How do You Rate Against the 9 Characteristics of Secure Base Leadership?

The concept of ‘secure base leadership’ is taken from Bowlby’s work on attachment theory, which describes the dynamics of long term interpersonal relationships.

I first came across it in the context of leadership when I was reading George Kohlreiser’s Care to Dare.   Kohlreiser talks about how important it is for the leader to offer a secure base to those he/she would lead and to have secure bases for themselves.  A secure base is a long term personal relationship that provides us with enough ‘care’ that we can choose to ‘dare’.  The strength of the relationship allows us to take risks, knowing that whatever happens we will not be judged badly.  Cultivating secure bases then becomes a critical feature of leadership.

Secure base leaders display 9 key attributes:

1. Stay Calm

Especially under pressure—when other leaders may respond impulsively and unreasonably.

2. Accept the Individual

Acceptance and acknowledgment of the basic worth of others as a human beings—beyond being employees or embodiments of job descriptions.  Secure Base Leaders show caring for the human being before focusing on an issue or problem. They separate the person from the problem. As far as possible, they avoid  criticising people.

3. See the Potential

Secure Base Leaders see potential talent rather than current functioning or “state.” This goes beyond acceptance of the person’s inherent value and may go beyond what the person expects from him/herself. This is not about short-term potential. Instead, it is about a deeper vision for the person’s deepest potential—not in one year, but in 10 or 20 years.

4. Use Listening and Inquiry

Secure Base Leaders listen and inquire rather than “telling” and advocating. They ask open-ended questions and engage in a dialogue to seek a greater truth.

5. Tell a Powerful Story

They affect people deeply with single sentences or gestures that carry tremendous power and often are remembered for many years. Short, inspirational stories give people direction at times when fear, uncertainty, and doubt permeate the environment.

6. Focus on the Positive

Secure Base Leaders are good at helping people to focus on the positive rather than the negative. They focus on benefits, create images of hope and possibility, and help people visualise goals. They set positive expectations that contribute to improved performance. They help others to see their potential and inspire learning, even in a crisis or time of difficulty. They can give critical feedback while retaining a positive perspective.

7. Encourage Risk Taking

Secure Base Leaders give people opportunities to reach their potential, often with some personal risk attached.  Secure Base Leaders dare people to explore their potential by providing opportunities for risk taking. They support autonomy and provide a minimum of control.

8. Inspire Through Intrinsic Motivation

Understand the importance of “intrinsic motivation” to get the best out of people rather than relying on extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting, enjoyable, or fulfilling. Extrinsic motivation gets something done because it leads to an outcome that are not inherent in the task. When intrinsically motivated, a person acts for the learning, enjoyment, or challenge involved rather than because of external pressures or rewards.

9. Signals Accessibility

They remain available and accessible, not appearing ‘too busy for a conversation’.  They recognise that supporting others is both urgent and important.

So how do you measure up against these 9 characteristics?

The Challenge of Becoming an Outstanding Manager

I work with managers who are trying to get better at their craft.  Much better.  They want to be the kind of manager who supports a team to do amazing work.
To help others to really deliver to the best of their potential, both individually and as a team.
There are several reasons why making a transition to being a significantly better manager can be difficult.
  • Firstly you have to be prepared to be obsessed by high performance, improvement and making the most of potential. Organisational rhetoric will always advocate this. However, in practice the rhetoric of excellence is often dropped in favour of more pragmatic and easily achieved compromises.
  • Secondly, people centred management practices can feel very uncomfortable, especially to begin with. They are usually not our default management style. Our default management style is an expression of our deeply held, often subconscious, values and beliefs. And sometimes these are driven by more traditional management concepts of power, control and task focus than on developing the potential of the team to deliver excellence. So there is always a little voice saying ‘Just give a few orders, crack a few heads and get things done’. Only if we persist with person centred management will we recognise that relationships are improving, more initiative is being shown, teams are performing better and genuine progress is being made. Only then will the nagging voice encouraging us to revert to more directive ways start to fade away. And this is a process of substantial personal development. It is the process of becoming a different person with different attitudes and beliefs about what ‘excellence in management’ is all about. Now the tools and techniques of ‘person centred management’ feel much more congruous with who you are as a person.
  • The third difficulty is the response of your team and the wider organisation to your changing management style. You start to use regular 121s; you give and seek feedback – frequently. Furthermore you expect it to be acted upon. You start coaching – everyone in your team – and expecting things to get better on a weekly basis. And you delegate consistently and well – not from a place that says ‘I can get some of my work done by others’ – but from a place that says ‘giving people the opportunity to take on these challenges will help them to develop and keep them interested and fulfilled in their work’. And what response do you get? Often it is a combination of surprise, discomfort, antagonism and disbelief. Usually there is a hope that if we can just keep things quiet for a while you will get over whatever training programme you have been on and things will get back to the mediocrity that passes for normal.
So the challenge of becoming a better manager is not an easy one. However it is not about mastering tools and techniques or acquiring new skillsets (although there maybe a little of this stuff). It is actually about recognising that there is a better way to manage and having the commitment and the discipline to pass through the discomfort of putting it into practice.

What the heck is ROIR?

Return on Investment in Relationships of course!

