As a Leader, What Message are you Sending?

August 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I was walking our two dogs, as I do almost every morning. We go to the nearby park and walk the 2 miles rather quickly so we all get good exercise. Of course I had my Blackberry so when I think of a quick call I can make it during the walk. While striding up a gradual hill I started breathing a little heavy when I suddenly remembered a call I needed to make to one of my strategic partners. I needed to confirm a seminar date that was scheduled for the end of the following week.

 

I called my client and one of the owners, Diane, answered the call. I asked to speak to the scheduler Evelyn. As I was asking I was breathing even heavier. Apparently talking and walking up hill creates even heavier breathing.  I am sure I sounded like a nasty pervert as I asked Diane to pass on a message to Evelyn to return my call. After I hung up I realized I should have explained my context. What impression did I make? If she didn’t know me she may have thought I was an excited pervert while I requested, “Please tell Evelyn to call me. I have a few questions for her.”  Thank goodness we have a good trusting relationship so I doubt Diane will think poorly of me.  But, can I be sure?

 

Very often leaders exhibit negative behaviors that unintentionally and unknowingly create the wrong impression.  These behaviors can damage the motivation and productivity of employees in ways that are immeasurable.  Most organizations have the following dysfunctional cultural characteristics:

  • The leader misbehaves
  • The poor behavior of the leader negatively impacts the employee’s motivation and attitude toward the leader and the organization
  • Most of the employees are too afraid to give feedback to the leader and so the poor behavior continues
  • The employees begin to exhibit poor behaviors
  • The leader conducts a performance appraisal to correct the employee behaviors

 

This typical series of interactions does little to address the real root cause of the dysfunction, i.e. the leader’s behaviors. Instead, these cultural procedures serve to sustain the dysfunction.

 

Leaders are not, nor will they ever be, omnipotent.  When they misbehave they need to know it and they need help to change their behaviors to prevent the unintended negative consequences.

When I first begin my work with clients I always explain to the Senior Leaders that one of my roles is to give feedback to them about poor behaviors.  I ask their permission to provide that feedback and I insist they agree. I always get that agreement because the leaders (and all people) already think they are behaving correctly.   Leaders who misbehave rarely do so purposefully.  Almost always they are unaware of the impact on others.  They need to be respectfully told.

Ask yourself, how many companies proactively welcome respectful feedback to leaders by employees?  I often see leaders who insist on strict discipline yet consistently show up late to meetings.  I also have seen leaders deliver criticism to one direct report for a particular issue and then fail to deliver the same level of outrage to a different employee for a similar issue.

To optimize trust and create a high performance culture, leaders must be willing to accept the responsibility for the impressions they create.  Because they cannot be omnipotent, they must accept frequent respectful feedback about poor behaviors.  They also need to send a grateful message to the messenger.  Any defensive reaction will inhibit the feedback in the future and help continue the dysfunction.

Therefore, leaders need to either be very insightful and emotionally intelligent in order to observe their own dysfunctional and misunderstood behaviors.  In other words, they need to be aware of their “heavy breathing”.  In addition, the leader must be truly courageous and purposely set up a small team of trusted advisors who will provide respectful feedback when he/she unconsciously creates the wrong impression.  Without these two approaches surely the negative impact on productivity will continue unchecked.

Leaders need to be aware of the impact and impressions their behavior creates.   A leader’s number one job is to create a functional and respectful context.  Often leaders unknowingly damage this environment and therefore unconsciously damage productivity.

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