Leaders should remember their own biases can have a negative impact

The Life: Leaders should consider the stories and references they share with employees to ensure they are not demotivating their workforce. Tommy Weir provides some guidance.
Leaders must be aware of the economic disparity within their workforce to communicate with them effectively. Indranil Mukherjee / AFP
Leaders must be aware of the economic disparity within their workforce to communicate with them effectively. Indranil Mukherjee / AFP

"What's on your iPod?"

That question seems to be one of the more popular ones that leaders get asked by journalists during interviews these days.

It might, of course, be an attempt to grab a sneak peek into their private lives. But what this question really reveals is the widespread acceptance that owning an iPod is now commonplace, at least in some economic classes where those little white earbuds have become ubiquitous.

Yet, the same level of iPod ownership does not exist across all economic classes, and this point is now further being exasperated with iPad ownership.

According to the UBS Prices and Earning 2009study, the average wage earner in New York City can afford to buy an iPod nano with 8 gigabytes of storage from an Apple store after nine hours of work. At the other end of the spectrum, workers in Mumbai need to work 20 nine-hour days to earn about the same salary to buy the same iPod.

So what does all this have to do with leadership? A lot, actually, particularly for leaders in the Gulf.

Leaders need to be aware of the economic disparity within their workforce and understand what their employees' lives are like in order to know how to communicate with them effectively and gain the maximum performance out of their employees. Leaders should ask themselves: how in touch are you with your employees' lives?

Leaders, whether chief executives or department managers, often notice differences on the surface such as the ethnic mix and background of their employees. Yet they struggle in rebalancing their own biases and lifestyle assumptions with employee realities.

For instance, years ago I had a boss who continually made reference to sushi, which at the time was perceived to be a luxury meal by many of the employees. (Perhaps it still is, and I am writing from my own lifestyle bias). By making his references to sushi he created an unnecessary uneasiness in his workforce.

The same holds true for leaders and managers in the GCC who operate from, say, New York City assumptions when their employees may have more of a Mumbai lifestyle - if we draw back to the iPod analogy. Leaders need to spend more time understanding how their bias and conversations can impact on their workforce and potentially demotivate them, even if it is unintentional.

Stories and references made by leaders becomes an emotional issue, not a rational one. And it is surprising how many leaders are unaware of the impact they have on their employees by the tales they tell or references they make.

In a largely diverse environment such as the GCC, the impact is even greater than in a more homogenous job market. How employees feel about themselves while engaging in their work is the strongest determinant for their motivation level.

Leaders should consider the stories they want to share to ensure they boost and not unknowingly demotivate their workforce. Doing so can gradually shift the emotional and energetic climate at work.

This point may seem like common sense, and I wish it was. But, in reality, it is easy for leaders to overlook the obvious.


*Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging market leadership, author of The CEO Shift and the managing director of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center

Published: August 14, 2011 04:00 AM


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