It may be fair to say that people and businesses have seen some tough times lately. The world is changing, and social attitudes, according to NatCen’s ‘British Social Attitudes in an era of crisis’, are in a state of flux. While business leaders may feel as helpless to affect global change as the rest of us, it’s a different story in the microcosm of the workplace. This is where senior managers have more control, and an antidote to workplace unrest and anxiety could be a distributed leadership model.

With so many approaches to adopt, it can be challenging to find which leadership models are best for an organisation. The temptation may often lead to adopting a default air of top-down authority, ruling the roost from a perceived position of wisdom and knowledge. After all, we are fed a diet of top-down narratives from childhood. We are taught to listen to and follow the narratives of authority figures such as parents and teachers, and are constantly bombarded with messages about how to think, act and behave. These instructions often come from a top-down perspective, telling us that certain ideas are right and others are wrong. This type of conditioning not only shapes our worldview, it could limit people’s ability to think and act independently.

A balance between guidance and enabling freedom to explore sounds sensible. The truth is that people in positions of authority don’t have all the answers. In the workplace, an approach that may garner better results applies the distributed leadership theory.

Let people and teams express themselves, but be the net

Gartner UK predicts that, by 2028, businesses will move away from traditional team structures and adopt the We Working philosophy. This involves creating small, autonomous and high-performing teams tailored to meet workloads, timeframes and to facilitate the exchange of information. This is distributed leadership in a nutshell.

Rather than rely on a top-down structure, distributed leadership takes the pressure off senior management and shares it across teams. This acts to empower employees with autonomy and resources, so they can use initiative. The model promotes collaboration, innovation and accountability while enabling employees to develop new skills and take ownership of their roles.

This description makes it sound fun to be an employee, but it may not work for everyone. This is why it’s crucial that leaders act as central guides in small teams to cultivate an environment of shared accountability. This contrasts the conventional process of managers delegating tasks to employees in lower-level positions. It’s important that senior management teams enable small team leaders to try without fearing failure, and to look for new solutions without dwelling on problems.

The distributed leadership model highlights the sharing of knowledge and skills, so oversight may be required to identify and mentor those who show a desire to lead. A coaching approach may help organisations develop leaders who use their expertise to contribute to the mission of the organisation, particularly young people at the beginning of their careers. As we've said before, to set Gen Z up for success, always be coaching.

Empower people with the tools to enact change

Without the resources required to experiment and innovate, small teams may feel hampered in their efforts. Letting teams and numerous leaders run with their ideas may be the best thing to happen to an organisation, but it can only occur with available resources. Burgeoning teams and leaders need access to funds, training and tools to be successful.

This means loosening restrictions around IT implementation in the workplace. Legacy technology stacks may need to be tweaked and updated to enable employees to feel free to explore new ideas with fresh tools. With guidance and supervision, there’s no reason organisations can’t implement new software and hardware, but it’s essential that security remains tightly monitored.

The BBC interviewed a ‘generational cohorts expert’, Dr Alexis Abramson, who said ‘younger people think older people are not adjusting to the digital world and to technology as quickly as they’d like them to, and are holding younger people back’. As well as providing new tools, business leaders could adopt mentor-mentee relationships, downward and upward. In other words, relinquish the notion that one knows all there is to know, and learn from who's hired.

It may well be the case that a business could hire a graduate that fits the demands of a simple role, only to find the new employee becomes a catalyst for even greater change. Being able to identify who these game-changing individuals are is one of the benefits of a distributed leadership model.

Success via collaboration and transparency

The overall vision and direction of an organisation falls to the senior leadership team, and often an individual. When leadership is divided among a cohort of experts, such as eager employees, responsibility for the success of company vision and direction is shared. Teams with subject expertise may work together to achieve a purpose, but that purpose is still driven by organisational goals set by senior management.

Senior leaders could focus on building relationships, providing guidance and support, empowering employees, and developing strategies and processes that maximise innovation. They may find it useful to think and act like a ship’s captain, using their leadership skills to help others see things the way they see things, setting goals and providing clarity ‘when tasks or projects become murky or complicated’.

To make these relationships work, it may be useful to make time to reflect on work accomplishments. This could replace the need for small teams to seek constant approval or sign-off on tasks or projects before they’re off and running. Small teams can still be free to explore as they see fit, yet are accountable for their decisions and actions via a regular feedback loop.

In a CIPD podcast interview, Anand Pillai of HCL Technologies underscored the benefits of feedback to promote transparency that works both ways: ‘In any organisation, you find that many of the people on the ground are limited in their capacity [and] power because they don’t have the permission to do what they are required to do. Somebody at the top has implemented a policy which requires approvals.

‘In our organisation, the employees are empowered to do what they have to do and they can later on inform the management. They also have an opportunity to give a reverse feedback to the management … Employees give feedback and the uniqueness of this particular 360-degree feedback is [that] it’s open.’

Anand goes on to describe how feedback results are published to the company’s intranet, so levels of transparency and accountability are high. This enables everyone in the organisation to see what’s being worked on and how successful each project is, and feel more a part of the business.

Provide the tools, empower employees and reap the benefits

Providing appropriate training and resources, such as putting an upskilling strategy in place to empower employees, could help establish a distributed leadership plan. Plus, if senior management teams take a more collaborative approach in the workplace, rather than rely solely on top-down authority, it could create an environment of cooperation, understanding and innovation.

If these help to reduce workplace anxiety and create more positive working environments, it could be a management model worth trying.