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CIPD calls on HR to review organisational structures and processes in order to enable truly distributed leadership

New research from the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, has found that rigid organisational hierarchies are one of the main barriers to improving management and leadership skills in today’s workplaces. Many employees without formal managerial responsibility are now expected to own the organisation’s agenda, lead from the front line and do ‘the right thing’ for the customer and for their employer, an approach known as ‘distributed leadership,’ but poorly targeted training and restrictive organisational structures are getting in the way.

The report, Leadership - easier said than done, finds that leadership development in some businesses relies too much on developing the capability of individual leaders and managers,  with outdated organisational structures and cultures preventing would-be leaders from applying what they’ve learnt in the training room to their day-to-day work. The report recommends that leadership development should give greater consideration to organisation-wide factors that can help or hinder the practical application of great leadership skills by employees at all levels.

The CIPD is calling on HR professionals to make a greater difference by taking the next step from training individual leaders, to improving the leadership capacity of the organisation as a whole, by focusing their efforts on understanding what kind of leadership their organisation needs and whether or not the structure of their organisation will support it.

The three main recommendations are:

  • Define the type of leadership and management needed and put appropriate training and succession planning programmes in place. For example, some companies may be looking to grow the next generation of senior leaders, and need to identify potential among junior managers, whilst some may look to achieve greater employee productivity.
  • Training of leader and manager capability should be aligned to the needs of the organisation. HR also needs to talk to staff about their learning requirements and any questions they might have over organisational change.
  • HR should identify and influence key players with the power to change the status quo. Implementing formal processes is not enough; they must also understand where individuals are demonstrating leadership behaviours and where shifts can be made in the organisational structure.

Ksenia Zhelthoukhova, Research Adviser at the CIPD, comments: “The fast-moving pace of change in the world requires a more distributed approach to leadership. It’s not enough to have one or two strong leaders at the top of an organisation. Everyone, particularly those on the front line, needs to be empowered to respond effectively to evolving external challenges and help take others with them on that journey. However, our concern is that rigid organisational systems, characterised by hierarchy, short-term focus, individualism and ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, stifle the productivity of employees, undermining their ability to lead on the organisational agenda from the front line.

“In order to be effective, leadership development has to be supported with organisational practices that empower the workforce and foster engagement: team-working, behaviour-based performance management and succession planning, collective reward and recognition, to name just a few. Forward-looking organisations are using innovative methods of job and organisation design, to create agile organisational environments and cultures that enable leadership at all levels of the business.”

Dr. Steven Chase, Director of People at Thames Valley Police, said:

“Thames Valley Police was pleased to be able to collaborate with the CIPD on this important research as we continue to grow our organisational leadership capability and capacity.  In addition to those in more obvious leadership positions, our front-line staff exercise leadership responsibility day in, day out as we work to protect the public and reduce crime.  In my view, leadership resides at organisational, team and individual levels and what matters are the collective outcomes that we deliver.  In sum, we need resilient, ethical and agile leaders throughout the organisation with a focus on public service.”


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