Why organisations need human-centred leaders

If only leaders realise that investing time in conversations with their people would lead to the results that they currently focus most of their attention on, we’d all be better off!


Businesses are run by human beings. They make operations smooth, create value for the company and its stakeholders and make or break a business.

It is odd then, that although so many companies talk about their people being their greatest asset, their actions do not always ring true.

It is time we embraced more human-centered leadership to bring out the best in people. I realise that leaders have a dearth of time — well actually, that’s not true, it’s really a dearth of attention.

If only leaders realise that investing time in conversations with their people would lead to the results that they currently focus most of their attention on, we’d all be better off! It’s not one or the other – human-centred leadership creates results, by engaging people in ways that motivate them.

Now, in the midst of a global turmoil, this seems more pertinent than ever.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at human-centred design, which is where the term came from originally.

What is human-centred design (HCD)?

As described by LUMA, HCD is “The discipline of generating solutions to problems and opportunities through the act of making something new where the activity is driven by the needs, desires, and context of the people for whom we design”

So human-centred leadership may be:

“The discipline of generating new ways of leading where the activity is driven by the needs, desires, and context of the people we lead”.

To understand the needs, desires, and context of the people we lead, we need to ask questions such as:

  • What drives and motivates you?
  • What do you love doing?
  • What are you best at?
  • What do you hope for from work?
  • What are your values?
  • How do your caring responsibilities influence your life decisions?
  • How can we partner together to enable you to achieve your aspirations?
  • How can I best support you?
  • How much challenge would you like from me?

It is not really rocket science, is it?

But how many of these questions do you know the answers to, for your people?
How often do you have these kinds of conversations that get deep underneath the surface?
People’s circumstances change regularly so the conversations need to be regular – not once and done. And let’s not assume we know the answers either.

Just because we feel a certain way about something does not mean that our team members will feel the same. I’m all about asking not telling. In this case it’s asking not assuming.

Why human-centred leadership matters?

The golden rule, ‘do as you would be done by’, is not correct. Just because you would like to be treated in a certain way does not mean that everyone else would welcome the same approach. That’s why, asking vs assuming is so important when it comes to our team members.

When we make assumptions and act accordingly, our team members may say nothing and put up with it. They may simmer with every (perceived or real) micro-inequity. Their mental health may be impacted by holding on to things they should say out loud, but fear to share because of the way you, or others before you, have reacted.

They bottle it all up until they blow their top. At best, that may mean conflict between you both, at worst, it may mean losing them to another employer before you’ve had a chance to rectify the issue.

Customer-focused organisations ask their customers to tell them when they get it wrong, so they can set it right before it becomes a big deal. That’s how you need to think as a leader too. You’ll need to ask:

  • What’s working/not working in our relationship?
  • What do you need from me to enable you to do your job?
  • How can I support you to achieve your ambitions?

You may not mind losing your underperformers as they take a lot of your time. But your trusted people with whom you spend little time may be affected by you spending so much of your time with the underperformers and none of your time with them.

Prioritise and spend time with the people you can least afford to lose. Not in micro-managing them, but in talking to them about their needs, desires and context.

They want to know that you care. They want to feel that connection with you and their team-mates.

They want to feel a sense of belonging. It’s one of our greatest needs as human beings.

A sense of belonging develops under two conditions said Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, in their 1995 article:

1. Frequent positive contact with the same group or person
2. Relational experiences over a period of time

This is just as important at work as it is at home. After all, we spend a considerable amount of time at work. So, what positive contact can you foster? And how can you create positive relational experiences over time and have better, deeper and more human conversations?


You lead individuals and a team. One to one conversations are important and so are team conversations. The team is its own entity. It’s made up of individuals, but when they are interconnected, there is a system that needs attention.

What does the team need, to function at its best?

What conversations do you have about how the team works together (vs what the team is working on)?

What do they each need from each other to do their best work? What ways of working will help them and hinder them? e.g.

