Recently, I’ve been working with a number of mid-level leaders (e.g., Directors) who are looking to make the move into the ranks of senior leadership (V.P. and beyond). They’re at that in-between stage in their leadership career where they have significant responsibilities in leading their own teams but aren’t always the ones making the strategic decisions that affect how their teams operate. These mid-level leaders have the challenge of translating the strategic priorities of the organization into everyday activities their teams will embrace and execute.
If you are a mid-level leader, you know how hard it is to be in the middle.
A common trap that leaders at this level fall into is having an “us versus them” mentality. I see this evidenced by the language they use. When talking about having to implement decisions or policies they or their teams don’t like or didn’t have a part in formulating, they often say things like, “They are making us follow this new process,” or “They want us to adopt this new technology.” Whatever the issue may be, it’s the impersonal “they” that are behind it.
Why is this a problem?
It’s a problem because you are they.
Look at it from the perspective of your team members. You are they. You are leadership. You are the one asking them to follow that new process or adopt that new technology. Once you assume the mantle of leadership, you become one of them.
One of the easiest ways to undermine your credibility as a leader is to pawn off responsibility to the leaders above you. When you do this, you may think you’re showing your team that you’re one of them. However, what you’re actually showing them is that you aren’t fully owning your role as a leader. You run the risk of creating the perception that you lack the power and ability to effectively “manage up” the hierarchy or are hesitant or unwilling to embrace your own leadership authority.
So, how can you authentically navigate the messy middle when you don’t fully understand, agree, or support the decisions made above you? Here’s a few things I suggest you consider.
First, be candid with your team about the reality of the situation. Your team likely knows how you feel, and if you try to mask your feelings by being pollyannish or take their side by blaming someone else, they will see through the smokescreen. Although it’s okay to not be excited or fully supportive of every decision made by senior leadership, it’s not okay to throw others under the bus. Being candid, yet professional, sounds like, “I recognize this is a difficult decision, and if I had the final say I would have handled it differently, yet this is the direction we need to go and I’m going to do my best to make it successful.”
Second, acknowledge your team’s feelings about the situation. Many times, people just need to express their dissatisfaction and “say their piece” before they can move forward. But be careful! Don’t let this turn into a bitch session or a “woe is me” conversation with the team. That only drags everyone down and prevents the team from getting on with the task at hand. Don’t dwell on why or how the decision was made but keep the focus on positive ways to move forward.
Third, own your role as the leader. Regardless of your personal feelings or those of your team, your job is to lead your team in implementing the organization’s priorities. A clear way to demonstrate your ownership is to use “we” language when referring to the organization’s leadership. This sounds like, “We have decided to implement this new process” or “We are adopting this new technology.” Notice the key difference between saying we versus they? We is taking personal responsibility by identifying yourself with the organization’s leadership. They is shifting responsibility to someone else.
Regardless of your level in the organization, once you became a leader, you became one of them. As it relates to your team, the buck stops with you. You are the leader. You are they. Own it!
A myth about trust is that it takes a long time to build and just a second to break. That can be true in the most egregious cases, but generally speaking, trust is gradually eroded over time by repeated violations.
Just as a hillside abruptly collapses after a long period of erosion, so trust is suddenly lost when a relationship suffers too many transgressions of trust. The good news is that trust is incredibly resilient and can be restored if both parties are committed to the process.
That’s why I’m inviting you to join me for the five-week Summer of Trust series—Restoring Lost Trust.
Every Tuesday in the month of August, you will receive an email with insights and resources to help you restore trust that has been damaged or lost. I’ll address such topics as…
The warning signs of low trust
How to discuss “trust issues” in a relationship
A process for restoring lost trust
Healing from lost trust and learning to trust again
The five-week series will culminate with an exclusive, live webinar on Thursday, August 31st, open to all members of the Blanchard Community. The community is free to join and everyone is welcome!
I hope you’ll join me. I’m confident the Summer of Trust series will provide you with knowledge and resources that will help you restore trust in your relationships and make this a summer to remember.
My experience has shown that many leaders take trust for granted. They assume people trust them by virtue of their title or position, when the reality is they aren’t as trusted as they think they are. A recent survey by PWC reported a 15-point gap between leaders who believe employees highly trust their company (84%) and what the employees reported (69%).
Ironically, building and maintaining trust is an issue that most leaders agree is critically important, but few have a plan to achieve it. A survey by YPO showed 96% of chief executives said building and maintaining trust was a high priority for their success, yet just 34% of the respondents said they had defined and specific plans for building trust in their organizations.
It reminds me of the old project management adage: people don’t plan to fail; they just fail to plan.
I’ve found that principle also applies in my work teaching leaders how to build trust in the workplace. Most leaders don’t plan to fail in building trust, they just fail to create a plan. I’ve observed three common assumptions leaders make that prevent them from building trust in a consistent and proactive way.
They assume trust “just happens.
Like some sort of relational osmosis, people figure trust just naturally develops over the course of time, and the longer you’re in relationship with someone, the greater the likelihood you’ll build a strong bond of trust. Well, if you believe that, I’m sorry to burst your bubble. Trust doesn’t work that way. Trust is based on perceptions, and those perceptions are formed by the behaviors you use. If you use trustworthy behaviors, you’ll be trusted. If you use behaviors that erode trust, people won’t trust you. Building trust is a skill that can be learned and developed, and once you have those skills, you can be intentional about acting in ways that build trust with others.
They assume others view trust the same way they do.
When I conduct training workshops on building trust, I often like to ask participants to draw a symbol or picture that represents trust. I’ve seen hundreds of representations of trust: wedding rings, a cross, a child holding a parent’s hand, a bank vault, and people shaking hands, just to name a few of the common ones. I conduct this activity because it illustrates the point I mentioned earlier: trust is based on perceptions. Everybody has their own view of what trust means, based on their unique personal experience. This varied understanding of trust reminds me of the classic movie, The Princess Bride. The character Vizzini uses the word “Inconceivable!” as an adjective to describe just about any situation, even if it doesn’t quite make sense. Finally, Inigo says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The same misunderstanding happens between leaders and their team members if they don’t share a common definition of trust.
