Most people probably think of a local hero in a positive sense. A person who does something for others, who inspires others to learn something new and improve themselves. In Sweden, for instance, we have a television show called Vardagshjältar(Everyday Heroes), where "ordinary" people are recognized for doing something extraordinary. But can a local hero also be something negative?
Here's a real-life example: A company gets a new CEO and a new strategy is subsequently developed and communicated to the entire company. The new strategy involves some significant changes. Not only in terms of the organization, but also in the form of new roles and responsibilities for both employees and managers.
An employee survey is conducted to determine the current status and get a sense of the leadership quality. The survey's results vary quite a bit. Some managers are given a low score, some managers come in as average and some score high.
So what can you do with such varying results? Managers with poor scores need to be encouraged to think about the root cause of their employees' responses. It's important to put the results into some sort of context. Who is the manager, who are the employees, what is going on in the department, and so on.
Good results don't always mean good leadership
A low score isn't always the same as bad performance. For instance, the manager may have implemented a series of changes in line with the company's objectives and strategy, but without the involvement of the employees for some reason or other.
If we now consider the managers who earn high scores, can we conclude that they are doing an excellent job as managers and just let them continue along the same lines? No, it's not that simple. Again, it's important to put the results into context and reflect on the group of "good" managers as well.
I often encounter companies where the managers are given positive assessments by their teams, but the upper management is given negative assessments. But why? In many cases, the immediate superior always takes the employees' side and talks bad about the management. This manager is what we call a "local hero".
What makes a manager a local hero?
There are a variety of explanations for the local hero phenomenon. The manager may have advanced from employee to leader and can therefore be having difficulty with the new role. Unclear messages from top management cause ambiguity/uncertainty in the manager, who then fails in the role as ambassador for the top management. Another explanation could be that the manager simply thinks top management's decisions are bad or wrong, and this is being communicated to the employees.
Ambiguity weakens leadership
In Sweden, we are generally good about involving employees and delegating responsibility, which harmonizes well with our relation-oriented culture. However, we also tend to be less clear when it comes to the link between the employees' assignments and the overall objective and when giving constructive feedback to employees. This is generally due to vague expectations from management, resulting in ambiguous leadership and ultimately in erroneous expectations from the employees.
If the immediate superior is not a good ambassador for the top management, it can be difficult to explain what the employees are expected to contribute to the overall objective as well as to execute change. Employees' trust in top management is undermined as is their understanding of the direction the company is moving in and why. To help the employees understand and take responsibility for the process as a whole, it is crucial that top management, through the line managers, is able to communicate (in the right manner) the why, the what and the how.
Tell managers what is expected of them
We all have different preferences, behaviors and attitudes. We all see the world from our own points of view, regardless of whether we are a member of management or the rank and file. Management/HR therefore need to work more systematically with the development of leadership skills by clearly communicating expectations, providing support and developing the managers. Communicating expectations clearly sets the framework for specifying what is expected of the employees. Local heroes already have the trust of the employees, which makes it somewhat easier to develop these leaders into mouthpieces and ambassadors for top management. However, this is only if they are willing to change their attitudes towards their leadership role.
The next time you assess leadership quality from the perspective of the employees, you should therefore think about whether the manager is only good for the employees or is also good for the company. Are there local heroes in your company?