Avoiding Elitism: The Necessity of Continual Self-development

Typically the best players in an organisation gravitate to the top. Perhaps not unreasonably then, those at the apex of a corporate hierarchy may consider themselves sufficiently competent and experienced to be beyond challenge, with no further requirement for personal growth. But no one is perfect and times change. A different skill set is called upon to sustain – rather than attain – a high-ranking leadership role. An increase in directing and supporting behaviours is necessary, to over-shadow competitive drive. If appropriate adjustments to style fail to materialise, a workforce can quickly become disappointed by the measure of its senior representatives, ceasing to be motivated and no longer willing to be guided by the strategic direction.

To resist elitism and to avoid giving an impression of existing in an ivory tower, every leader – from CEO down – needs to embrace self-development. While an assertive air of confident self-belief reassures, being perceived as adaptable and open to suggestion demonstrates an enhanced maturity that truly inspires loyal and effective followers.

Why does elitism occur?

The ambitious individuals, who successfully ascend to significant leading roles, typically assume power and control with enthusiasm. Classically they are high on logical, analytical thinking but shorter on empathy – tending towards lower emotional quotients. Hard skills are commonly valued above soft skills. Generally functioning under excessive pressures, even those who do set store by people-centric behaviours find themselves sucked into short-termism, which frequently precludes the listening, supporting and team-building activities that can deliver longer-term benefits.

After all the hard work, it isn’t surprising that, on rising through the corporate structure to emerge in a senior leadership position, a victor’s early thoughts are focused on “I’ve made it”. Having been driven up the management hierarchy by raw ambition – thirsty for power and freedom – perhaps quite naturally the successful contestant enjoys a sense of self-satisfaction. Membership of the exclusive club for those awarded a high-ranking title is a good feeling, a peak for self-actualisation.
However, an initial pride in achievement can settle into an air of superiority towards subordinates, in a crude attempt to gain authority. Too easily leaders begin to believe they have an automatic right to be followed, with an autocratic, commanding style then being adopted. Though rarely a deliberate intention, nevertheless a style characterised by separation and instruction – telling instead of listening – can creep in.

After a preliminary ‘honeymoon’ period, newly promoted leaders might start to experience insecurities, as the weight of what they have taken on becomes apparent. An instinctive response is to oppose any perceived challenge, especially when arising from lower-ranking individuals. This behaviour could become embedded over time, rendering a leader unassailable. The tough, self-assured personality that makes it through to the top of an organisation perhaps has a tendency to misinterpret the acceptance of challenge as a sign of vulnerability – to see questioning as a lack of respect – to perceive taking advice as a weakness rather than a strength. Furthermore, faced with the inevitable high demands of superiors, company Boards, shareholders, Trade Unions and the market-place, a leader may decide that he can do without additional pressures and criticisms from employees lower in the management hierarchy.

Those who have the determination and competitiveness, to drive through to the uppermost echelons, customarily possess exceptional hard skills while placing reduced value on soft skills. The special ability of soft skills to bind, to enable delegation and to bring out the best in people, through mutual support, isn’t always understood.

Misguidedly, leaders’ thinking can be clouded by their own experiences and beliefs: if they operated and achieved their successes without ‘molly coddling’, then why can’t their teams do likewise? Why does precious time have to be expended on sustaining and encouraging others? But such an attitude misses the point that the majority of workers either don’t have the capability or the desire for high office. Therefore they do need driving and encouraging – and, most importantly of all, they require appreciation.

The typical highly focused attitude that propels talented individuals upwards, perhaps predictably leaves them short on empathy. A continual, pressured single-mindedness is apt to visualise everything from an immediate perspective, over-simplifying in order to reach quick resolutions. But such an approach – emphasising speed over suitability – may flush out quick answers, in preference to correct answers. Wider, longer-term benefits will then fail to be realised – like employee engagement, commitment and loyalty.