They assume trust is only a “warm and fuzzy” concept.
When you discuss building trust, many leaders jump to the conclusion that you’re talking about building warm and fuzzy relationships. You know, the “let’s all hold hands and sing kumbaya” kind of warm and fuzzy. Well, trust does have a relationship component, and it’s the interpersonal connection that often sparks the development of trust in the first place. However, trust also has a hard, bottom-line impact on organizations. The research is clear that high-trust organizations have lower turnover, higher employee engagement, and outperform low-trust organizations on practically every measurable metric. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that pizza lunches, fancy off-site retreats, or ropes courses check the box for having a strategy of building trust in the workplace.
I’m sure you noticed I used the word “assume” in the three examples above; that was intentional. You’ve probably the heard the familiar warning about what happens when you assume, right? Well, when it comes to building trust, you don’t want to assume anything. Don’t assume trust just happens by chance. Have a defined plan for building and sustaining it. Don’t assume other people perceive trust the same way you do. Chances are they see it differently, and if you’re not on the same page as to what trust looks like in a relationship, your efforts in building trust will miss the mark. Finally, don’t assume trust is solely a “soft” relationship dynamic. Trust can literally make or break the success of your organization. To build trust, I’m reminded of another project management adage: plan your work and work your plan.
Let’s be honest. Many leaders are suspicious of remote employees’ work habits.
“I know remote employees aren’t working eight hours a day,” said a leader when I recently asked him how his organization was dealing with remote/hybrid workers. He didn’t have any specific data to support his conclusion, but it was clearly his perception that people working remotely weren’t putting in the same effort as those in the office.
Keeping an eye on workers
This leader’s perception is not an outlier, as Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend survey showed that 85% of leaders doubt their remote workers are being productive. “Productivity Paranoia” has taken hold in a large number of organizations as leaders struggle to adjust to new ways of managing remote workers. In June 2022, Gartner’s research showed the number of large employers using tools to track their workers had doubled since the beginning of the pandemic to 60%, with that number expected to rise to 70% within the next three years.
Monitoring employees in some form or fashion has occurred for decades—think GPS trackers in trucks, timecards, swipe badges, CCTV, regulating web browsing—but some of today’s methods border on outright distrust of remote workers. Organizations are surveilling employees by using software to record keystrokes, monitor time spent in specific applications, take periodic screenshots, record meetings, and even accessing employees’ webcams, with some requiring “always on” live video feeds for remote workers.
Effects of electronic monitoring
Is there a good or “right” way to monitor remote employees? Research indicates it’s a risky proposition that often backfires on organizations. One study found that workers under surveillance intentionally worked more slowly, took more breaks, and stole more office supplies than their un-monitored peers. A meta-analysis (a study of multiple studies) examining the effects of electronic monitoring on employee wellness and performance found that monitoring workers had no impact on improving performance and resulted in lower job satisfaction and higher stress.
The reason for these negative impacts? Monitoring an employee’s every move directly opposes the basic psychological need for autonomy. Workers who are monitored feel they have less choice and control, so they circumvent company rules to regain a sense of autonomy over their actions and work environment.
Trust vs Control
If the consequences of monitoring remote employees are so obviously bad, why do organizations do it?
As I share in my recent book with Ken Blanchard, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, the very nature of trust requires one party to take a risk and extend trust to another. Extending our trust to someone makes us vulnerable to their actions. Will they reward our trust? Will we get burned? If we feel the risk is too great, we resort to control. Control is the opposite of trust.
Granted, the nature of some industries requires an appropriate level of monitoring. Certain governmental, military, healthcare, or financial services organizations work with confidential or highly sensitive data, and this requires them to tightly control and monitor employee activity. Monitoring remote employees in these environments makes sense, and it presents leaders with the extra challenge of figuring out ways to meet legal/regulatory requirements while minimizing the negative impact on the employee experience.
Apart from these situations, it seems most organizations who electronically monitor remote employees do it because they simply don’t trust workers to be productive (although they would never state that publicly).
Six Important Principles
The decision to electronically monitor remote employees is not one to be taken lightly or made quickly. If you’re considering going this route, I recommend you consider these six important principles.
1. Examine Your Motives—Be brutally honest with yourself. Why do you feel the need to monitor your remote workers? Is it truly a concern over their productivity? If so, what data do you have that shows it’s suffering? Is the quality of work not up to snuff? Again, what data supports your conclusions? Or is the root issue a lack of trust? It’s OK to admit there are trust issues. You can’t improve trust until you first acknowledge there is a problem.
2. Look for Ways to Address Concerns That Don’t Involve Monitoring—If there are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed, explore ways to resolve those concerns that don’t involve electronic monitoring or surveillance (e.g., completing status reports, daily scrums, etc.). It may require more time and effort to create and implement new systems or processes, but the effort will result in higher trust and respect with your team members than if you take the quick and easy route of digitally tracking their every move.
“People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.” ~ Simple Truth #22 Simple Truths of Leadership, by Ken Blanchard & Randy Conley
3. Involve Employees in Creating the Strategy—If you find some sort of monitoring of remote employees is needed, digital or otherwise, involve the people who will be impacted in developing the strategy. People will have greater ownership and commitment to the strategy if they understand the purpose of it and help create and implement it. If it’s done to them, rather than with them, they will push-back and act in self-protective ways that are usually counter to what the organization desires.
4. Be Clear on What’s Being Measured and Why—Simple, rote tasks that have easily measurable metrics around quantity and quality are easiest to monitor, but complex, knowledge-based tasks requiring discretion and judgement are much harder to measure. How do you quantify innovation and collaboration? The difficulty of measuring these factors is why many organizations have defaulted to demanding remote workers return to the office.
5. Make it a Win-Win—The organization clearly benefits from keeping tabs on remote workers, but what about the employees? Creating a win-win is a key success factor of any employee monitoring system, say researchers who study this topic. From the employee perspective, will it result in more manageable workloads? Training opportunities? Higher compensation? It will look different for every organization and job role, but it’s critical that employees see the benefit.