Tom Peters encourages managers to obsess on R.O.I.R – the Return on Investment in Relationships.

Usually what has to be invested is not cash – but time. And the challenge is to invest that time effectively.

For me, without doubt, the most effective tool for ROIR with employees is the 121. These are structured, documented 30 minute meetings held with each member of staff, every week. They provide the most effective ROIR with employees that I know.

ROIR through 121s comes in many forms:

  1. increased staff retention
  2. improved productivity
  3. recognition and acknowledgement of progress
  4. appreciation of those who are performing well
  5. identification of under performance and early resolution
  6. promotion of behaviours that reinforce strategic goals and values
  7. increased pace of coaching to develop potential and performance
  8. deeper professional relationships
  9. increased trust
  10. increased influence
  11. increased responsiveness
  12. better support of team members in their work
  13. conduit for ideas from the front line to be heard and acted upon
  14. management support for every member of the team – every week
  15. improved communication and focus on what matters
  16. progress made and recognised on a weekly basis
  17. increased sense of urgency in the team
  18. encourage individuals to think through their contribution to team or organisational objectives
  19. increased initiative and enterprise
  20. planning remains flexible and dynamic
  21. documentation makes performance reviews simpler and less contentious
  22. barriers to high performance are removed
  23. factors contributing to poor performance are identified and resolved
  24. formal opportunities for delegation are created
  25. more feedback – both given and received
  26. increased employee engagement
  27. improved knowledge management and knowledge sharing
  28. better talent management and development
  29. increased creativity
  30. more innovation
  31. more responsibility taken voluntarily by more people
  32. reduced absenteeism
  33. more diversity as 121s recognise that ‘one size fits one’

Perhaps some of these are things that you as a manager need to work on. If you are already using 121s then think how you can use them more effectively for the things that matter most to you and your business.  You can find out more about 121s here.

If you are not already using 121s then you have a tremendous opportunity to improve your management practice.

Additions to the list are very welcome!

Why is Giving Feedback so Hard?

I recently had a meeting with a manager that I had worked with and he asked me about a challenge he was facing in putting feedback into practice.

We had worked on helping him to use both affirming and adjusting feedback.

  • Affirming feedback is given when an employee exhibits a good behaviour at work and the manager wants to show that it has been noticed, recognised and appreciated in order to increase the likelihood that the behaviour will be used again.
  • Adjusting feedback is used when the work behaviour or product is not up to organisational standards and the manager wants the employee to consider ‘what they could differently next time’.  They are looking to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour re-occurring.

Providing more affirming feedback than adjusting feedback will build a culture that is open to feedback and builds relationships that means adjusting feedback, when given, is more likely to be accepted constructively and acted upon.

This manager was fine on spotting opportunities to give adjusting feedback but was finding it much harder to find opportunities to give affirming feedback.  He was rightly worried that if he did not keep a healthy balance then his feedback would become ineffective, and he would be seen to be seen as overly critical and negative, driving the organisational culture and the moral of staff in the wrong direction

There are several reasons why some managers struggle with affirming feedback:

Many, perhaps most, managers are ‘tuned’ to look for, and sort out, problems. Good performance is taken for granted (indeed barely noticed) while any performance issues are recognised and corrected. This ‘management by exception‘ can be effective and efficient in the short term. However in the long term it leads to an unhealthy focus on performance problems and a culture where employees feel under-valued and taken for granted.  Discipline yourself to recognise, value and feedback on good work – reject the philosophy of management by exception.

Managers who are very task oriented and dominant tend to undervalue the power of affirming feedback in building relationships.  Discipline yourself to recognise and celebrate employee success with affirming feedback. You may not feel that this is helping with the task at hand – but it will help, if done well, to build a better relationship.  And this will have a direct impact on achievement in the longer term.

Some managers find it hard to recognise the kind of behaviours that should trigger affirming feedback because they have lost touch with the values, vision and mission of the organisation and their role in supporting them in practice.   If the organisation ‘values’ innovation and risk taking then it is vital that managers give affirming feedback when employee behaviours support these values.   Using affirming feedback to recognise employees who are supporting mission, vision and values and letting them know that their work is recognised and valued is important in building a performance culture and ensuring that those desired behaviours are repeated and spread.  This style of ‘appreciative management’  is incredibly effective in engendering a positive culture of performance and ensuring that organisational mission, vision and values are brought to live in day to day work. Look out for behaviours that bring mission, vision or values to life and provide affirming feedback. 

Some managers have become detached from the people management aspects of their role.  They manage task lists and performance metrics – but they don’t invest the time in seeing what their employees and team members actually do.   Tom Peters popularised the term ‘Managing by Wandering About’ – or MBWA.  If you are struggling to find examples of employee behaviour to provide the foundation for affirming feedback perhaps a little more time out of the office and working with the team might help.

There are no rigid rules on this – but most managers give way too little feedback.  Many give none at all outside of the formal performance review process.   For each report that you have you should be aiming to give on average at least 4 pieces of feedback each and every day.  Affirming feedback should outnumber adjusting feedback  in a ratio of 3 or 4:1.  If you can develop the volume of feedback that you give to this sort of level I guarantee that team performance will develop rapidly.

If you would like to use feedback to improve morale, culture and performance in your workplace then please do get in touch.