Concentrating on short-term goals, as the modern business world is prone to do, means that leaders have little time to practice listening skills. Hence vital inputs – which assist with adaptation to medium and long-term change – can pass by unheeded. Indeed, even making time to meet their teams and sell ideas and strategies, becomes a luxury that many forgo, especially in today’s climate of economic crisis.

When leaders judge themselves to be successful, they can very easily start to genuinely believe that they know best; if doing less well, feelings of insecurity resist challenge from others. Elitism is understandable – a well-earned reward for so much hard work – but it’s harmful to an organisation’s well-being and to the future success of those tempted to adopt its apparent protective cloak.

How elitism exhibits itself

Elitism exhibits itself not just through clear outward signs, such as enhanced titles and office premises, but also as a corporate culture typified by ‘harder’ leadership styles, where collaboration, consultation and communication are limited, and challenge is discouraged. The sharpness of response by higher-ranking managers to perceived criticism or dissent by staff, offers clear indication that such a culture prevails.

Visible signs of exclusivity, while much more prominent in the past, are still apparent in a sizable number of today’s businesses: plush offices with expensive furniture and superb views; named parking slots adjacent to HQ reception for stylish chauffeur-driven cars; first class travel; expenses-paid lunches, dinners and corporate entertainment. Conversely, in the same companies, employees may struggle to find parking slots in under-sized car parks, sit in cramped open-plan offices and find themselves standing up in over-crowded trains when returning from work assignments. And what of the executive team meetings held at exotic locations, when local hotel facilities would have been quite adequate.

The majority of employees accept that their bosses benefit from – indeed may well deserve – a higher standard of living so, up to a point, the luxuries provided to those with suitable titles are fairly readily tolerated. However, with the increasing climate shift to transparency of corporate perks – salaries, expenses and bonuses – especially in the public sector, the scale of the differential between workers and employers has become much more apparent. For many this has been an unsettling revelation, posing questions about whether very high pay packages are justified. Concealment is no longer an option, as the media frenzy over MPs expenses in the UK has proved only too clearly.

More subtle indicators reinforce a hierarchical division, when corporate culture permits leaders to conduct themselves in a manner which, in everyday life, would be considered disrespectful: frequently cancelling and re-arranging meetings with ‘subordinates’, often at short notice, as ‘more important’ things crop up; sending hastily constructed emails which are misspelt, unintelligible and fail to answer the presented query. Imposition of overly restrictive financial, commercial and management practices similarly conveys to the workforce a message that leaders are substantially superior. For example, in egalitarian organisations, sign-off authorities rise in a relatively linear manner from junior managers upwards whereas, in elite structures, approval limits are heavily weighted towards top-tier management, with minimal sanctioning power even for middle managers.

Reinforcement of the specialness of leaders can be through physical separation. Directors may reside in headquarter buildings, quite possibly in a higher-class location, rarely visiting operational sites. As a result, they are likely to be unrecognisable to the majority of their workforce. Even taking a lift to the executive suite each day, and staying there throughout working hours, creates partition.

Elite establishments tend to be poor on communication and seldom consult. Messages relayed downwards have a propensity to be instructive, while upwards feedback is discouraged. This lack of engagement with the workforce can suggest that time spent composing, and selling, inspirational plans and propositions is judged to be an unnecessary expenditure of valuable leadership effort. The commanding style is sustained and, with it, an atmosphere that unfortunately leans towards censure rather than support.

As well as characteristically being short on quality communication, elite cultures discourage collaborative behaviours outside peer groups. Line management chains dominate business interactions and, confusingly, even where outwardly the edict is “every voice is equal”, the reality is universally understood: that the weight of an opinion is directly related to a person’s formal rank within the organisation.

Superior leaders show their unwillingness to accept challenge by consistently maintaining their style and behaviours – never apologising – even where employees can reasonably evidence that this is counter-productive. How often are senior appointees treated almost as royalty, with everyone bending to accommodate their peculiarities? Prima-donna traits and personal oddities are permitted to flourish, unchecked, almost as a reward for attaining a principal position.