6. Play Fair—Fairness is treating people equitably (being impartial, unbiased, giving them what they deserve) and ethically (according to the principles, standards, or rules). If monitoring remote employees is necessary, then be completely above-board and transparent about why it’s required, how it’s being done, what the data will be used for, and how it will impact employees.
Is It Worth It?
When deciding to monitor remote employees, each organization must answer this question: Is it worth it? From my perspective, the drawbacks far outweigh any potential benefits. I believe organizations have much more to gain by collaborating with employees to define this new world of remote work.
The pandemic let the genie out of the bottle and proved that remote work can deliver business results just as effectively, if not more so, than in-person work. With survey after survey showing most people wanting some form of remote work, organizations are going to have to address this issue head on. The ones who will be the most successful are those who build their approach on a foundation of trust with their employees rather than suspicion.
One of the things I love most about the field of trust is its depth and breadth. Trust is multi-dimensional, and for a trust geek like me, it’s easy (and fun!) to get lost exploring all its nooks and crannies.
Early childhood and life experiences, beliefs, values, gender, nationality, culture, age, and personality are among the factors that influence both how we view trust and our willingness to trust others. Of those, personality is probably the one factor that I get asked about most often when I’m helping leaders build trust with others.
Personality, like trust, is a concept with many components. I’ve learned that when people ask me how their personality shapes their view on trust, they’re usually wondering if they are hardwired to respond to trust in a specific way.
The study of personality—or more specifically, temperament—dates back more than 2,500 years to when Hippocrates first described four basic temperament types: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. The study of personality has continued over the centuries and research has deepened and expanded our knowledge. There are many popular personality typing systems in use today, but these systems tend to be too complex for most people to apply them in their moments of need. Earlier this year we launched Essential Motivators™, which teaches a four-pattern framework to help people discover how their pattern shapes their core psychological needs, values, talents, and behaviors so that they can better understand themselves and others.
Now back to the question of how our personality influences our willingness to trust. Are some people hardwired to be more trusting than others?
First, we have to explore what’s called our propensity (willingness) to trust. It’s our natural, default approach to extending trust to others.
Think of a person’s willingness to trust others as a continuum. On one end there is the position of “I automatically trust everyone,” and the opposite end is “I don’t trust anyone.” Depending on the situation and context (the person being trusted, the level of risk, potential for having our trust betrayed, etc.), we can be anywhere on that spectrum. In one situation we may willingly extend trust, and in a different situation we may withhold it. However, in our average, everyday interactions with people, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of that scale.
One of the key factors in our willingness to extend trust is the other person’s trustworthiness. A person’s trustworthiness can be assessed by how well their actions align with the ABCDs of trust:
ABLE – Demonstrates Competence
BELIEVABLE – Acts with Integrity
CONNECTED – Cares about Others
DEPENDABLE – Honors Commitments
By comparing the four Essential Motivator patterns with the four elements of trust, one can begin to see how they influence our willingness to trust. Let’s look at the four patterns of Essential Motivators in a little more detail:
Fire pattern – People of the Fire pattern tend to be improvisers who value the freedom to choose the next action and respond to the needs of the moment. They seek impact, results, and solutions that will work now. What elements of trust do you think people of the Fire pattern find most trustworthy? They are more likely to trust people who are Able and Dependable—who are competent in what they do, have the right knowledge, skills, and expertise for the situation, and get things done.
Earth pattern – People of the Earth pattern want to have a place to contribute. They desire responsibility, accountability, structure, and stability, and they want to protect and preserve. Because of these essential motivators, people of the Earth pattern extend trust more willingly to people who are Believable in their actions. They are triggered to more naturally trust those who are honest and ethical (not that other patterns aren’t as well), as well as those who model Dependability by following through on commitments no matter what.
Air pattern – People of the Air pattern tend to be theorists and want to know the theories behind everything before taking action. They value competence and mastery, and are usually oriented to logic and operating principles that provide long-term results. People who demonstrate trustworthiness through their competence (Able) are more likely to earn the trust of those of the Air pattern.
Water pattern – People of the Water pattern want to be authentic, caring, and have meaningful connections. They value meaning, purpose, identity, and seek those elements in their relationships. What element of trust do you think the Water pattern gravitates toward? Connected! People who build rapport, communicate openly, and value genuine, caring relationships earn the trust of those of the Water pattern.
When we discuss Essential Motivators, it’s important to understand that although we all tend to have a dominant pattern, each of us displays elements of all four patterns. The same goes for the ABCDs of trust. We demonstrate our trustworthiness by using behaviors that align with all four elements of trust, and we trust others who have a healthy balance of the ABCDs. So, it’s not fair or appropriate to pigeonhole someone by their pattern and say they only extend trust to certain types of people—however, it is fair to say that our dominant pattern often drives our initial perceptions of another person’s trustworthiness. And what often triggers our trust in someone? When we perceive them to be just like us!
Both our Essential Motivators and the other person’s trustworthiness play a big part in how willing we are to extend our trust to them. When we understand the four patterns as well as which elements of trust each one naturally gravitates to, we are better able to communicate our own trustworthiness and have deeper, more meaningful relationships.
This post was originally published on Blanchard’s LeaderChat blog.
Employee experience can be defined as the journey an employee takes with your organization over the course of their employment. Everything from the way they experience recruitment, interviewing, onboarding, training, career development, performance management, recognition, rewards, and even the way they exit the organization makes up their overall experience.
Employee experience is in the spotlight because of the importance of retention and engagement issues in today’s marketplace. Organizations are competing for the best and brightest workers who won’t jump ship for the next shiny new offer that comes their way. To keep their top talent, organizations are taking a close look at how their employee experience can set them apart from the crowd.
We recently completed research on this topic and gathered input from over 700 leadership, learning, and talent development professionals. We asked them to share their key strategies for improving their employee experience and the feedback showed a clear frontrunner:
Building trust between managers and direct reports
Why did this strategy rank ahead of other important initiatives like addressing workloads to prevent burnout, connecting work to purpose, setting clear performance expectations, and promoting teamwork and collaboration? It’s because trust is the foundation of the employee/employer relationship, and a person’s direct manager is the organization’s representative.
