“I’m not going to apologize because I didn’t do anything wrong!”
I remember my kids uttering that phrase a number of times when they were young, and I’ve also heard it from adults in the workplace more times than I care to remember. No one likes to be wrongly accused and most people certainly don’t want to apologize for something they didn’t do. The thought of apologizing when we’ve done nothing wrong, or even worse, when we’re actually in the right, causes our blood to boil. We become indignant, defensive, or lash out at others, none of which does anything to improve the situation.
However, there is a time and place for apologizing even if you’re not guilty. It’s important to remember that apologizing is not an admission of guilt; it’s an admission of responsibility. (Click to tweet) You are taking responsibility for improving and moving past the situation at hand. Here are three good reasons to apologize even if you’ve done nothing wrong:
Choosing relationship over being right—When difficulties arise in a relationship, it’s a natural human instinct to want to assign blame. If the other person is in the wrong, then we can gloat in the satisfaction of being right. It’s easy to dive into the deep end of the pool of self-righteousness. It takes emotional maturity to prioritize the health of the relationship over the ego-feeding need to be right. Apologizing for the pain and difficulty of the current situation, even if you didn’t cause it, shows you place a higher value on the other person than you do on the need to be right.
Lose the battle to win the war—You need to have a long-range perspective when it comes to relationships. There are going to be lots of battles (e.g., differences of opinion, conflict, etc.) in our relationships at home and work, and we’d die of exhaustion if we fought tooth and nail to prove ourselves right in every instance. Sometimes it’s better to lose the battle and apologize even when you’re right, for the sake of winning the bigger war (e.g., maintaining peace, completing the project, etc.).
Take one for the team—As the leader, there are times you need to take one for the team. You may not personally have been at fault, but if your team has dropped the ball, you should take the blame on their behalf. Weak leaders will often throw their team under the bus when they’ve made a mistake. The leader will absolve him/herself of any responsibility and blame it on the team acting carelessly. The best leaders, however, apologize for the mistakes their team make and accept whatever blame comes their way.
It’s no fun to apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong. Every fiber of our being compels us to scream that we didn’t do it, and to blame someone or something else. Responding with righteous indignation often escalates the tension and does little to resolve the situation. If you value the relationship more than being right, are willing to lose a small battle for the sake of winning the larger war, or need to take one for you team, it’s OK to apologize—even if you’ve done nothing wrong.
Oomph! Those words feel like a punch to the gut of the employee on the receiving end, and for the leader delivering the bad news, those words create anxiety and many sleepless nights leading up to that difficult conversation.
No leader likes to see an employee fail on the job. From the moment we start the recruitment process, through interviewing, hiring, and training, our goal is to set up our employees for success. It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and expense to bring new people into the organization and ramp them up to full productivity, so it’s in everyone’s vested interest to see an employee succeed. Yet we all know there are situations that, for whatever reason, an employee struggles on the job and there isn’t much hope of turning it around.
I recently met with a group of HR professionals and line managers to debrief employee termination situations. As we reviewed the cases at hand, the following nine signs emerged as warning signals, that had they been heeded early on in the employee’s career, a termination decision could have been made much earlier in the process that would have saved everyone a lot of heartache and the company a lot of money. Any one of these signs is alarming in and of itself, but when you combine all of them together…KABOOM! You’ve got an employee meltdown waiting to happen.
Nine Warning Signs of a Failing Employee
1. Things don’t improve with a change of scenery – Maybe it’s the relationship with the boss, certain peers, or the nature of the work has changed and the employee is struggling to perform at her best. Whatever the reason, moving the employee to another role or department can get her back on track. I’ve done it myself and have seen it work. But if you’ve given someone another chance by giving them a change of scenery and it’s still not working out, you should be concerned. The scenery probably isn’t the problem.
2. You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around the employee – We all have personality quirks and some people are more difficult to work with than others, but when an employee becomes cancerous to the morale and productivity of the team and everyone feels like they have to walk on eggshells around the person for fear of incurring their wrath, you’ve got a serious problem. Don’t underestimate the destructive power of a toxic, unpredictable employee.
3. Emotional instability – Part of being a mature adult is being able to manage your emotions and it’s critically important in a professional workplace. If you have an employee that demonstrates severe emotional mood swings on the job and in their relationships with others, you need to pursue the proper legal and ethical guidelines in dealing with the employee and getting them the support they need. Don’t ignore the behavior by chalking it up to the heat of the moment, the stress of the job, or excusing it by saying “Oh, that’s just Joe being Joe.”
4. Trouble fitting into the company culture – Perhaps one of the earliest signs that you have a failing employee is noticing she is having significant trouble adapting to the culture of the organization. There is a natural transition time for any new employee, but if you’re constantly hearing the employee make negative comments about how the company operates and criticizing leadership, or not developing solid relationships with others and becoming part of the team, warning alarms should be going off in your head.
