The Importance of Behavioral Flexibility in Leadership

The Importance of Behavioral Flexibility in Leadership

Created: Friday, December 29, 2017 posted by at 9:30 am

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By Ally Yates

Successful leadership is built upon four practices:

  1. Establishing a clear vision
  2. Sharing that vision with others, in a clear and compelling way
  3. Providing others with the resources to realize that vision
  4. Coordinating, the sometimes conflicting, interests of all stakeholders

But there is a fifth, often overlooked characteristic; the need for leaders to be able to flex their style, dependent on the situation. A business with its back against the wall requires a different style to one which is enjoying a profitable, steady state.

As people move into leadership positions and up into senior management, they need to develop a wider set of skills. Each leadership transition needs to come with a parallel shift in self-concept, for example, from an individual contributor to a team leader, or from a functional manager to an enterprise-wide leader.


Image: Pixabay

Having the full range of leadership capabilities is dependent on persuasion and influence, networking, negotiation, team leadership, team working, cultural sensitivity, valuing difference, coaching, performance management and development, assessment, conflict management, assertiveness, strategic thinking, resource allocation, presentation skills and humility. Quite a demanding list.

The higher you rise in the organization, the more of these skills are required. The distinctive leaders set themselves apart, not by adherence to a particular leadership creed, but by the way they behave. The wider their behavioral repertoire, the more effective their leadership.

The good news about behavior is that it’s within your gift to change it. Most of the time you have control over your behavior and can exercise choice about how you behave. Furthermore, behavior breeds behavior, and so what you say and do shapes the responses you get from others.

Back in the 1970s, a band of curious psychologists started to investigate the behaviors that differentiated skilled performers from average or poor performers in a range of business interactions. Since then, a group of enthusiastic businesses and individuals has continued to test and amend these behavioral paradigms. Their work has enabled leaders to master the skills of, for example, influencing and persuasion, by learning the six skills underpinning the two most common persuasion styles: Push and Pull.

Each style is behaviourally distinctive and each is appropriate for different situations. The Push style goes like this:

  1. I have an idea or opinion that I share with you
  2. I tell you the reasons why it’s a good idea and/or why I’m correct
  3. You agree and you move your position.

Push style persuasion is the most commonly used. It works well in conditions where the influencer has positional authority, as is the case with senior leaders.   And yet it’s only effective around half the time. Sometimes this is because you may be an apologetic or aggressive pusher. Another weakness is being a misjudged Pusher, where you reveal your solution early. In so doing, you under-estimate the strength of resistance you will encounter.

Take Riz for example – a middle manager in a multinational business. He needed to create a new direction for his team. In doing so, he articulated a clear, coherent plan and instructed each of his team as to who would do what, and by when. For him, the logic was clear, the detail was exemplary and he was in charge, so the team was bound to agree. Push style was a no-brainer. However, Riz had overlooked a fundamental question: How important was it that he gains everyone’s commitment to the plan? If engagement is essential, then a Pull style is much more likely to work.

Pullers use three behaviours in particular: Seeking Proposals (e.g. How should we best do this?) Seeking Information (e.g. Who has the relevant experience?) and the rare but highly prized skill of Building – extending or developing a proposal made by another person. Building is used much less frequently than is warranted. This is usually because the persuader is much more interested in his own ideas and fails to harness the suggestions of others. If Riz had focused on engaging his team, he would have used a Pull style, rather like this:

  1. Riz asks the team for their ideas
  2. They offer some options
  3. Riz then asks questions to explore their suggestions
  4. Riz builds on their suggestions
  5. Together, Riz and the team agree a way forward.

In this way, the level of commitment of the team increases in line with their engagement.

Pull style can also be effective in fostering collaboration and in coaching others to use their resources. Pull might take a little longer but the rewards outweigh the costs. For example, in a recent performance appraisal discussion, Jyoti wanted to convince Tom of the need to work on his presentation skills. Using a Pull style she was able to get a better understanding of why Tom’s presentation skills weren’t where they needed to be and together they explored various options for addressing the shortfall and Tom was committed to the outcome. The effort was worth the gain.

Developing behavioral flexibility is not just about knowing what to do and exercising those behaviors skilfully.  It’s also about knowing what not to do and avoiding potentially costly mistakes. When asked how he learned to be a leader, Antoine de Saint Affrique, the CEO of the world’s leading cocoa and chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, replied: “I made sure I learned not only from the great leaders I was lucky to work for but also from the less good ones. From them, I’ve tried to learn what not to do.”

The humility required to reflect on your own and others’ behavior as a leader and to then change and flex as required is the one element that a great leader should never be without.

Ally Yates

Ally YatesAlly Yates is author of Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business and an expert on Behaviour Analysis and the interactions that define us. She combines a deep understanding of people and how to achieve results, based on her many years’ experience working with large corporate clients around the world.

Since 2000 Ally has been working as an independent consultant, facilitator, trainer, and coach. She has collaborated with international business schools and has received national and international training awards.

You May Also Like: Are You a Pusher or a Puller? | Business Thrives on Interaction | How to Disagree Constructively | How Beatboxing Can Help Us Master Successful Business Communication

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