Research supports the criticality of trust between employees and their managers as the basis for being highly engaged at work. ADP Research conducted a global study on engagement that involved over 19,000 people across 19 countries and 13 industries. The study included full-time employees, part-time employees, gig workers, those with multiple jobs, and people with full-time jobs plus gig jobs on the side.
ADP found that two primary factors that characterized highly engaged employees stood out above all others: being on a team and trust in the team leader. In fact, a worker is 12x more likely to be fully engaged if they trust their team leader.
Our own research on the roles of cognitive trust (what I like to call “trust from the head”) and affective trust (“trust from the heart”) show a direct correlation between high levels of employee trust in their leaders and those employees having positive intentions to be highly engaged at work. Our study showed that leader trustworthiness is highly correlated to the five key intentions that drive employee work passion: discretionary effort, intent to perform, intent to endorse, intent to remain, and organizational citizenship.
So, trust is the foundation for a great employee experience. How do you build it?
Many leaders think trust “just happens,” like some sort of relationship osmosis. These people often understand trust is important, but they don’t know what it takes to have their people perceive them as being trustworthy. There are four elements of trust in a relationship that we’ve captured in the Building Trust model. If leaders use behaviors aligned with the four elements of trust, they will build trust with their people. If they don’t use those behaviors, or do the opposite, they will erode trust. It’s commonsense but not always common practice.
Your organization’s employee experience is critical to its health and success. But to bring it closer to home, it’s critical to your success as a leader, and the foundation of that experience begins with the trust your people have in you. Remember, every interaction you have with them is an opportunity to build trust or erode it. Will you focus on building trust with your people in 2023?
The Leadership Development Carnival, sponsored by Weaving Influence and the Lead Change Group, is a monthly publication of thought leadership from some of the brightest minds in the field of leadership. Grab a cup of your favorite beverage, sit back, and enjoy reading this month’s edition which features the “best of 2022” from this renowned group of experts.
Want a good training model? Look no further than Top Gun, the real thing, not the movies. Check out Top Gun Rules and follow Wally Bock of Three Star Leadership.
In Establishing an Environment for Growth, Priscilla Archangel shares: It’s easy to identify a team that is in a good environment for growth. The level of energy, exchange of ideas, supportive behaviors, and group celebrations of success are visible to others. Think about the results you want from your team in the present moment; and what will enable them to flourish in the future. What steps are you taking to make that a reality?
David Grossman shares Change Management Communication: 5-Step Plan + Template. David says change management communication is an essential component of building awareness and support for organizational change. Whether you are changing technology, business practices, leadership or a combination of things, change management communication is essential to helping people move from where they are today to the desired “future state.” Use this guide (and free templates) to help you develop your change management communication plan and make your change initiative a success.
Diversity, Language & Miscommunication. Diversity is a wonderful thing, says Diana Peterson-More. Data abounds supporting the bottom-line and societal benefits of diverse groups whether as boards of directors, mock juries or product developers. Yet, along with the richness of diversity comes the challenges of communication in the workplace ranging from selecting the language that will be spoken, to interpreting different cultural norms and how word usage is perceived.
We all know we need to take time away from work but we often resist. Learn how time away can actually lead to more productivity and creative thinking through the power of writing. Enjoy Retreat In Order to Advance by Eileen McDargh.
In Through the Storms, Brenda Yoho shares that courage will help you push through the storms you face each day. Schedule time to focus on the ways to strengthen your courage.
Bill Treasurer says that being a leader means paying attention, seeking learning experiences and beating out your own best days instead of being in competition with others. You’re a leader. And you’re just getting started. Enjoy The Extraordinary Ordinary Leader.
The Confidence to Perform Comes from Within. Henry Mukuti says the amount of confidence you have will surely determine how far you will go with a task, and this will also have an effect on how far you are willing to go in your life. Follow Henry on Twitter.
Art Petty shares 3 Big Moments That Can Define Your Leadership Career. Art says we work for decades, yet for most of us, there are a handful of moments in time that define the course of our leadership career. Unfortunately, these moments—opportunities or crises—don’t come with a caption suggesting, “Hey, pay attention and embrace this mess because it’s going to turn out to be important to you.” For individuals who choose to lead, here are three significant moments that merit your complete engagement.
In the Surprising Secret to Success, Jennifer Nash advocates that we lean into our fear of change to transform our career and life. We are all scared of change and stepping into unknown territory, but if we tap into our fears and embrace change, we have the power to create success in all aspects of our lives.
When leaders with opposite perspectives learn how to manage challenges and crises together, they will benefit from the strengths each brings to the situation. Learn more in Opposite Is More Than Just Opposition by Ken Byler.
Jon Verbeck says that for many companies, overhead equals death. We have all seen businesses that grow the company’s headcount and overhead costs based on planned revenue. They add a marketing department instead of outsourcing specific expertise or making sure they have strong operational processes in place. They add staff based on expected volume without thinking about outcomes. This is a big mistake. Learn about scaling your efforts in, Grow or Die? No, Scale or Die.
How to Talk About [bleep] at Work? Do you avoid sensitive [bleep] topics at work? Too bad! If you address them (including #DEI and #ESG issues) you build the organization’s culture and come up with actionable ideas together. Let’s talk about any [bleep] that matters. Dialogue is relevant for work. Let’s become courageous, positive influencers, says Marcella Bremer.
In order to be fully engaged and stay with an organization, employees need to know that their leaders are for them and care about them as individuals. In Why We Long for Leaders Who Actually Care, Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard explain why and share three actions leaders can take to demonstrate support.
As the job market gets tighter for employers in the ongoing wake of The Great Resignation, the watch word to mitigate staff turnover is employee engagement. Employee engagement has been a hot topic in Human Resource (HR) circles for the last decade as research continually shows strong correlations between engaged employees and business results. Dana Theus offers her insights on this topic in The Dirty Little Secret About Employee Engagement.