A clear sign of elitism – arguably its most effective preserver – is observed when a leader demonstrates their power to subdue a perceived employee challenge or criticism. Sometimes conveyed privately 1-2-1, sometimes publically to strengthen the impact or widen the audience. Reprimand can be swift and painful, for non-adherence to the rules of unquestioned acceptance of a corporate leader’s style and directives. At its gentlest, this is a push back on the questioner, perhaps a rebuke for insufficient consideration to the pressures faced by seniors. At its harshest, tactics for noncompliance to required acquiescent conduct may include: reduced pay awards or bonuses; down-grading or ‘sideways’ moves to less significant jobs; a change of premises away from the corporate hub; exclusion from future good opportunities. These penalising actions are invariably not directly linkable to any specific event but are recognisable, none the less, as resulting from unacceptable levels of challenge to those who, as members of a select elevated circle, deem themselves to be unassailable.

Where elitism exists, it permeates right through an organisation’s culture, established and maintained by a leadership who believe that they are sufficiently talented to be worthy of exclusivity. Unfortunately, an over-stretched workforce – feeling insufficiently recognised – may well not agree, seeing weaknesses that would benefit from acknowledgement and improvement.

The impact on the workforce

With the exception of highly successful businesses, elitism is rarely tolerated by a modern workforce. Without exceptional proof of achievement as backup, unchallengeable self-important leaders lose regard and support. However, followers value and willingly assist those in senior positions – even when failings are discernible – if they feel appreciated and sense that priority setting goes beyond the short-term.

In a thriving business, employees are proud of their leaders, and a degree of egotism and overconfidence is accepted – indeed indulged – when staff feel smug about the success of their organisation and those responsible for master-minding this. The Alan Sugar phenomenon is a clear case in point: viewers are entertained by, and admire, his style – even though this can appear bullish and arrogant – because he’s seen as a high achiever. In good times, many workers want their chiefs to be ‘larger than life’ luminaries, showing the distinction of the businesses they represent, through their own self-wealth.

But when a company’s fortunes are less good – which is the situation for most in the current crisis – the workforce does not rate its leaders in the same way. Approval drops. Employees become disappointed and start to believe that perhaps they could do a better job. As this mindset emerges, it is very unhelpful if those in charge come across as haughty and self-opinionated.

A disillusioned workforce spirals into negativity, if cast adrift by a superior management team, In such circumstances, even if good ideas and plans are designed by the senior team, these may well be ignored, as subordinate teams and their members have ceased to believe that leaders know what is best. The seeds have been sown for ‘go it alone’ behaviours and the ascent of heroes. Without appropriate communication and encouragement from the top, there is little hope that operations will be conducted in the corporately decreed manner.

Conversely, once leaders display simply a modicum of connection, employees can become surprisingly charitable in accepting weaknesses. The adage “No one’s perfect” takes hold, Perceived faults are not a barrier to winning respect and backing, indeed to gaining an enthusiastic following, when superiority is replaced by just a morsel of modesty. Workers comprehend that senior personnel bear impossible pressures, particularly in relation to calls on their time, so priorities have to be applied – and, as a result, softer skills all too easily drop away.

In order to be well thought of, despite an inability to address every demand, a leader must fulfil some fundamental criteria. Firstly he must assume a set of priorities considered suitable by his staff – which usually means being seen to give attention to the medium and long term, as well as the short term. Additionally he has to display regard for the efforts of followers, acting in the interests of the team and organisation as a whole, not just in self-interest.

A workforce sees itself as high on its leaders’ list of priorities – after all, business delivery is completely dependent on the efforts of followers. But principal executives can be overwhelmed by upward and external demands, apparently leaving no time to engage with employees and connect in a satisfactory way. Workers frequently show considerable sensitivity on this matter, widely recognising that leaders must be given space to apply their higher strategic thinking. However, they do expect one basic inducement: appreciation.