5. Blames others, makes excuses, and challenges authority – You know the incredibly loud sound of air raid sirens used in civil defense situations? That’s the sound you should be hearing if you have an employee with a track record of blaming others and making excuses for her poor performance. Failing employees will often challenge authority by trying to lay the blame at the boss’ feet by saying things like “You should have done this…” or “You didn’t address that problem…” or whatever the case may be. If you have an employee who always seems to be involved in drama, ask yourself “What (or more appropriately ‘who’) is the common denominator in these situations?”
6. Distorts or manipulates the truth – I’ve dealt with employees who were very skilled at manipulating or distorting the truth. In whatever difficult situation they were in, they would find a kernel of truth to justify and excuse their involvement to the point that I would feel compelled to side with them. I learned you have to be discerning and consistent in your approach to dealing with manipulative people and make sure you document your interactions so you have sufficient data to support your termination decision.
7. Unseen gaps in performance – One of the most challenging situations is when an employee seems to be performing well by outside appearances, but when you explore behind the scenes you discover there are gaps in her performance. Maybe it’s sloppy work, not following correct procedures, or even worse, being intentionally deceptive or unethical. Be careful, things may not always be as they seem.
8. A trail of broken relationships – Employees don’t have to be BFF’s with all of their coworkers, but they do need to respect others and be able to work together. A person may be a high-performer in the tasks of her job, but if she can’t get along with other people and has a history of damaging relationships with colleagues, eventually there will come a point where her contributions are outweighed by the damage and drama she creates.
9. Passive-aggressive behavior – You know those smiley-face emoticons at the end of slightly sarcastic and critical emails? A classic example of passive-aggressive behavior where the sender is trying to couch her criticism in feigned-humor. This is toxic and can be hard to manage because it manifests itself is so many ways that appear to be innocuous in and of themselves. Veiled jokes, procrastination, sullenness, resentment, and deliberate or repeated failure to follow-through on tasks are all signs of passive-aggressive behavior. Be careful…very careful.
The number one job for a leader is to help his or her employees succeed. Before an employee is terminated, a leader needs to be able to look in the mirror and honestly admit that everything possible has been done to help the employee succeed. These nine warning signs should serve as critical guideposts in helping any leader be alert to a failing employee.
If you’ve ever wondered why so many negative and critical leaders seem to rise to power, recent research sheds a little light on the cause. It turns out that even though we say we want compassionate and empathetic leaders, we perceive naysayers as being more powerful than their non-critical colleagues.
In one of a series of studies, 518 participants were shown four pairs of statements made by former U.S. presidential candidates during nationally televised debates. They were not told the candidates’ names or when the debate took place. The pair of statements included one that was positive and supportive of America’s future, while the other was negative and critical. Participants were asked to rate how powerful each candidate appeared to be, how effective they thought the person would be in office, and whether or not they would vote for the person.
Compared to the presidential candidates who made positive statements, participants rated the negative candidates as more powerful, more likely to be effective in office, and likely to earn their vote. In additional studies across different contexts such as art reviews and opinions on social issues, participants consistently rated the naysayer as more powerful, albeit less likable, than their neutral or positive counterpart.
Why is this the case? Researcher Eileen Y. Chou theorizes the cause is human psychology. We perceive naysayers as being more independent, willing to speak their mind, and willing to “tell it like it is.” This fuels a perception of the naysayer being powerful enough to not be bound by normal constraints or resources. This perception of power was strongest among those who felt the most disadvantaged. The disadvantaged perceive the naysayer as being willing to speak truth to power and disrupt the status quo.
So, should you incorporate more negativity into your leadership style in order to become more powerful? Let’s see…how can I put this in a sensitive, thoughtful, diplomatic way?
There is certainly a time and place for candid realism in a leader’s communications. Leader’s who sugarcoat the truth and try to get their people to believe everything is rainbows and unicorns are perceived as out of touch, fake, and incompetent. Leaders have an obligation to “keep it real” with their followers, but also need to inspire people with hope for a better future. Constant negativity and criticism causes people to view the leader as a malcontent and they eventually remove their support.
The more fundamental issue for me beyond the role of being a naysayer is a leader’s relationship with power. Power accompanies leadership and it can be used in healthy and unhealthy ways. The greatest use of power is in service to others and there are noble and altruistic ways of developing and sustaining power that benefits others.
One only needs to listen to the political rhetoric these days to see the harmful effects of naysaying leadership. Constant criticism, negativity, and fault-finding appeals to the most base instincts of humanity. The most successful and enduring leaders call to the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln said, and unite people through a shared vision of a more promising tomorrow.
