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Leadership behaviours: 7 traits every frontline leader needs

Whether you’re the CEO or a newly-promoted line manager straight from an entry-level frontline role, these 7 leadership traits will inspire your team and build trust. 

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In an environment in which trust in traditional institutions is running at a major low, strong leadership behaviours are more important than ever. 

The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer paints a confused, difficult and often contradictory picture of people’s trust in business as an institution. 

Whilst ‘business’ in general has become the most trusted institution in the US in general, people’s trust in their own employers has dipped.

And, despite an increase in trust in comparison to other authority figures (journalists, governmental figures, religious leaders), CEOs sit squarely in the ‘not trusted’ section of the infographic. 

At the same time as people distrust their employer, they are far more likely to trust their own CEO than CEOs in general. 

What does this tell us? 

Partly, that trust is personal. You are more likely to trust a person you know and recognize, even in times of crisis, than a large, faceless institution. 

It also tells us that effective leadership could be the key to unlocking greater organizational trust. 

Frontline workforces have, historically, been treated poorly by employers, who often see them as a disposable resource rather than an essential pillar of organizational success.

Having strong, visible leaders your frontline teams can really get behind is vital in bridging this gap. 

How do you build this trust? One thing you, as a leader, can focus on is cultivating and demonstrating strong leadership behaviours. These behaviours show that you mean what you say.

You don’t just pay lip service to ‘openness, transparency and honesty‘ in corporate manifestos — you exhibit them through your decision-making and your leadership.

The strong leadership behaviours you need to cultivate

Whether you’re the CEO or a newly-promoted line manager straight from an entry-level frontline role, these 7 leadership traits will inspire your team and build trust. 

1. Actively demonstrate trustworthiness

What does ‘trustworthy’ mean? It’s a loose term for sure, but we like to start with the following three traits: 

  • Transparency: you keep your workforce in the loop
  • Openness: you are receptive to new ideas and feedback
  • Honesty: you admit mistakes and learn from them 

This is a basic list, and you should expand it based on your own experience. The more specifically you can define trustworthiness for your own organization, the better. 

So, think: what does leadership mean to you? Add your own personal definitions to the points above. 

You don’t simply claim trustworthiness. You need to demonstrate your trustworthiness as a leader every single day, in how you behave on a personal level and in how you make decisions on behalf of the organization you work for. 

This could be as simple as following up on that leave request you promised to look at. It could be 

2. Recognize individual and team success

“You get recognition! You get recognition! Everyone gets recognition!”

When it comes to recognizing top performance, Oprah-like generosity is the way forward. People like to know that they make a real difference to your organization, and work harder when good performance is recognized — so why skimp?

There are many ways you can do this. And whilst elaborate award schemes and bonuses are all well and good, never dismiss the importance of a verbal “well done” or recognition on your major internal comms channels.

Good performance doesn’t always top leaderboards but deserves praise nonetheless.

Recognition for hard work doesn’t have to be a top-down thing either.

Plenty of businesses now have schemes that allow employees to publicly recognize each others’ efforts, either via awards or small gifts (chocolate, wine, small gift cards… you get the idea). 

Why not take the lead and introduce a similar scheme in your workplace? 

Doctor and his colleagues demonstrating leadership behaviours.

3. Admit when you don’t have the answers

As a leader, there’s a huge amount of pressure to be able to answer all questions thoughtfully, informatively and completely.

Let’s be honest though, this isn’t a realistic goal for you to set yourself. 

And, if you can’t always answer every question perfectly, or explain every situation thoroughly, you have two options: 

  1. Admit you don’t have all the answers right now, but tell employees what you do know
  2. Pretend you know what you’re talking about and extrapolate what you think might be the truth

There is no shame in saying ‘I don’t know’.

In fact, it’s a very powerful leadership behaviour. It’s human, it’s honest (referring back to point one on this list) and your employees will appreciate you being upfront about it. It’s always best to wait for the right information than to risk giving wrong or misplaced advice. 

On a related note: if you can’t solve a problem by yourself, finding someone with the right expertise is the mark of a great leader! Where you fall short, rely on the knowledge of those around you — so long as you give them the kudos they deserve. 