It is important for any manager in the modern business environment to be aware that his team members are nowadays far more likely to be motivated by more ‘feminised’ recompense – such as praise, inclusion, being listened to and thanked – than by traditional tangible rewards. Some, it is true, will ask too much; they’ll take up too much precious time while giving little back. But many will return – in direct or indirect contribution – far more than they ask for: they offer and take forward quality suggestions; they develop propositions, opportunities, relationships, accounts; they deliver consistent high quality work. An effective leader has to correctly separate the providers from the consumers, ensuring that he embraces the worthy while distancing the poor performers. In so doing, elitism is replaced by an extended circle of valued high performers who have earned their right to constructively comment on their leader. Those inside the circle sense appreciation and will respond positively.

Where employees have options, or can create other openings for themselves, they will transfer their allegiance to those who understand and adhere to the above criteria. Workers today seek respect just as fiercely as leaders.

So, while teams seldom put up with superior leaders – even if good – they will embrace and be loyal to those who show gratitude. Key to building and demonstrating the capacity to respectfully acknowledge the input of others – along with identifying and addressing the failings of oneself – is self-development.

Embracing self-development

To embrace self-growth, a person has to realise what this means and why it matters. It takes a degree of modesty for anyone to accept that they can improve themselves – and appointment to a senior post may leave an individual thinking that they’ve finished with personal evolution. So the rewards for embarking on a further journey of self-development have to be clearly of self-interest – and hence worth the investment.

So what is self-development? It’s a process of improving abilities to have positive and effective impact, closely linked with enhanced emotional intelligence. It’s a refined awareness of, and ability to mange, one’s emotions – in a healthy and productive manner. Self-control is improved, generating better handling of frustrations. Angry outbursts and irrational ‘shooting from the hip’ behaviours are relegated to the past, as an individual takes responsibility for their emotions. Social intelligence is heightened, including the capacity to be empathic – seeing things from another’s viewpoint – and acquiring a greater understanding of, and ability to relate to, other people.

Self-development builds self-knowledge: knowing who you are, what you want from life and what you can do to accomplish this. The latter clearly involves a comprehension of what is needed from others and how this can be attained – which, of necessity, means having a keen awareness of what others want from you.

All of this requires a degree of humility – recognition of one’s weaknesses and areas for growth – a willingness to embrace active listening, rather than always talking and telling. As an example, there is clear demonstration of a manager’s emotional maturity when, during a performance review, he asks a subordinate: “and how could I have done more to help you?”

A key component of emotional intelligence involves establishing an intuition for consciousness of one’s impact on others and vice versa. It is not unusual for a leader to find himself operating with a team of wide ranging and different personality types. Well managed, this set-up can be enhancing, with complimentary qualities widening thinking and styles. Poorly managed – which quickly becomes the case in over-pressured situations – the mismatch results in team members feeling isolated and unappreciated, damaging motivation. The less emotionally advanced tend to favour those of similar character, taking comfort in familiarity, but such an approach fails to capture the significant additional contribution that can be gained when alternative dispositions are mixed.

So why does self-development matter? When the contemporary business world drives endless change, adaptability of leaders is essential for ongoing corporate success. Self-belief and self-confidence are no longer enough. A healthy agility and flexibility are equally important, made possible by refined self-awareness.

Every leader can only survive through the dedication and hard work of his team, aligned to his goals – so he needs to understand what drives and motivates its members. Turning potential into real performance often proves quite complicated. Too easily an over-pressured boss can appear – indeed become – over critical, without offering sufficient praise to compensate. A recipient’s sensitivities might be keenly responsive to negative comment, needing the reassurance of recognition to redress the balance. Unless personal impact is appropriately managed, behaviours can cause de-motivation. It is important for more resilient characters to realise that others aren’t necessarily as tough.

Developing an ability to control emotions and conduct is a powerful weapon, making a person less vulnerable. Conversely, a lack of self-control triggers illogical actions, such as taking revenge, which are unjustifiable and expose the instigator. To command long-term esteem, a leader must demonstrate self-discipline and mutual respect for other parties.

