New Data Reveals That HR Leaders Are Using the Wrong Leadership Style

HR leaders are generally considered among the nicest leaders. Compared to other areas, like finance, operations, or sales, HR leaders are more likely to create an interpersonally warm environment, build social and personal bonds with their teams, and minimize conflict. While that sounds great, it turns out that a majority of employees aren’t looking for more niceness from their leaders.

More than 1 million people have taken the test “What’s Your Leadership Style?” And newly-released data from this test identifies a serious gap between the type of leadership employed in HR and the style that most people want from their boss.

4 Fundamental Leadership Styles

  • Diplomats prize interpersonal harmony. They are the social glue and affiliative force that keep groups together. They’re typically kind, social, and giving, and often have deep personal bonds with their employees.
  • Stewards value rules, processes, and cooperation. They believe that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and they move only as fast as the whole chain will allow.
  • Pragmatists have high standards, and they expect themselves and their employees to meet those standards. They’re driven, competitive, and they value hitting their goals above all else. They’re also hard-driving and often enjoy smashing through obstacles.
  • Idealists want to learn and grow, and they want everyone else to do the same. They’re open-minded and prize creativity from themselves and others.

That data shows that in HR departments, 64% of leaders are Diplomats, 21% are Stewards, 6% are Pragmatists, and 9% are Idealists. Given HR’s reputation for niceness, those numbers probably aren’t that surprising. But here’s where we see a disconnect.

When we asked people to choose the style of their ideal boss, only 22% of HR employees say they want a Diplomat leader. The Steward style is favored by 11% of people in HR, 16% desire the Pragmatist, and a whopping 51% prefer a leader with the Idealist style.

What’s So Special About the Idealist? 

This style represents a blend of challenging employees to hit big goals while caring deeply about those employees. The Idealist is akin to the teacher who tells students, “I’m going to push you really hard in this class, but I’m doing it because I believe in your potential, and I want you to be great.”

Now, the Idealist style doesn’t work for every employee, nor does it fit with every company’s business. For this style to work well, employees have to want to learn and grow. And that, of course, requires ambitious and bright workers. A dying industry with fairly mindless jobs, or a corporate culture accepting of low levels of employee engagement and high turnover, is not the optimal situation to employ the Idealist style. 

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Arguably the biggest impediment to greater adoption of the Idealist style, especially in HR departments, is that learning requires the risk of failure and leaving one’s comfort zone. There will be moments when an Idealist boss will challenge their employees to push beyond good enough, to tackle a project with low odds of success, to give maximal effort, and learn new skills. And in those moments, employees may not be as happy as they would working for a boss with lower standards.

That’s the risk of having a manager who wants to see employees achieve something deep and meaningful; it often requires some sweat (and maybe even a few tears). But the payoff for employees is learning new skills, growing their resume, and a sense of deep fulfillment. And as the data shows, more than half of employees will gladly make that tradeoff.

Too many HR leaders focus on making their people happy at the expense of challenging them to stretch, learn, and grow. Hopefully, this new data gives you some comfort that the majority of your employees don’t want to be coddled. And as long as there’s the chance for development, they’ll willingly take on some additional challenges.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.