The SPARK of Leadership

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By AMA Staff

Leadership behavior might best be summed up by the acronym SPARK:
Share Information.
Play to Strengths.
Ask for Input and Appreciate Different Ideas.
Recognize and Respond to Individual Needs.
Keep Your Commitments.

One of the factors consistently mentioned in surveys to assess employee engagement is “being in on things.” Your team wants to know what’s going on. If there are rumors, address them. If there are new business directions, share those. Show employees that they are valued by you and the organization by sharing information with them.

Share Information
Here are tips to apply the S in SPARK to ignite commitment:

  • Be honest. Candor matters. It is essential to trust.
  • Treat employees like the adults they are. Adults want to know what is going on with the organization. It’s about something very important to them—their livelihood.
  • Don’t be afraid to reveal your own feelings. People welcome self-disclosure.
  • If times are good, share and celebrate. If times are bad, be honest and ask for ideas.
  • Don’t think you have to have all the answers. If you don’t know, say so. Then try to find out the facts.
  • Be open to ideas from your team. People closest to the work are the ones who know best how to accomplish it.

Play to Strengths
In playing to your strengths (the P in SPARK), you must consider not only your own strengths, but those of the people on your team. Know what your direct reports do well and then build on that. In addition, you may occasionally need to critique the performance of others to help them upgrade their performance, but it is not your job to transform them into different people.

Following are tips to apply the P in SPARK to your efforts to ignite commitment:

  • The best way to identify strengths is to connect on a human level. That doesn’t mean being “best friends” with your employees; it just means showing (and sharing) an interest in people and who they are outside of work as well as on the job.
  • Friendly, casual conversation comes more easily to some managers than others. If it is not natural to you, don’t fake it. Phony is even worse—and people can tell.
  • How can you develop your empathy? Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Think about how you would feel in a similar situation. Focus on the employee instead of yourself.
  • Looking at strengths is not “going soft.” You can still hold people to high standards, make tough decisions, and be “the boss.”
  • You pay attention to other people’s strengths by recognizing and acknowledging them. This is crucial for people to gain confidence and succeed.

Ask for Input and Appreciate Different Ideas
The A in SPARK has dual meaning and serves as a reminder that you need to listen to the response to any question. Asking for input, but then also appreciating the answers, lets employees know that you care about what they think. Does every communication between you and an employee require asking first? Of course not. But when it concerns coaching, resolving issues, solving problems, or changing procedures, you will benefit greatly from gathering ideas first. The principle is simple: Treat employees like adults.

Following are tips to apply the A in SPARK to your efforts to ignite commitment:

  • A psychological recession sets in when fear and loss of control take over. Asking people for their ideas and approaches to situations returns some of that control to them.
  • People closest to the work have the best idea of how to do it. Let them contribute. It will make everyone’s job easier.
  • When coaching, asking questions first makes the process two-way and helps ensure the employee’s commitment to improving performance.
  • Asking questions does not mean asking rhetorical or leading questions. If you already know the answer and know what you’re going to say, don’t insult the employee’s intelligence by asking a pointless question.

Recognize and Respond to Individual Needs
When you recognize and respond to individual needs, you must also demonstrate a third R: respect. Everyone is busy. There is always a new crisis or problem to solve. There is more work than there are people to do it. In the crunch of getting everything done, the easiest thing to put aside is recognition and reward. This is both dangerous and disrespectful.

In survey after survey, recognition ranks high as a factor influencing employee commitment. Recognition and rewards do not have to be huge—but they do have to be valued by the employee. And that means knowing what matters to each person on your team. Who is responsible for recognition and rewards that matter? You are. Employees value your time spent with them. That’s a form of recognition as well. So reward and recognize regularly and for specific actions. (No one likes a generic “Great work, keep at it.”)

Here are tips to apply the R part of the SPARK model to ignite commitment:

  • Make sure that recognition is genuine and tailored to what the employee values.
  • Provide rewards and recognition often.
  • Offer praise that shows you are paying attention to what the employee does and value the employee’s work.
  • If there is a team success, have a team celebration. You can also celebrate an honest failure as a way to recognize what was learned and to send the message that innovation and risk taking are valued.
  • Understand the impact of generational differences.

Keep Your Commitments
And now to the K in SPARK: keeping your commitments. Nothing can break trust more quickly than failing to keep commitments. If you ask employees for ideas, the expectation is that those ideas will be acted on in some way. If you make a commitment to follow up, be sure to do so—and then get back to the employee.

Commitments are not just those responsibilities that you as a manager undertake. The organization, too, makes commitments to the employee. This “conditional commitment” is the implied promise that the organization will deliver X to the employee—salary, benefits, opportunity, and so on-—for the employee’s promise to deliver Y—discretionary effort, target goal, quota, time, and so on. If the organization fails to live up to its side of the bargain in some way, employees will see no reason to keep their commitments.

Here are tips to apply the K of the SPARK model to ignite commitment:

  • Follow up on employee ideas and suggestions.
  • If the conditional commitment between the organization and the employee is in jeopardy, take immediate action to reestablish the balance.
  • As the manager, you are the face of the organization. Live up to your commitments and you’ll be sending the message that the organization is also living up to its commitments.
  • You are already leading by example; make sure it’s a good one.

To further develop your leadership competencies, consider these AMA seminars:
Preparing for Leadership:

© 2013 American Management Association. Excerpted and adapted from AMA Business Boot Camp: Management and Fundamentals That Will See You Successfully Through Your Career, Edited by Edward T. Reilly. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.