Successful organizational change can be a challenge for leaders. Even when leaders see the need and benefits of changing a process or a platform, the entire team must ultimately buy-in and make a commitment to adapt if the changes are to have a lasting and positive impact on productivity and results. Sean Glazer shares helpful guidance in Seven Critical Needs for Sustained and Successful Organizational Change.
In 3 Ways to Meet Survival Needs in the Workplace, Mary Ila Ward warns that not meeting survival needs reduces cognitive functioning. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the ERG Theory, we know survival needs as “existence needs”. We can’t talk about helping people thrive until we create workplace conditions that are conducive to people existing or surviving.
As leaders we tend to be very goal-oriented—we want to get our project to the finish line. But, like running a marathon, if we want to finish the race, the place to focus our leadership efforts is not the end, but on the 18th mile—that’s where the real struggle happens. Ken Downer shares seven ways to prepare for that critical moment in, The 18th Mile: It’s Not the Finish Line Leaders Should Focus On.
Choice is an incredibly powerful psychological need. In the world of motivation theory, it’s commonly accepted that humans have three core psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. We express our desire for autonomy through choice—the ability to exert control over our environment. Research also indicates control is a biological necessity.[i] Evidence from animal research, clinical studies, and brain neuroimaging suggests the desire for control is a biological imperative.
I believe the more leaders afford team members the opportunity to exert control by making their own choices, the more success they will have in building trust, managing change efforts, and empowering others.
Principles of Choice
Here are six leadership principles to consider as you look to leverage the power of choice:
1. Choice increases a person’s sense of control. As I mentioned previously, one of our core psychological needs is autonomy. In her book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, my friend and colleague, Susan Fowler, says “Autonomy is our human need to perceive we have choices. It is our need to feel that what we are doing is of our own volition. It is our perception that we are the source of our actions.”
The more autonomy a person has to freely choose their course of action, the more motivated and committed they will be to that decision. That’s why we included simple truth #22 in our book: “People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.” If you want people to be accountable, to get on board with new strategies and changes, then find ways to give them choices to help shape the plan.
2. Choice produces higher personal satisfaction…even if there is no difference in outcome or reward. This is a fascinating psychological phenomenon. It has been demonstrated, both in animal and human research, that there is a preference for choice over non-choice[ii]. When presented with two options, animals and humans prefer the option that leads to a second choice over one that does not, even though the expected value of both options is the same and making a second choice requires greater expenditure of energy.
Any parent who has tried to get a stubborn toddler to eat its dinner or wear a certain outfit understands the power of this principle.
My son Matthew was incredibly headstrong as a toddler, and he’d fight with me tooth and nail when I tried to force decisions upon him. My parental decisions collided directly with his need for choice. When I finally wised up to this principle, I started to let him choose between a few different options of what to eat or wear. Problem solved! He got to express his need for choice, and I met my goal of making sure he was well fed and clothed.
Adults in the workplace are more sophisticated than stubborn toddlers, but the principle works the same. Even if you face constraints that don’t allow for much difference in outcomes, just giving people the ability to choose a course of action results in higher satisfaction than no choice at all.
3. Choice is a reward in and of itself. This principle builds on the previous one. In addition to choice producing higher personal satisfaction, the act of choosing is a reward in and of itself.[iii] Neuroimaging studies show that the rewards and motivation processing regions of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex and striatum) “light up” to a greater extent when we receive rewards based on choice versus rewards being passively received.
So, how can leaders leverage this principle? An obvious area is how rewards and recognition programs are managed. Instead of designating specific gifts, rewards, or prizes for a particular achievement (service anniversaries, meeting sales quotas, etc.), offer people choices in what they can select. That gives individuals twice the pleasure in not only gaining a reward but also being able to choose the specific
4. Lack of choice increases stress. If choice is a reward and produces personal satisfaction, then it’s not much of stretch to realize that no choice produces stress. Scientific studies show that removal of choice increases the release of cortisol (the stress hormone), suppresses the immune system, and results in the development of what researchers call “maladaptive” (aka, bad!) behaviors.[iv]
In the workplace, lack of choice results in people having a greater sense of fear, increased negativity about their environment, developing learned helplessness, and placing more focus on how to regain control, all of which leads to more “maladaptive” behaviors. Yikes!
5. Too much choice increases stress. Didn’t I just say that lack of choice increases stress? Yes, I did. So, doesn’t that mean more choice should reduce stress? Yes, but only to a point. Research points out there is a difference in the desire to want choice versus the desire to make a choice.[v]
Have you ever wanted to paint a room in your house and been overwhelmed with deciding among the 87 different shades of your chosen color that are available at the home improvement store? Or, what about trying to decide which streaming service(s) you should use if you cut the cord on cable TV? Good luck with that!
Although a greater number of choices seem preferable, too many choices quickly lead to cognitive overload. That causes us to sticking with the status quo—not deciding—as a way to cope with the stress. People would rather make no choice than make the wrong one. How ironic! Leverage the power of this principle by giving your people choice, but within reasonable boundaries.
6. Complexity of choices increases the need for trust. When faced with complex situations, incomplete information, or a lack of resources, we turn to trusted advisors to either assist us in the decision-making process or actually making the decision on our behalf. It could be a family member, physician, attorney, boss, or any other person we feel is more capable of making the “best” decision.
This is where leaders earn their pay. If leaders have done a good job building high-trust relationships with their people, they will willingly come to you for help with these sorts of dilemmas. If you don’t have that level of trust, your people will try to address the situation on their own even though they feel ill-equipped to do so. They are also more likely to give you the monkey and let you own the problem, or perhaps worst of all, they will do nothing and let the situation fester.
The Choice is Yours
Trust between you and your team is the key to succeeding in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. You must trust the competence and commitment of your team members to exert control and make wise choices. And your team members must trust you to set them up for success and be there to support them when they need it.