Advances in the business environment call for more sophisticated approaches to leading. Broader competencies are required. Leaders now need finely honed influencing and negotiating skills, coupled with an inspirational and empowering attitude. Better relationships improve effectiveness, both internally – to enable relief of workload through successful delegation – and externally – to develop profitable affiliations. Such useful associations are forged through application of mature soft skills, facilitating style changes that get the very best from people.

A modern executive has to be well equipped to embrace new goals and teams, fresh challenges, settings and economic situations. Staying ‘one step ahead’ of who you’re interacting with is always an advantage. Self-development provides the key to reaching this level of higher emotional intelligence that offers strength when interrelating with others.

In the contemporary business world, where adopting change is essential for an organisation’s survival, leaders have to be duly agile to re-plan and re-direct. Such demand for corporate flexibility can only be delivered by adaptable individuals, bending to accommodate local and global variations. The most useful tool for handling continual transformation is a mastery of self-development.

Practicing a cycle of continual improvement

Personal improvement is a continuous cycle of self-examination and self-learning, initiated and driven by someone open to feedback and private analysis. The resulting outcome will most likely be evidenced in how, what and when a leader communicates. Equally, enhanced self-knowledge permits the assembly of groupings who function well together, in concert with their director, offering a win-win for all concerned.

A person has to be receptive to the idea and need for self-development in order for the technique to be effective. The drive for greater emotional understanding and improvement comes from within. Like all coaching – indeed all therapy – the process of self-learning and growth is enabled and owned by its aspirant. What is perhaps different about self-development is that no guiding third party has to be involved, although another’s help can be sought if desired.

Self-development is about you – the individual – doing the analysis, working from day-to-day interactions, both good and bad, calling for inputs from colleagues, friends and family as required. Every contact, every exchange is an opportunity for evaluation. Within your surroundings, you assess your impact on others and, equally, their impact on you.

For a leader, self-development is about considering what is needed from associates – subordinates, peers, superiors, clients – and then, through a ‘gap analysis’, establishing whether this is being obtained. If not, there is room for personal growth – determining what can be done to lessen the extent of the gap. There are a number of options available to explore, none of which are mutually exclusive.

Trying to adapt yourself can seem like the simplest choice but everyone possesses a deeply ingrained character and related style at work; these can prove difficult to change. So an alternative approach is to adjust the mix of people within your sphere of influence, pulling closer those who compliment and distancing those with whom profitable relationship building is overly demanding. Fabricating a group where operational effectiveness of the whole is greater than ‘the sum of the parts’ is a powerful technique, maximising achievement while minimising distracting discord.

In all cases, a fine self-knowledge is required – and keen ability to assess others – making possible the right selection of options for progression in each given circumstance. A cycle of continual improvement, realised through practical actions – personally designed – offers the key.

Clearly a hard-pressed business leader does not have time to analyse every one of the huge volume of interfacing activities experienced daily. A skill has to be built up such that emotional judgements become subconscious, feeding back and refining behaviours. Then, only periodically, is it necessary to hold a mirror up to oneself and ask the question: “How am I doing?” Inner review after an episode of particular stress, when the least helpful qualities rise to the surface, is always valuable, whether the final result was good or bad. A self-developer should be asking herself: “What made that go wrong / right?”, “How could that have been better still?”, “Why am I disappointed with …?”, “Were my expectations too high / too low?” Having undertaken a private ‘lessons learnt’ exercise, external views can be sought, offering other paradigms and opinions for future enhancement.

