The UK is experiencing a productivity crisis. While we saw a slight spike in the latest ONS productivity figures, the long-term trend is dire.
This is the single most important thing to know about the economy, because low productivity is corrosive to society – it grows inequality and organisations that matter (schools, hospitals and public services) don’t get the resources they need to serve communities.
Productivity is driven by the levers of investment, innovation and competition, which business leaders have the opportunity to pull every day. So what gets in the way?
The missing piece of the productivity puzzle is leadership
Productivity increases when leaders are decisive and courageous. Productivity declines when leaders vacillate and suffocate – when they are untrusting, micromanaging and, quite simply, not acting powerfully.
In many countries with large mature economies, it’s easy for complacency to set in – and the same can be said of leadership in large mature companies. The demise into stagnation is slow and impossible to feel day to day. Collectively, we kick the can down the road. The digital transformation stalls, the push into the new market pauses and the toxic team member is never dealt with.
Fear is in the water in corporations, so much so that we accept it as normal.
Unconscious fear among leaders is highly prevalent
In my recent global study I found that in the UK, a quarter of emerging leaders are leading with unconscious fear, costing a staggering £2.2 billion drop in productivity and performance.
It’s estimated there are 235,000 fearful leaders in the UK, nearly 25% of all emerging leaders (those at the earlier end of their leadership experience). They’re learning from more experienced leaders, who have created the productivity problem.
Leaders will give good reasons to avoid making decisions: it’s not the right time, there are too many obstacles – we’ve all heard them (and to be clear, I’ve made them at times – leadership is hard). The reasoning seems valid, until you realise what’s driving it: unconscious fear.
Fear is in the water in corporations, so much so that we accept it as normal. It manifests in subtle yet damaging ways in leadership:
- Avoiding difficult conversations
- Undermining others
- Shifting the blame
- Not speaking up
- Staying small to be safe
All of these behaviours are damaging to the system and ourselves.
This fearful leader is not strong enough to have a brave conversation and face conflict in a healthy way.
Flight or flight leadership
Fear drives a flight or fight response. In fight, we see it in overly controlling management styles, where leaders micromanage every aspect, stifling creativity and autonomy.
Employees with these leaders will demonstrate less discretionary effort and less creativity. What’s the point, they say, if I’m going to be suffocated? Or if I’m always told I’m wrong?
More difficult to spot, though, is the flight response: avoidance. The leader who gets stuck in analysis paralysis and won’t make decisions, who doesn’t deal with underperformers or toxicity.
This fearful leader is not strong enough to have a brave conversation and face conflict in a healthy way. Conflict seems impolite and uncomfortable.
It is. But it’s nothing compared to the cost of not stepping into it.
What is the antidote to fear in leadership?
Fear of failure, fear of being wrong or being outdone has devastating consequences for all of us and contributes to the alarming productivity decline.
Leaders everywhere stare at the problem, imagining it to be so intractable as to be unsolvable. If the whole country has a productivity problem, what can I possibly do about it?
The antidote to fear is love. People think of love as a romantic connection between two people, but it’s bigger than that. It’s the most powerful force we have.
Think of the best teacher you ever learned from, the best coach you ever played for, or maybe even the best boss you ever had. Chances are you’ll conjure feelings of admiration, commitment, connection and achievement.
You loved what you were doing and you loved doing it with them. Love leaders are brave, clear and fair.
How can you lead with love instead of fear?
1. Notice your fear
It shows up when you least expect it. Like when you sit in the meeting nodding your head, but walk knowing you’ll never execute what you just agreed to.
At that moment, you’re going along to get along. You’ve avoided speaking up. Fear is often present in what we don’t say. There’s no shame in being fearful – the benefit of fear is safety – but if you don’t notice it you can never clear it.
2. Ask yourself why you feel that way
The internal conflict comes when you’re fearful but you really want to speak up or take action. What’s getting in your way? Is it something that’s so big that it should get in the way? Ask a trusted colleague for their view.
3. If you decide you want to act with love, not fear, think of the highest good you can do now
This is not about winning, being right or undermining someone else. This is about service to the business, the community and the greater system. Act from that. And speak from that.
Love leaders step into conflict respectfully. They take risks and bear the consequences.
Love leadership is what drives productivity
I’ve done this. It’s powerful and it’s hard (even after all this time, I still fail often). But love leaders are more influential, powerful and engaged because they are bringing more of themselves to their leadership.
They also meet resistance: expect that – you’re up against a system of unconscious fear. So, find ways to keep yourself calm and safe. There will be great colleagues around you and they’ll be inspired to help and follow your lead.
Love leadership – or what the psychologists call psychological safety – drives productivity.
Love leaders step into conflict respectfully. They take risks and bear the consequences. They make mistakes and learn. They ruthlessly choose the right people for their teams. They don’t tolerate underperformance. They acknowledge their vulnerabilities. When they’re wrong, they say so. When they do all of these things, they allow the people in their teams to do the same.
Solving the productivity problem in your business is not beyond you. Feel the fear and do it anyway: choose a more powerful path.
Interested in this topic? Read How to banish a fear culture from your workplace.