Let me close by returning to where I started. The simple truth, “People don’t resist change; they resist being controlled,” speaks to our fundamental human need for control, which is expressed through our desire for choice. The greater degree that leaders can offer their people choice, and thereby increase their sense of control, the greater the likelihood people will be engaged in their work, empowered by their freedom to choose, and achieve goals that are important to the organization.
It seems like a slam dunk to me, but only you can decide if this fits into your approach to leadership. The choice is yours.
Quiet Quitting—for a phenomenon that is titled as something that doesn’t make much noise, it sure has caused a commotion lately, hasn’t it?
In case you’ve been cloistered in a monastery and cut off from all outside contact and don’t know about all this quiet quitting hubbub, let me quickly bring you up to speed.
In April 2021, a Tik-Tok post from a worker in China started going viral. The author was poking holes in the notion that work is the end-all, be-all in life; pretty radical stuff in a culture known for its strict work ethic. Instead of selling his soul to work, the author talked about “tang ping,” which literally translates into “lie flat.” In English we’d commonly say, “lay low.” You know, just lay low, chill, and relax. Not go overboard at work, but just do what’s needed to meet expectations and leave it at that.
As viral social media posts do, the news spread around the world, and workers from all cultures started talking more openly about having a new perspective on work-life balance. Quiet Quitting is all over the news as people reevaluate the role of work in this post-pandemic world, and employers come to grips with the implications of workers who are no longer willing to go above and beyond in their duties.
So, now you’re caught up. But, despite all the press it has been getting lately, Quiet Quitting is not a new problem. It’s actually a new name for an old problem: disengagement.
As my colleague, Kathy Cuff, recently wrote about this topic, a recent Gallup survey estimated that 50% of American workers are disengaged. Since the year 2000, employee engagement has hovered around 30%. The percentage of actively disengaged employees has taken a jump the last few years, primarily due to the impacts of the Covid pandemic. Workers are fundamentally reassessing the role work plays in their lives and that’s showing up in this wave of Quiet Quitting.
Rather than viewing Quiet Quitting as a challenge that must be managed, I encourage leaders to look at it as an opportunity to be seized.
People are quietly quitting because they perceive the ROI of work isn’t worth it. People are more than willing to give their full effort at work if they perceive they are getting value in return. And that value is not just related to money. Surveys consistently show that people rank things like career growth, autonomy, appreciation, and recognition, higher than compensation in what they value most about work.
This is a prime opportunity for leaders to engage team members in heartfelt, open dialogue about their growth and development goals and how the leader can partner with them in pursuit of those goals.
If you’re not sure how to engage your folks in these kinds of conversations, here are four steps to take:
Connect with care—If you have a team member who appears to have quietly quit, address the issue with care and empathy. Openly acknowledge the reality without placing blame or judgment on the person. In fact, there’s nothing to blame. Is it wrong for a person to fulfill the duties of their job description without going above and beyond? I’d argue that no, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it’s important to uncover the motivation behind that thinking. Is it because the employee feels like they’ve been taken advantage of? Do they have life circumstances going on that is causing them to pull back from work? Everyone’s situation is different, so take the time to explore, listen, support, empathize, and truly understand the needs of your team member.
Express appreciation—One of the leadership nuggets Ken Blanchard and I share in our recent book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, is Simple Truth #35: People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. A lack of value and appreciation is at the root of why many people have quietly quit. They just don’t feel or believe the organization appreciates them. As a leader, you have a tremendous opportunity (and responsibility) to reverse this belief. Show how their work connects to the greater purpose of the organization. To the best of your ability, make sure they are appropriately recognized and rewarded for their contributions. When people feel valued and connected to something greater than themselves, they naturally go above and beyond the call of duty.
Explore options—Lack of growth, development, and opportunity is another key driver of quiet quitting. Helping team members see a career path in the organization can be challenging for many leaders, especially in today’s flat organizations where there is less upward positional growth than in decades past. Career growth is no longer about gaining the next title or promotion, and in fact, many Millennials and Gen Z folks are looking for skill and experience development instead. This career discovery process starts with conversations between you and your people. Two good resources are an article I wrote about 10 questions great bosses regularly ask their people and Promotions are SO Yesterday, the newest book from my friend Julie Winkle-Giulioni. These resources can help you explore career development opportunities beyond the traditional route of promotions.
Pledge commitment—People are longing for leaders to be their advocates, and at times, their defenders. They want leaders who will go to bat for them, lobby for the resources they need to do their jobs effectively and strive to give them the reward and recognition they desire. Those are the kind of leaders to whom people give their hearts and minds. People will bend over backwards to follow a leader they believe in, because they know the leader believes in them. Let your people know that you’re on their side. That doesn’t mean you’re not on the side of the organization, because you are, and your people know that. But your people will respect and value your authenticity in doing what you can to be their champion and you’ll see that evidenced in their level of engagement.
Quiet quitting is a golden opportunity for leaders to connect with their people in a genuine, authentic, heartfelt way, and those opportunities don’t come along often. Don’t freak out if you think someone has turned into a Quiet Quitter. Instead, muster up the courage to talk to them about it. Approach the conversation with care, let them know how much they’re appreciated, explore options to meet their growth desires at work, and commit to walking alongside them in the days ahead. Your team members will appreciate it and you’ll feel good about it, too. That’s a win-win.
This post originally appeared on The Ken Blanchard Companies' LeaderChat blog and I thought the Leading with Trust audience would enjoy it as well.
Talking with team members about their performance challenges typically falls in the category of “least favorite” managerial tasks, along with things such as budgeting, attending all-day meetings, and completing performance reviews. It’s usually not something most leaders enjoy, but it’s a necessary and critical part of helping your team perform its best.
Why do most leaders shy away from confronting poor performance head-on? My experience has shown that it’s usually because they don’t know where to start. Because the process feels uncomfortable and managers don’t have a plan to follow, they either do a poor job at addressing underperformance or they just don’t do it all.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Managers can confidently and successfully deal with underperforming employees by following an eight-step plan. The first three steps involve what I call “looking in the mirror,” which is examining the leader’s role in the employee’s performance issue. The next five steps are “looking out the window,” which is exploring the employee’s role in the situation.