4. Draw from your own experience

Thinking about your own past experience helps you lead fairly and empathetically. 

If you have experience of frontline work, fantastic! Use that to inform how you treat people and the decisions you make for your business. Employees will appreciate your hard-won professional experience and recognize your expertise. 

If you don’t have direct frontline experience, don’t worry. There was a time when you weren’t in a leadership position.

What made a great boss? Under what conditions did you work best? What really annoyed you about the leadership teams you worked under, and what did you respect?

All of this knowledge is transferable. Combine it with the experience you get from interacting with your workforce and listening to their feedback, ideas and advice to inform how you lead your frontline teams. 

5. Champion diversity and inclusion

What diversity and inclusion is: everyone feeling safe and able to do their job in your workplace, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, age or disability. 

What diversity and inclusion is not: a Pride/disability awareness/Diwali celebration/family fun day once a year. 

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with those types of awareness events or celebrations, providing you walk the walk the rest of the time as well. A disability awareness event rings hollow if you still haven’t installed basic wheelchair ramps, for example. 

If you actively work to make sure your workplace is inclusive, you’ll be rewarded with a diverse workforce that benefits from a range of perspectives. Whether your employees are frontline healthcare workers, retail assistants, drivers or any

There’s no limit to the actions you could take, but here are a few starter ideas:  

  • Childcare provisions/flexibility for parents
  • Accommodations for disabled employees (e.g braille signage, wheelchair ramps)
  • Granting leave for non-Christian religious festivals
  • Making sure the canteen serves food that fits different medical and religious diets
  • Remote or hybrid working where possible
  • Paid sickness leave

What does it mean to be a leader in diversity and inclusion? In a nutshell, it’s all about being proactive. 

Don’t assume workforce silence means you have no work to do here. If you do, you run the risk of losing potential employees at the interview stage, or current ones leaving quietly for somewhere that meets their needs without having to be prompted. 

Be inclusive before anyone asks. Show people that you — that’s you specifically and the organization as a whole — welcome them proactively rather than accommodate them begrudgingly. 

6. Give your frontline employees responsibility

No one likes being micromanaged. For a start, it gives off the message that you don’t trust your employees. 

As an employee, it’s also really annoying and gets in the way of your ability to do your job well. Bluntly, nothing sucks the joy out of work more than micromanagement. It’s the dementor of frontline leadership tactics. 

Let your employees spread their wings and you’ll be rewarded several times over. Frontline employees are often in entry-level roles and jump at the chance to gain experience that will help them shape their careers in the long term. 

Will mistakes be made? Absolutely. On the other hand, you’ll be rewarded with an engaged workforce that learns every day, resulting in: 

  • Significant performance gains in the long term
  • A valuable bank of operational knowledge that helps your teams give great service
  • A more engaged, productive workforce that are happier in their roles
  • Employees staying in their jobs longer, so you avoid the effects of staff shortages
  • Reduced hiring costs as a result!
  • Employees being promoted, taking valuable knowledge from the frontline into leadership roles

7. Be a digital innovator

Why stick to traditional internal comms methods when they don’t work effectively? 

Employee apps and social intranets now offer instant, up-to-date and effective ways of communicating with your frontline teams. What sort of frontline leader wouldn’t want to leverage that sort of technology as much as possible?

Whether you’re simply keeping employees in the loop on day-to-day announcements (who’s on leave, rota updates, daily targets etc) or major internal news, digital solutions are far more effective than traditional noticeboards, notes with payslips and non-accessible email newsletters. 

Plenty of leaders have also used digital solutions to share information on a more personal level.

During the pandemic, instant messenger channels and social intranets all became instrumental in bringing workforces closer together in tough times — sharing personal stories publicly brings leaders closer to their workforces. 

Leadership behaviours: the 7 traits strong frontline leaders need

Finally – never stop learning.

Remember when you were new in your leadership position? How the privilege of being responsible for your direct reports felt? Your desire to be the best boss anyone has ever had? 

Never lose that. 

There’s always something new to learn about being a frontline leader. Being open to these lessons will help you as you balance the needs of your employees with your organizational goals.