Microsoft's President of EMEA, Michel Van der Bel uses an iPhone. 

No previous Microsoft executive would have admitted to this kind of heresy. But as Van der Bel said recently in a FT interview, its leadership has had to face some difficult lessons in order to remain relevant. 

Van der Bel knows that his own survival rests on his staff and customers seeing him actively listening and engaging with the dynamics happening beyond their own walls. Acknowledging and bringing in outside perspectives can immeasurably inspire a work culture — of how employees in organizations like Microsoft explore new ways to collaborate and tackle problems with more creative vigor.

A Leadership Issue Whose Time Has Come

CIPD’s recent survey "Employee Outlook — Employee Views on Working Life" confirmed fewer staff "agree that their leaders have a clear vision of where the organisation is going and very few employees believe that leaders consult them about important decisions." 

This view corresponds with other analysis highlighting the gaping hole between management capability and employee expectations. Gallop’s report State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders (registration) revealed that "managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores."

Everyone knows the value of leadership to motivate staff. It's a familiar business management trope. 

But the growing chasm of expectations is being made worse by the fact that few managers and leaders understand how to make the best use of their digital workplace technology to bridge the gap. 

In fact, the opposite is true: Poor use of technology can add to the impression that leadership is remote and unable to articulate a clear business strategy that connects and motivates their staff. 

Posting up a CEO video, or blog once a month on the company intranet just doesn’t cut it anymore. 

This is what Roffey Park, the leadership institute, revealed in its The Management Agenda 2015 research, surveying company leadership sentiment. 

    "[T]he challenge wrought by digital is that it removes, re-writes and often is oblivious to boundaries, whether they be structural or social." 

Staff, on the other hand, know that technology can make their work much easier. And can provide them with immediate feedback, circumventing old-fashioned top-down leadership from ‘up on high.'

Many companies struggle with how to use social platforms like Yammer and Jive to their advantage. Like a digital albatross, these tools quickly become relegated to the ‘tried it and it didn’t work’ category. An XpertHR report revealed only 22 percent of surveyed companies manage to get anything out of their social tools.

A Fresh Approach to Leadership (and Social Tools)

But as FastCompany reports, there is a growing call for managers to lead by example, to adopt more of a coaching approach towards guiding their teams. Technology can play a pivotal role in sharing ideas and in communicating change.

Take for example the manufacturing giant GE and its 310,000 employees. In the midst of a very competitive market where the development of new innovation is crucial, it is retiring the dogmatic performance categories once used to motivate staff performance. Instead, it now favors frequent feedback between managers and staff, all done via a mobile app called PD@GE, in person or by phone.

This points to a very different way of using social technology. Staff expect more opportunities to be involved, to contribute their own ideas on how to improve their organizations’ performance.

These ideas are very different from the familiar 'ideas suggestion box’ that were arguably more about managers wanting to connect with staff — bridging their own isolation — than of earnestly searching for new ways to innovate.

What underpins all of this is trust in your staff, and letting them do what they do best. As one ex-BBC head of HR refreshingly suggested, in an age where levels of trust between managers and staff are decidedly low, the answer must be to let go bit and treat staff like “adults, customers and human beings.”      

Steering a Straight Business Course

As a ship needs a helmsman, companies need leadership, leadership that establishes a clear direction. 

But rather than existing in a hermetically sealed ivory tower, leadership must be prepared to get their hands dirty. They must be willing to listen to and bring in those outside opinions — as Van der Bel did with his iPhone — even if "outside" sometimes means from your own staff.

Managers who curate, direct and shape ideas, and spend less time micromanaging their staff build an environment of trust. This in turn allows employees to get more done, without having to worry about looking over their shoulder.  

The time is right for managers to engage staff in this way. We live in a moment riven with upset, crisis and the promise of evermore technological change. The organizations that can more easily adapt, that rethink how they respond to their customers’ needs or identify investment opportunities, will navigate through these turbulent times.

Title image Karina Carvalho