Adopt supportive and inclusive leadership styles

Research shows that leaders and managers who adopt supportive and inclusive leadership styles have more engaged staff. The most successful leaders deploy a range of leadership styles depending on the circumstances, but with greatest reliance on inclusive styles, such promoting collaboration, involving staff in decisions, encouraging and coaching staff, and supporting staff in overcoming organisational challenges.

Yet despite this evidence, studies suggest that NHS leaders and managers continue to rely first and foremost on directive leadership styles such as leading from the front, setting the pace or laying down demanding targets – precisely those styles that run the greatest risk of disempowering and alienating staff.

According to the Commission on Dignity in Care for Older People: ‘if senior managers impose a command and control culture that demoralizes staff and robs them of the authority to make decisions, poor care will follow’ (NHS Confederation et al 2012). A small number of high-performing NHS organisations have made concerted efforts to develop more inclusive and supportive leadership styles. For example, Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust made substantial investment to convince sceptical leaders and managers of the need to change, before helping them to ‘unlearn’ ingrained behaviours and develop a broader set of leadership skills. In 2013, Oxleas was the mental health trust with the highest levels of staff satisfaction in the quality of their work and in the patient care being delivered (NHS Staff Survey 2013).

For more information on the impact of leadership and management see Staff care: how to engage NHS staff and why it matters by The Point of Care Foundation.

Board members should ask the following questions

  • What do we think are the most prevalent leadership styles throughout our organisations?
  • What do our staff think are the most prevalent leadership styles? Do they think leaders and managers are inclusive and supportive?
  • What investment have we made to develop the leadership styles that support high levels of staff engagement?

Next: give staff the tools to lead service transformation