Business

Can you really be yourself at work?

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Media captionA leader who acts more like a mentor than a dictator is more effective, research suggests.

When you're at work, do you behave in the same way as you do when you're at home? Or do you have a work persona - a duller, more subdued version of your real self?

Of course there are certain behaviours, such as swearing, or nudity, for example, that aren't acceptable in any workplace, but having a toned down version of yourself could be no good for you or your company.

"Zombies", is how Elisa Steele, chief executive of tech firm Jive Software refers to such people.

She says that companies that don't try to encourage staff to express themselves at work, and instead try to force them to fit into some kind of corporate clone - doing what they're told to do without questioning - will lose out.

Staff literally won't want to stay, and as a result turnover will be high, says Ms Steele.

At Jive, the firm uses its own software, which aims to improve the way employees communicate and collaborate on projects internally, to help new staff settle in and feel more at home quickly.

"They feel the culture because they have complete access to the whole company the first day they start," says Ms Steele.

"What are people doing? How is corporate communicating? What's the CEO up to today? What projects are prioritised?"

After their first week, the new joiners are required to write a blog on how they've found it so far, an article that all staff can then read.

Image caption Jive chief executive Elisa Steele says bosses that work closely with their staff create more productive workforces

"Time and time again we hear... 'I know so much more about this company in a week - and our customers - than I knew at my other company, you know, in three months'," she says.

As far as Ms Steele is concerned, enabling staff to have close access to herself and what she's doing day to day means they've got a good understanding of what the firm itself is aiming to do, and she says this information helps them feel more connected.

"Those two connections make the work really matter, and then people are engaged, and then drive a more efficient and more productive workforce," she says.

Ms Steele's approach is not that unusual for a tech start-up, which tend to shy away from a defined hierarchy. Arguably, it's also a leadership style that works well in smaller firms, but would be harder for a large company to emulate.

Yet increasingly research suggests that a leader who is closer to their staff, acting more like a mentor than a dictator, is the best way to get results.

"For a long time, the accepted wisdom has been that the CEO controlled everything in the company. The organisation served them, not the other way around," says chief executive coach and author Steve Tappin.

"Today, that's all changed. Good bosses are learning to support those around them."

It marks a start contrast to the stereotypical image of a distant and dictatorial chief executive.

Image copyright YinYang, iStock
Image caption Overworked, exhausted staff without a good work life balance won't create a successful business in the end, says Dr Jim Doty

Dr Jim Doty, the founder and director of The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine, says the shift reflects a growing amount of research suggesting that an authoritarian boss creates an anxious and stressed workforce.

He suggests that leading in a more collaborative, inclusive way instead could pose a solution to the puzzling productivity crisis, which has seen output per hour decrease considerably in most developed countries from the US to the UK in recent years.

"When you are not in a place of threat or fear, your productivity actually increases," he says.

While studies are limited, those that have been carried out, show that firms with a more nurturing environment lead to a stronger performance, and for listed firms, a higher stock market price.

"What we know now through science is that when leaders create an organisation that gives the individual a sense of meaning and purpose, this in and of itself is one of the greatest drivers of results," says Dr Doty.

Ultimately, he says, company leaders need to get across to staff that they're not just a cog in a machine, but that "there's an interest in who you are, instead of ''we can replace you at any time if you don't do exactly what we say'".

The problem is that company boards often fail to recognise this, and hire domineering personalities because they believe this is what will drive a strong performance, says Dr Doty.

"When an organisation actually understands that exhausted employees are not actually that productive, when they understand that people need breaks, when they're looking at the whole picture in terms of a work life balance, that's what I believe results in the greatest success."

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Image caption Klarna chief executive Sebastian Siemiatkowski says it can take a while for staff to adapt to a less dictatorial boss

Sebastian Siemiatkowski, co founder and chief executive of Swedish start-up Klarna, which provides payment systems for online shopping, says ideally a boss should take a back seat, pushing staff to solve problems themselves.

He admits that this approach can frustrate, with staff annoyed at the lack of guidance, but he says that over time it will enable people to develop and demonstrate their own particular skills.

"If you're very comfortable in the team, and you really trust each other, you can allow each other to take leadership positions for different topics," says Mr Siemiatkowski. "But it's very hard to reach that. I know... "

Yet while such an approach may be tough and require those at the top to swallow their ego, it can pay off.

Ms Steele gives the example of one of its customers: a chief information officer (CIO) of a large firm. The company had hired a lot of so called millennials - those born between 1980 and 1999.

The CIO spent two years frustrated that they weren't listening to him on how to protect the firm's data, and refused to acknowledge his experience and expertise in this area.

Eventually he gave in, agreeing to listen to why the new staff didn't want to use the software system and why they were unhappy.

"And when he did that it opened an entirely new world of how the company could perform, and they're incredibly successful," says Ms Steele.

This feature is based on interviews by CEO coach and author Steve Tappin, and by series producer Neil Koenig, for the BBC's CEO Guru series.