I like to eat an ice-cream on the beach, but not when it is minus 2°C and blowing a gale. One hour may be a long time to spend in a queue but not long enough to spend with a friend. On each of our unique life journeys, taking context into account is key to a thorough understanding of any situation. The very definition of context, depending on your choice of dictionary, makes clear that it is about explaining meaning; fully understanding an event or idea. Context breathes life into events and ideas, revealing their true meaning.
Without context situations can easily be misunderstood, leading to unwarranted judgements and misinterpretations. Unfortunately, online trolls and certain sections of the media exploit this vulnerability, sensationalising stories, and many of us fall for it, provoking knee-jerk reactions instead of curiosity. Behaviours taken out of context can appear puzzling, excessively generous, or unkind, often leading to misinformed conclusions.
The importance of context in leadership cannot be understated. It plays a pivotal role in how leaders respond to challenges, interact with their teams, and make critical decisions. Yet, the significance of context is frequently overlooked in professional development, as seen in a 2014 McKinsey study, where it was highlighted as a contributing factor as to why some training failed. Effective leadership is not a one-size-fits-all approach. What may work well in one situation might not be as effective in another, even if it appears to be a similar scenario. As Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, famously noted, you cannot step into the same river twice. Change is constant, both in the environment and within individuals.
In the realm of leadership, context refers to the unique set of circumstances, variables and environmental factors, surrounding a leader and their organisation. This holistic environment encompasses the industry, organisational culture, market conditions, technological advancements, political landscape, and more. Effective leaders recognise that different situations necessitate distinct approaches and adapt their strategies accordingly.
Context profoundly influences the choice of leadership styles. I am not a fan of pigeon-holing people into certain leadership styles. Leaders must be flexible and able to adapt the approach based on the demands of the situation and the needs of the team. In some scenarios, a more authoritative directive style might be appropriate to respond quickly to crises. In another situation a democratic leadership style might be better suited for fostering collaboration and innovation. That authoritative style might be effective when swift decisions are required, such as during natural disasters, however, use the same style in a routine office setting, and you are likely to demotivate and disengage team members, stifling creativity and collaboration, creating a toxic culture. Being able to discern the context can significantly impact team dynamics and productivity.
“Without context situations can easily be misunderstood, leading to unwarranted judgements and misinterpretations.”
Leaders who consider the contextual factors when making decisions lead to more informed and balanced choices. Inclusive decision-making involves seeking input from team members and stakeholders ensuring that diverse perspectives and expertise are taken into account. This collaborative approach not only enhances the quality of decisions but also fosters a sense of ownership and commitment among team members. Recognising that cultural context plays a vital role in shaping communication leads to better interpersonal interactions and a harmonious work environment.
Do you behave the same at home as you do at work? The same with your closest friends as you do in an important meeting? Your behaviour reflects the situation, the context you are in and your identity within that context. Your identity is quite evident when you are in the role of a parent or among your closest friends. In such situations, you might even have unique names or ways of addressing each other. However, the challenge arises in the workplace, where your identity is fixed in the eyes of your colleagues, but the demands of different situations may require you to exhibit diverse behaviours.
Having the ability to flexibly adjust your identity within your role can make it easier to adjust your behaviours. Based on the effects you wish to have on a given situation, ask yourself what behaviours would best bring about those effects. We will cover more about the impact of identity in an upcoming post, as its influence is far reaching.
Context is also why at Deepsky we don’t do off-the-shelf programmes, even within a specific framework we allow space for context both for the individual and the organisation. We recognise the importance of your time and ensure your development is centred around your challenges and aspirations. There is little value in an attendance course, which does not allow you to utilise your real work situations and return without an action plan.
The ’Context is Key’ takeaways:
- Context is vital to fully understanding a situation
- Matching your behaviours to the context will produce better results
- Raising the importance of context can develop valuable mindset and perspective understanding
As a final thought, searching for context in every situation can, in itself, be enough to interrupt any unhelpful patterns resulting from jumping to the wrong conclusions. If we strive to search for context in every situation, we can find the power to enrich our lives and relationships, both personally and professionally.