Looking in the mirror
Before having a conversation with the employee, the leader needs to look in the mirror and examine if they’ve done their part to help the employee succeed.
Step 1: Did I set clear goals? All good performance starts with clear goals.
That’s one of the key leadership principles Ken Blanchard and I discuss in our recent book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust. Although most managers agree with the importance of setting goals, many do not take the time to clearly develop goals with their team members and write them down. How do leaders expect people to achieve their goals if they aren’t clear on what a good job looks like? And how can leaders accurately address poor performance if there isn’t a clear benchmark against which to measure?
Step 2: Did I accurately diagnose the employee’s development level?
People go through predictable stages of development when starting a new goal or task. Their development level on a task is a combination of competence (knowledge and skills) and commitment (confidence and motivation).
Most people start a new goal or task as an Enthusiastic Beginner because they have high commitment but low competence on doing the task. As they gain a bit of competence, they typically experience a dip in commitment because they realize the task is harder than they thought. We call people at that stage of development a Disillusioned Learner. As they build competence and commitment on the task, they move into the stage of being a Capable, but Cautious Performer. They know most of what to do regarding the task, but they still have some self-doubt that causes them to question themselves or seek the help of more experienced colleagues. Finally, when a person is fully competent and committed on a task, they have become a Self-Reliant Achiever.
Step 3: Did I use a leadership style that matched the employee’s development level?
In The Ken Blanchard Companies’ SLII® leadership development model, managers are taught to use different leadership styles that match the development level of their employees. Leaders flex their style by employing a combination of directive and supportive behaviors. For example, when an employee is an Enthusiastic Beginner, a leader needs to use a Directive style that is high on direction and low on support to teach the employee the basics of doing the task. Disillusioned Learner’s need a Coaching style that is high in both direction support to help them develop both their competence and commitment. Leaders use a Supporting style, high on support but low on direction, to draw out the Capable but Cautious Performer and help them step into their own power and knowledge. And of course, Self-Reliant Achievers can be given a Delegating style of leadership because they know what to do with minimal involvement from the leader.
Looking out the window
Leaders “look in the mirror” by examining themselves to make sure they’ve worked with the employee to set clear goals, accurately diagnosed the development level of the employee on each of those goals, and then used a matching leadership style to help the employee develop to peak performance. If leaders can answer in the affirmative to steps 1 to 3, then they can begin “looking out the window.”
Step 4: Is the employee unclear on goals and expectations?
It’s not uncommon for there to be confusion between leaders and employees on goals. Here’s an interesting way to test for goal alignment between a leader and team member. Both the leader and team member write down what they each believe to be the team member’s top 3-5 goals and then they compare notes. It’s amazing how often there is a notable discrepancy between the two lists.
If there isn’t alignment on the specific goal, the leader needs to reset or renegotiate goals with the employee, or the leader needs to give feedback on what and how the employee needs to perform differently.
Step 5: Have things changed to impact goal achievement?
Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, famously said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Conditions in the employee’s environment may have changed since the goal was first established, and as a result, their performance is being negatively impacted.
If this is the case, the leader may need to work with the employee to renegotiate the goal. Additionally, the leader may need to work with the employee on a strategy to mitigate the environmental risks. The leader should also partner with the team member to facilitate problem solving. Sometimes obstacles cause employees to stall out in progressing on their goal and they just need their leader to provide good coaching that helps them solve their own problems.
Step 6: Is it a problem of competence/skill?
If leaders answer yes to this question, it means the employee is either an Enthusiastic Beginner or Disillusioned Learner on the goal/task. In that case, the leader should provide a more directive style of leadership that involves showing the employee how to do the task and setting up a step-by-step plan for learning that will help the employee become a Self-Reliant Achiever (fully competent and committed).
Step 7: Is it a lack of confidence?
If the employee has the competence to do the task but lacks confidence, that signifies they are a Capable, but Cautious Performer. The leader’s job at this point is to build the employee’s confidence. How is that done? The leader uses high supportive behavior like encouraging and reassuring the employee. The leader can also build the employee’s confidence by helping them reflect on past successes and highlight the progress the employee has already made on the goal/task.
Step 8: Is it a lack of motivation?
There are times when all of us experience the motivational doldrums. Whether it’s personal or work-related, our motivational outlooks can impact our work performance. Identifying and connecting the employee’s contributions to the bigger-picture outcomes of the organization can help improve their motivation.
Most People Want to Succeed
Most of the time, following the previously outlined steps will help an employee improve their performance. However, there will be occasions when leaders work through these eight steps and performance doesn’t improve. What to do then?
Leaders should challenge ‘won’t do” behavior and clearly outline the consequences of continued non-performance. But before resorting to that, consider that most people want to do a good job. Very few people wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “I can’t wait to be a total failure today!” Before “looking out the window” to address poor performance with an employee, leaders need to “look in the mirror” to see if they’ve done their part to set the employee up for success. After all, leadership is a partnership. It’s something you do with people, not to them.
When you go on holiday this summer, will you be preoccupied with how things are going at work? Do you have low trust in your team’s ability to manage without you? Or perhaps your team doesn’t trust you, and they can’t wait for you to go on vacation, so they don’t have to look over their shoulder every minute of the day. Regardless of your situation, there’s never a right time to take a vacation from building trust.
The most important part of leadership is what happens when you’re not there.
High-control leaders are afraid to take time off of work and delegate to their team members. They’re concerned that when they’re not around, people will get off-course and do something stupid that will reflect badly on the leader. Trusted servant leaders, on the other hand, develop and empower their people so that they will perform just as well, if not better, on their own as they do when the leader is present.
This is especially critical in today’s remote and hybrid work culture. When you as the leader are physically located alongside your people, it’s easy to observe their working behaviors. But that’s an impossibility in today’s environment. The real proof that you are a trusted servant leader is how your people perform on their own. They know you trust them and they want to live up to the standards you have demonstrated.
