessarily produce great group results or healthy workplaces.
By the way, the contrast between individual and group needs has been recognized in sociobiology and psychology for a long time, so these discrepancies should not be news to anyone.
So the misconceptions about leadership come from the enormous discontinuities between what people are told they are “supposed to” do and what both social science and everyday observation suggests are the behaviors of some of the most admired and successful leaders.
Schawbel: Why has the leadership industry failed, efforts and expenditures notwithstanding, to make workplaces better and leaders more effective?
Pfeffer: I see at least two huge problems. First, anyone can be leadership expert with no knowledge of the relevant social science, no expertise, no experience required. In a list of the 50 Top Leadership and Management Experts published in 2014 by Inc. magazine, of the top 20 people on the list, one had no college degree, only 5 had terminal degrees in relevant fields, and two had doctorates in religion. The experts’ self-described skills were as speakers.
Which leads to the second problem: as McKinsey and the Institute for Corporate Productivity have both documented, the most common way of evaluating leadership training is by using the so-called “happy sheets” or “smiley-face” sheets that measure the audience’s delight with the presentation. Decades of research demonstrate the the correlation between student evaluations of teachers and measures of objective learning are about zero. Moreover, if you evaluate leadership development experiences by their entertainment value, what you get is entertainment.
If we want to make workplaces and careers better, if we want to increase trust in leaders, then it seems pretty obvious to me that those should be the criteria we use to evaluate leadership training experiences—not whether people came away feeling good.
Schawbel: Can anyone be a leader?
Pfeffer: Leadership is a skill, and I believe like all skills, can be mastered with practice and coaching. That does not mean that there aren’t individual differences, but that people can improve on their current capabilities.
One of the reasons why leadership training so often fails—Bill Gentry of the Center for Creative Leadership estimates that about half of all leaders are ineffective in their roles—is that leadership education insufficiently focuses on building the influence skills and acumen in managing organizational dynamics—organizational politics, if you will—that are so essential to getting things done on the one hand and surviving and succeeding in workplaces on the other.
Schawbel: What are the three things you would recommend to “fix workplaces and careers?”
Pfeffer: First, evaluate leadership development activities, including talks, programs, and so forth, using relevant criteria: improvements in employee engagement, trust in leaders, job satisfaction, turnover, the ability of leaders to keep their jobs and be effective in doing them, etc. The huge disconnect between how most companies evaluate leadership development efforts and the dimensions along which they are seeking improvement dooms these efforts. Companies cannot know what is working and, moreover, wind up encouraging unproductive activities and behaviors.
Second, build evidence-based practice, incorporating social science research, into leadership training and development. The idea that leadership training is about inspiration strikes me as ridiculous. We know a lot about how to change behaviors on a sustained, successful basis—and inspiration is not the way. This neglect of evidence distinguished management from medicine and, for that matter, from any other field that has made progress over the years.
And third, we need to understand—and then do something about—the disconnect between the leaders and companies we honor on the most admired lists and the companies that are truly great places to work with healthy workplaces. The fact that admired leaders and companies can be truly toxic workplaces strikes me as a major reason why so many people are in abusive, bullying, stressful work environments.
By Dan Schawbel
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