What’s Missing from Your “Whole-Person” Approach to Leadership Development

The "whole-person" approach is a holistic way of looking at development and training—it takes into account the individual's vision for themselves in all areas of life and provides the supportive resources they need to help make that vision a reality. The intended result is self-actualization.

This approach is often employed as a talent strategy to improve retention, culture, and profitability. But there's more to it than simply adopting a holistic mentality or spending a training budget. To be successful, it needs to be backed by action and key conversations.

Many businesses and leaders are already aware of the "whole-person" approach and believe they're promoting it within their organizations, but many are overlooking important factors that determine whether this approach will succeed or fail.

Why This Approach is Different

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, proved through his studies that people act from emotion first, rationality second. We are emotionally-driven creatures, and the "whole-person" approach knows this. Everyone in an organization is coming to the table with emotions, and these emotions are fueling their decisions. Knowing this and creating systems around it to support it is how you go where you need to go as an organization. Otherwise, your approach won't change anything in terms of behavior.

Unlike more traditional, one-area-only, or skill-based approaches, developing the "whole person" requires an investment in professional, personal, and skill-related areas in a way that supports mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. In addition to providing basic needs, it provides the resources required for an individual to feel empowered in moving toward self-actualization. Just as the external and business environment is shifting, so are the needs of the individuals who are a part of it.

The "whole-person" approach also involves being even more focused on the person's ability to navigate not just in the area of skill development, but also the larger requirement of self-awareness and goals. It also allows individuals to take ownership of their own development, using their emotions as a compass—they are able to determine areas of focus, what they need, and provides the resources to follow through. In this way, the desire for growth is "self-generated," which goes a long way in retaining talent.

Here are some elements you can incorporate to succeed in this approach:

1. Learn about the individual – It's impossible to support what you don't know, so it's important to get to know individuals in your organization on a personal level through conversation. Ask them about their unique interests, goals, and needs, and discuss how their role and the organization can support the vision they have for themselves.

2. Individualized Coaching – Leaders need to both receive and provide emotional support, and approach development as a never-ending journey full of ups and downs. Coaching conversations and mentoring programs can go a long way in supporting the whole person, and if budget is limited, make sure the resources that are available are customizable for each individual.

3. Training – Providing strategic and hard skills training is an important part of a holistic approach, and this training needs to be accompanied by feedback so that new behaviors are reinforced and course-corrected. Growth is slowed and stunted when we're not given regular feedback on ways we can improve.

To Achieve the "Whole-Person" Approach, You Have to Start Talking

On an organizational level, taking a holistic approach is a bit more complex. It requires an in-depth audit of the employee journey. Here are some important questions you need to be asking:

  • Where are you currently encouraging the whole person to show up, and where are you falling short?
  • If people are wanting to be themselves and develop as a person, what systems, values, and investments are we making to support that?
  • What are you doing to strengthen relationships, provoke learning, and support a culture of psychological safety?

With the rising trend of meditation and mindfulness practices, communication skills and training can be misperceived as old school, based on the assumption that if you're mindful, you don't need training. The truth is that mindfulness and communication skills go hand in hand. How we communicate flows into being mindful and having intentionality with how you show up, and conversation skills are what allow you to successfully bring that intentionality into relationships. Whatever skills you have within the company, you will bring to all areas of life as a husband, wife, parent, friend, or sibling. Not employing training and development around communication is in fact a big miss.

The old-school notion of having a work self and a separate outside-of-work self is dying. Employees expect to work for a company where they can be authentic—where they feel psychologically safe enough to express their true thoughts and feelings. There are two primary ways leaders can create this environment within organizations, and both are essential:

1. Communicate that authenticity is valued. This is a given, but you'd be surprised at how many organizations fail to communicate "your voice matters" directly to their employees. Leaders need to initiate the conversation about authenticity, and clearly communicate its value. When a leader expresses that they want to know your true thoughts and feelings, it can shift an entire culture by making it "safe" to show up as your true self.

2. Model authentic behavior. If leaders do not know how to get real and show up as their true selves—which includes providing honest feedback and having a willingness to confront others when necessary—it will bleed into the company culture. Employees will not feel comfortable sharing their perspectives in an environment where leaders do not practice what they preach.

Taking Steps toward "Wholeness"

The "whole-person" approach doesn't just need to be woven into an organization's fabric via leadership training programs—it needs to be integrated into every aspect of an organization, from recruiting to onboarding to processes to employee journey and offboarding.

Bottom line, the more you treat people in a human way and get to know each other on a deeper level, the better your business will run.

If you're ready to take on a more holistic approach and make big changes in your organization, it all starts with conversation. Download our latest eBook here to read about the 5 conversations you need to start having today. 

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