– Structure and schedule for meetings
– Acceptable behaviour during meetings
– Preferred methods for communication and the norms around how to use them (Lencioni)

What would enable them to trust each other?

What are the communication norms for the team?

Are those working?

What could be improved?

How compelling are meetings?

Are important items always brought to the team for discussion?

How will they debate ideas openly?

How will they work with and through con?ict, seeing it as a healthy part of debate?
Can they be honestly confronting?

What are the decision-making processes for this team (Remember, no assumptions – they may be very different from previous teams)?

How will they get commitment to decisions?

How will they hold each other accountable?

How often and sincerely do they make an apology for a mistake? How will they focus on collective results?

What is their purpose as a team?

Some of these questions are inward facing, some outward. Some are about results, others about relationships. All are necessary, though. Discussing tasks alone will not get you the productivity that you desire.


We also need to ask stakeholders what they need. It’s no good second guessing what they need or making assumptions.

Are you seeing a pattern?

Asking vs Assuming

And you probably need to have these conversations before you have the team conversations, as the team’s work will be shaped by the stakeholders’ needs.

Of course, you need to identify all the stakeholders. Don’t miss anyone out of your stakeholder analysis. They will feel aggrieved and seek retribution in some way or another.

Then ask:

  • What does the world of tomorrow need?
  • What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What are your expectations in terms of solving this problem?
  • What will success look, sound and feel like?
  • What is the impact on society and the climate of those results? Are those still the right results to aim for?
  • Who else should we be asking?

One thing I have noticed is how difficult it can be for stakeholders to answer these questions, but we must not leave without clear answers, as the team cannot deliver on unclear expectations. There will be guesswork, assumptions and differences of opinion within the team, making the work more difficult to achieve and frustrations more likely to surface.

Ask and keep asking, until you are clear.


By writing about you last, I am not saying you are the least important person in this mix. Far from it. If you have not figured out your own needs, desires and context, you will be mis?ring and throwing others off balance.

  • What is important to you in life?
  • What are your hopes and intentions?
  • What is your purpose?
  • What is the legacy you would wish to leave behind?

These are big and important questions.

Coaching is a great way to figure out your needs and desires. The International Coaching Federation (ICF) defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional potential.

If we don’t start thinking about them now, life will pass us by without us finding ourselves and our meaning in life. That may be ok for you, but not for me. I’d love for everyone to feel fulfilled in life and in work. I’d like working hours to be just as joyful as home life.

Maybe I’m expecting too much. Joy at work? Who ever heard of such a thing? But wouldn’t it be wonderful to try?

Find your ICF-credentialed coach today and partner to maximise your potential

The International Coaching Federation (ICF) is the world’s largest organisation leading the global advancement of the coaching profession and fostering coaching’s role as an integral part of a thriving society. Founded in 1995, its 35,000-plus members located in more than 140 countries and territories work toward the common goals of enhancing awareness of coaching and upholding the integrity of the profession through lifelong learning and maintaining the highest ethical standards. Through the work of its six unique family organisations, ICF empowers professional coaches, coaching clients, organisations, communities and the world through coaching.

In India, ICF is represented by six vibrant chapters, all led by volunteering professional coaches — ICF Bengaluru, ICF Chennai, ICF Delhi, ICF Mumbai, ICF Pune and ICF Hyderabad.

The author, Clare Norman is an ICF Professional Certified Coach (PCC) based in the United Kingdom with 19 years of coaching experience. She has worked in learning and development roles in NatWest and Accenture. She won awards from Brandon Hall and the Management Innovation Xchange for her ground-breaking ‘behaviour change’ programmes, such as the Individualised Leadership Programme, the 30 Day Challenge, and Employee Experience, about which she has also presented at conferences. A prolific blogger, she has written articles on action learning, coaching supervision and mentor coaching, and a book called Mentor Coaching: A Practical Guide.

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