That’s why I’d like to invite you to join me for the 8-week Summer of Trust leadership reflection series. Every Monday, from July 11 through August 29, you’ll receive a weekly email containing…
An inspirational and thought-provoking message on how to become a trusted servant leader
Practical actions steps for that week’s focus area that will help you implement the mindsets and skillsets of trusted servant leaders
A downloadable tool or resource to help you in your leadership journey of building trust
People want an empathetic leader. Many managers strive to be one. But ask someone to define the term, and you’re likely to be met with silence.
Let’s start with the definition. According to Merriam-Webster, empathy means “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”
The logical question is: why is being empathetic an important quality of a leader? It seems to have nothing in common with achieving tasks or succeeding in the workplace.
The importance of being an empathetic leader starts with the simple truth that leadership is about people. If you’re going to lead effectively, you must be attuned to your people’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. This translates into creating real partnerships rather than exerting power. It means walking alongside your team members and guiding them in the direction you need them to go.
Why Empathetic Leaders Are Needed Now
The topic of empathetic leadership has been getting a lot of press lately, mostly due to the adverse effects of the pandemic. COVID has bruised people in many ways: losing a loved one, losing a job, pay cuts, health problems, and on and on.
People are reevaluating their relationship with work in the wake of the pandemic. Some are deciding life’s too short to leave their spirit at the door and endure long workdays just to bring home a paycheck. They want an environment that nourishes them in a profound way.
The Empathy Deficit
Forbessays empathy is the most important leadership skill, but only 40% of people rate their leaders as being empathetic. It’s tricky to single out one skill as being the most important—anyone can argue that other skills deserve top billing. That qualifier aside, this statistic reveals a huge disconnect between what people want and what their leaders are providing.
But leading with empathy isn’t easy. If empathetic leadership were part of a college curriculum, it would be a 200-level class. It presumes that people have all the basics down—and many leaders don’t.
Leaders are often promoted to their roles based on their success as an individual contributor. But being a first-time manager requires a whole new set of skills—for example, emotional intelligence—that are more important than technical expertise. Many managers either haven’t had the opportunity to develop these skills, are resistant to doing so, or don’t have an interest in them.
When you add up all these reasons, it’s easy to see why we have an empathy deficit among leaders and their people.
Here are five ways to increase your ability to lead with empathy.
1. Know Thyself
Becoming an empathetic leader starts with having excellent self-awareness. This requires doing inner work on understanding your motivators, your temperament, and your personality style. It also includes knowing your communication style, your reaction to feedback, and how your values shape your behavior.
The first step in your journey is investing in your own development. Once you are more self-aware, you can begin to adjust your leadership style to the needs of your people.
Senior executives play a pivotal role in this. They must put organizational resources behind self-awareness initiatives to show they are serious about developing empathetic leaders. Investing in training is an example. Just as important, they need to model the behaviors they want the organization’s leaders to demonstrate. They also should have caring conversations with managers who don’t appear to be growing into empathetic leaders.
2. Understand Others
The second part of empathetic leadership is striving for a good understanding of your team members. This includes improving your communication skills, such as being curious in conversations instead of being defensive or aggressive. It also includes learning how to eliminate fear in your interactions with your people—trust cannot survive if there is fear in a relationship.
Building trust with your people is essential if you’re to be an empathetic leader. They must know you are on their side and you mean them no harm. You must show them your role as a leader is to help them succeed. The better you understand your people, the better you’ll be able to serve them in a meaningful way.
3. Be Helpful
Finding practical ways to serve others is a concrete example of empathetic leadership. Our Self Leadership course teaches five points of power you can use to help your people succeed:
Position Power: Having the title or authority to make certain decisions
Task Power: Having control over a task or particular job
Personal Power: Having interpersonal and leadership skills, passion, inspiration, or a personal vision of the future
Relationship Power: Being connected or friendly with other people who have power
Knowledge Power: Having relevant experience, expertise, or credentials
Empathetic leaders use these points of power to build up their people, help them feel safe and secure, and increase their confidence. When leaders do this, their people know they care about them. This opens many doors of possibility.
4. Be Compassionate
Empathetic leaders are compassionate and extend grace to others. They know how to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. But remember: organizations have goals that must be accomplished. Leaders must balance compassion with clear expectations that are understood by every team member.
Leaders who are empathetic place great importance on creating psychological safety—an environment where a person feels free to speak their mind, take risks, and admit mistakes without fear of being punished or reprimanded.
Simple Truth #1 in our book is “Servant leadership is the best way to achieve both great results and great relationships.” Many people have an either/or mindset when it comes to leadership—they focus on either achieving results or developing relationships. You can get both if you set a clear vision and direction for your people, then work side by side serving them in ways that help them accomplish their goals.
5. Set Boundaries
Empathetic leaders know how to set clear boundaries that benefit everyone, such as letting people know how many hours a day they’re supposed to work or that sending late-night emails is inappropriate.
When everyone has clarity on work boundaries—including rules and expectations—there is tremendous safety and freedom. Boundaries create a guardrail so people don’t unduly sacrifice themselves to accomplish something. Boundaries also promote autonomy. They let people know what they can and can’t do.
An Empathetic Leader in Action
Seeing an empathetic leader in action turns philosophy into concrete reality. Try to imagine yourself as an empathetic leader who practices the following behaviors on a daily basis.
An empathetic leader:
Asks rather than tells
Listens rather than speaks
Serves rather than commands
Cares about people’s concerns
Is receptive to feedback
Doesn’t overact to people’s questions or concerns
Doesn’t interpret concerns as resistance
When you demonstrate these behaviors, your people will be loyal to you. They’ll be engaged. They’ll give their best effort. They’ll be more innovative. And they’ll speak highly about your organization to their friends and colleagues.
Call to Action
At its core, empathetic leadership is about being an others-focused leader. It’s about leaders being in tune with the needs of their people and responding in tangible ways that demonstrate their care and concern. And how do people respond when their leaders act this way? They pledge their loyalty, trust, and commitment to that leader, which results in greater productivity, innovation, and creativity. Who wouldn’t want that?
I originally published this post on LeaderChat.org and thought the Leading with Trust audience would enjoy it as well.