A whole range of actions can assist with self-development. Such as participating in one-to-one or larger group sessions with trusted colleagues, to share and discuss experiences and resolutions. Completing personality tests and being open to what they disclose. Having an unofficial coach or mentor – someone trusted who can give a different slant for consideration. ‘Self help’ books too have their place, offering nuggets for reflection. As maturity grows, so does the capability to pick out beneficial comments from the less worthwhile. Others’ views are tainted by their own agendas and experiences, requiring inputs to be sifted and rationalised accordingly. Asking for, and accepting, observations and advice from respected sources contributes to self-development. These sources may be more senior leaders, peers or subordinates – within business or personal relationships.

The one fundamental for self-development is being honest with oneself, no matter how many veneers are erected for the purpose of stage-managing an outward face to the world.

So what changes as a leader’s emotional intelligence rises? Put succinctly, he sharpens up his approach to communication, verbal and non-verbal, and makes better use of time, suitably prioritising people and tasks. Mannerisms and language are firmly under control: what is said, how the message is imparted and when it is shared. In general a more supportive, constructive style is adopted, cultivating employee self-esteem through focus on praise rather than criticism, strengths instead of weaknesses. Even where advice or disappointment has to be conveyed, every attempt is made to provide a positive angle, thus encouraging fruitful receptiveness in the recipient.

Keeping the workforce informed in an inspirational, open and timely way shows appreciation for individuals and their efforts. In return, leaders become more trusted, creating enhanced, focused contributions from followers. The reward for investment in self-development is therefore clearly the acquisition of a sizable helping-hand in meeting targets and personal goals. A factor in this is the talent to identify those who work gainfully in partnership, as opposed to those with whom it is tricky to function. Gathering the best team, mutually loyal and trusting, is a dream-ticket for any leader – but this invariably takes fashioning and is usually only in the gift of the seasoned self-developer.

The improvement cycle never stops; environments continually change, so people must too. An executive has embedded self-development satisfactorily when: relationships feel improved; calmness permeates even in busy situations; genuine respect is sensed; reliance on others can be counted on. By contrast, when someone starts to think that they don’t need development, they’re probably heading for rigidity and elitism, which will quickly catch up with them.

Workers’ response when listened to

Employees re-energise when they encounter inclusive behaviours – in contrast to the de-motivation experienced if feeling exploited by an elitist leadership. Being heeded, rather than ignored, creates a sense of worth, catalysing increased valuable effort in response.

Followers grow in stature, becoming more confident and assured, as clear appreciation of their merits becomes apparent. With rising self-esteem – the direct result of better management – a reciprocal enhanced respect for leadership surfaces. A beneficial spiral of mutual recognition is established: those at the top delegate more and listen more, while subordinate individuals and teams react by maximising performance, delivering quality outputs over and above expectations.

Though initially apprehensive of consulting with employees and opening up communication channels, commonly leaders are surprised to find that, as a consequence, general grumbling in the workforce subside and unhelpful noise quietens. In part this happens because workers start to comprehend corporate strategy and policies, and the reasons behind these. In part there emerges a greater regard for the impossible demands on seniors’ time. But also, simply knowing that pathways exist for interaction is calming. People learn when and how to challenge – and when challenge isn’t appropriate.

Replacing elitism with a genuine willingness to engage with the workforce pays substantial dividends, as increased efforts from the majority are focused into productive, appropriately directed work.

Humility as a cornerstone to effective leadership

The onset of elitism within an organisation is easy to understand. Indeed, it could be argued that only positive intervention will stop its occurrence, such is its attraction to top executives who have struggled so hard to ascend through the ranks. It can be difficult for leaders to differentiate between justified reward and elitism. But superiority alienates and disenchants those impacted.

Acknowledging that everyone needs to maintain a cycle of self-development – even those holding the highest posts – is vital for ongoing success. Continual corporate and individual reinvention is essential for survival in a modern changing world. Fortuitously, the modicum of humility required for embracing self-analysis and growth is tangible to a workforce hungry for connection and appreciation. Thus the most effective leaders are those who avoid the apparent attractions of elitism and accept that in today’s businesses no one can afford the luxury of detaching from the influences that enable metamorphosis.

© 2011 – 2014, Sandy Arpino. All rights reserved.

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