Human Resources

Why Humility Is Critical for Agile Leadership

12 April 2021

6 min

Approaching leadership in a more nimble and adaptable way is essential for creating engagement in the workplace

Leadership, similar to many soft skills, is not something you learn once and then set aside for the rest of your life. Many of the best practices that prevailed in the workplace in the past no longer hold water today. That’s why we’re big believers in the concept of agile leadership, or the ability to adapt seamlessly to the new opportunities, challenges, and innovations happening in the workplace. In fact, being an agile leader requires mindfulness and a willingness to embrace all kinds of diversity. And it’s the organizations that put agile leadership into action that succeed at creating engagement in the workplace. 

There’s an incredible need for agile leadership today

The past year has been one of massive change. But setting the COVID-19 pandemic aside, it’s true that the workplace was already in a state of transformation. In a survey conducted by LinkedIn in 2019, for example, it was found that 82% of workers wanted to work from home at least once per week while 57% were open to doing it at least three days per week. Little did anyone know that remote working would soon become a reality only a few months later.

So while businesses may have been slowly preparing for a gradual transition to a more hybrid workplace environment, the pandemic certainly accelerated the trend, opening our eyes to a simple fact: The “old ways” of a more traditional workforce—from general business operations to how people communicate—no longer are effective today.

This begs the question, “So, what is effective today?” Unfortunately, we’re still all navigating through a lot of uncertainty together. For better or worse, both business leaders and rank-and-file employees are still operating in a state of limbo. But that’s perfectly fine given today’s circumstances. No one is expected to have all of the answers, but even so, we all must be willing to learn from this experience and remain flexible in the face of so much change.

Humility is a key characteristic of an agile leader

While the lessons learned from the pandemic apply to all employees, leaders play an important role in setting the tone around how their teams can adapt and thrive amid so much change.

Today’s leaders must set an example by wearing their humility on their sleeves. Forget putting up a brave face in public. Employees want to see honesty, transparency, and vulnerability from their leaders. Even if they say, “I don’t know,” it makes a world of difference if they can then follow it up with, “But I’m going to figure it out with you.”

By demonstrating both a willingness to learn and a desire to solve problems together, agile leaders tap into their own humility to communicate that it’s ok to fail. They show their teams that they may make mistakes along the way, too—and that they won’t hold their teams to a higher standard than they would hold for themselves. By nurturing this kind of supportive environment, agile leaders can succeed at creating team engagement that drives real results.

A big part of being humble is about really listening…and being open to new ideas and feedback from everyone, regardless of background, age, gender, and so on.

– Neelie Verlinden, Digital HR Expert, Talentsoft

Agile leadership creates engagement in the workplace

There are a handful of characteristics that drive leadership agility, including integrity, innovation, urgency, direction, and engagement. Today, we’ll focus on engagement.

So you might be asking yourself, “What about agile leadership exactly drives engagement?” In many ways, it all comes down to diversity and inclusion:

  • Creating safe spaces: Agile leaders build and maintain a team environment that welcomes, motivates, and encourages employees to speak up and share ideas—knowing that not every idea will be a slam dunk success. Even so, these leaders know that by keeping the lines of communication open in this way, new and potentially meaningful ideas and innovations can come into the light in ways that would perhaps be impossible in a more traditional top-down leadership environment.
  • Respecting people’s differences: Despite their own views and perspectives on certain matters, agile leaders also know they must be open to the wealth of experiences, opinions, and values that stem from their team’s various social, cultural, and professional backgrounds. By not only placing greater value on diversity but also embracing it with open arms, agile leaders make it clear that they will champion the best ideas regardless of who they come from.

A few tips for becoming a more agile leader

It’s one thing to talk about agile leadership. It’s another thing to put it into action and see it drive positive outcomes, like creating team engagement. Fortunately, becoming an agile leader merely comes down to refining how you engage with your team on an interpersonal level. As a starting point, here are a few easy changes you can immediately make:

1. Practice self-awareness

Be aware of how you communicate. As a leader, your words and actions can impact your team and other people around you in profound ways (both positive and negative). Be aware of the words you choose and the tone you use. You should also be mindful of your physical gestures—whether in-person or over a video call—because those non-verbal cues can sometimes say a lot more than your words.

2. Connect with your team on a personal level

You don’t have to be best buds with every single person on your team. Some people even prefer keeping workplace relationships separate from their personal lives. Even so, take the time to get to know the people on your team as “people” and not just “employees.” For example, during 1:1 feedback conversations, allocate a little time to asking how your employee is doing and give them the space to share—before getting back to business. Simply showing an interest in your employees on a personal level can go a long way towards building trust, stronger manager-employee relationships, and greater team cohesion.

3. Give people the room to express themselves

Not everyone feels equally comfortable speaking up in a team setting. One way to help even the most timid employees feel empowered to speak up is to make it clear—over and over again—that your team environment is a safe space. Ask people to challenge your ideas and to express their opinions openly, in respectful and thoughtful ways. And if certain team members aren’t speaking up, invite them to join the conversation by asking them to share their thoughts. Simply giving them a nudge can break the ice and create a more inclusive environment where people feel comfortable taking ownership of their ideas.

4. Support and celebrate your team’s differences

There’s a big difference between saying that you support diversity and truly shining a spotlight on it in all of your team’s interactions. But this goes simply beyond having people of different genders, races, ages, sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds, etc. on your team. It’s just as much about placing equal value on the different perspectives and ideas they bring to the table. Recognizing that there’s no single right way to achieve a goal is a key quality of an agile leader.

Different people have different opinions, have different points of view, and have different ways of working—and combining that all together can be so powerful.

– Dennis Valkem, General Manager, Benelux Region, Talentsoft

Agile leadership goes hand in hand with humility

As you can see, there’s a clear link between being an agile leader and leading with an unwavering sense of humility. Not only must today’s agile leaders create safe spaces where everyone on their teams can express their ideas—even those that may be destined to fail—openly and without criticism, but they must also learn how to listen with intent. Doing so will open the door to both creating team engagement and improving communication and collaboration. Agile leadership is, therefore, the key to unlocking the true potential of every single person within an organization.

To learn more about agile leadership and its impact on creating engagement in the workplace, check out our team’s presentation on this exact topic at the latest HR Core Lab Summit. 

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