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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Mar 10, 2023


The pandemic shifted much of our work away from transformational towards transactional. What has this meant for us and what can we do?



Welcome to episode 177 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we discuss making work transformational.

It was just over a year ago when I was speaking with a relatively new employee in an organisation. They described how their work was being undertaken. They joined the organisation when everyone was working remotely, so they had not met any fellow employees in person. Their manager was helpful, but clearly busy. The employee’s typical work day involved their manager asking them to do something via email, which they worked on for the next hour or two and then forwarded on the completed work. Then they waited for the next work request. Sometimes there would be another request, and other times they would be left wondering what else they should do with the remainder of their day.

This is an almost textbook definition of transactional work. Yes - work is being completed, but it’s easy to see the lost productivity, engagement, and enjoyment in this way of working. Added to this is a greater risk of the employee leaving for another job. The employee remains unchanged - not really learning or growing. The team isn’t benefiting from interactions, creativity and support, so they’re not collectively growing either. While this might be an extreme example, I believe work has shifted far more towards transactional and away from transformational over the past few years. The mantra has become “just let me get my work done”. Efforts to bring people together to collaborate, support, and build connections are rarely made, and actively resisted.

In contrast, transformational work leaves the individual, team, and organisation different. It’s like working out. If you lift weights, at the end of the workout you are different to when you started. There’s strengthening and growth. That growth compounds over time to the point where you are transformed through the workouts you complete. It’s the same with our work. If we continue to stretch, challenge, and support our people, they will grow. In contrast, transactional work doesn’t just inhibit growth - it leads people to go backwards in their performance, engagement, and satisfaction.

So what can we do to make work transformational? Here are four ideas you can try out this week:

  1. Talk about frustrations with a view towards improvement. A soldier in the Army once described to me the somewhat unorthodox approach of their commanding officer. The leader told their people that it was okay to occasionally complain or express frustration, provided they then focused on improvements and solutions. He asked that they remove their symbols of rank - the bands and stripes on their chest and shoulders that were velcroed on, to walk in and share their issues. He then asked them to walk out of the office, put their symbols of rank back on, and come back in to focus on improvements. This senior officer made it safe to raise concerns, but coupled that with accountability. He made it safe to open up, and compelling to act.

  2. Delegate meaningful work. Transactional leadership involves delegating tasks. “Complete this report for me” or “setup a time with this person”. When the task is done you need to delegate again. When you delegate accountabilities, it provides ongoing responsibility and direction. Here you are asking the person to be accountable for producing the reports, or for liaising with the stakeholder. This transformational approach allows the leader to operate as a coach or mentor, rather than relying on command and control. It’s far better for the individual and the leader.

  3. Build intra and inter-connection. Part of a leader’s role is to identify opportunities for their people to work with a diverse range of colleagues within the team and across the organisation. You can actively support this process to help build connections, support, and collaboration.

  4. Have work-related fun. Daniel Goleman once said that great leaders recognise that having a good time isn’t a waste of time. That doesn’t necessarily mean going out bowling or other activities outside work hours. Work with your team to find enjoyment in the work.

I hope you found this helpful. If it is of interest, there’s more detail in my 2023 Leadership Today conference session titled “Bring Belonging Back”. You can find that and all the other conference sessions at - have a great week.