A few days ago I was tidying up the back yard when the noise of several crows caught my attention. That’s not out of the ordinary for my neighborhood. Although I haven’t done an official tally, I’m pretty sure the ratio of crows to humans is 1:1 in my neck of the woods. Anyway, there was a real commotion going on.
When I looked up, I noticed there was a red-tailed hawk circling overhead and the crows weren’t too happy about it; hence all the racket. The hawk seemed to be minding his own business. He was majestically gliding through the air in circles, occasionally flapping his wings once or twice, but mostly being powered along by the air currents pushing him gently higher and higher into the sky.
The neighborhood flock of crows (or murder if you prefer the old-school term for a group of crows) had nominated three of their brethren to express their displeasure to the hawk about him invading their turf. The three delegates flew about the hawk in a menacing manner, dive bombing him from different directions and trying to knock him off course, all the while hurling bird epithets at him with their squawking and cawing.
Despite the crows’ ruckus, the hawk seemed to take it all in stride. Occasionally the hawk slightly deviated his course when he was closely buzzed by a crow, but for the most part he kept circling in a consistent pattern. The crows had to expend a lot more energy than the hawk to maintain their efforts. They furiously flapped their wings to match the speed of the hawk, forcing them to take turns in harassing the larger bird. Upward and upward the hawk climbed, and the more altitude he gained, the more difficult it was for the crows to keep pace. Eventually, the crows tired of their pursuit as the hawk soared out of reach.
I thought to myself, “Why were those crows harassing that hawk?” As with all of life’s existential questions, I turned to Google for help. It turns out those crows were engaging in what’s known in the animal world as mobbing behavior. The hawk represented a threat to the crows, so they cooperatively worked together to mob the hawk in an attempt to drive him away.
Mobbing behavior isn’t limited to birds; people engage in it, too. And sometimes being a leader can feel like being a hawk getting pestered by an angry mob of crows. I don’t think any hawks read my blog, but I know some leaders do, so here’s five lessons I think we can learn from our avian advisers:
Expect to be crapped on—It turns out that one of the primary behaviors of mobbing birds is to defecate on the intruder. Nice, huh? Talk about dropping a bomb…anyway, leaders get crapped on, too. We should expect it because it comes with the territory. Gossip, backbiting, passive-aggressiveness, or outright resistance are all forms of crap leaders occasionally have to endure. Expect to occasionally encounter your fair share of crap so you aren’t caught by surprise when it happens. No matter how pure or noble your intentions, there will be people who don’t like what you’re doing and will let you know about it.
Understand defensiveness—The crows didn’t mob the hawk for no reason; they mobbed him because they were afraid. It’s hard to get inside the brain of a crow (although I have been called a bird-brain before), but I imagine they were concerned the hawk might be looking for some delicious crow eggs for lunch, or maybe even a small baby crow if he was feeling extra hungry. In this way, people are similar to birds. When they perceive a threat in their environment, it creates fear and causes them to react defensively. If your people are starting to show signs of developing a mob mentality, figure out the root of their fear and address that issue. Too often we make the mistake of addressing the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause. Defensiveness can kill our relationships without us even realizing it.
Check your motives—The hawk isn’t completely innocent in this situation. Why was flying in this particular area? Was he truly minding his own business or did he have ulterior motives? I don’t know. I asked but he didn’t respond. As leaders, we need to be clear on our motives. Are we behaving in self-serving ways, or do our actions reflect a desire to serve our people and organizations for the greater good?
Don’t get distracted—Assuming your leadership behavior is driven by the right reasons, don’t get distracted by the critics in the mob and stay focused on your goals. The hawk wasn’t surprised by the mob of crows nor did he let them knock him off course. He stayed focused on doing his thing, knowing the crows would eventually get tired or bored and leave him alone. When you chose to be a leader, you chose to step apart from the crowd. You will be second-guessed and criticized, and with that will come lots of distractions. Stay focused on being a hawk and don’t worry about the crows.
Rise above the mob—Ultimately the hawk flew high above and out of reach of the annoying crows. Leaders have to do the same when mobbed by their critics. I like the philosophy articulated by former First Lady Michelle Obama in response to how they tried to teach their young children to deal with the harsh criticism of her husband’s presidency: “…when they go low, we go high.” Leaders need to take the high road when responding to criticism—consider the source, learn from it what you can, and respond with integrity and decency. Keep soaring to greater heights and don’t get dragged down with the crows.
Now, being a hawk doesn’t necessarily make one a leader, just as being a crow doesn’t automatically condemn one to be an annoying pest. It just so happens I observed one hawk being mobbed by three crows, and out of that interaction drew five leadership principles. I’ll leave it up to you to determine if you’re a hawk, crow, or some other creature that represents your inner leadership spirit animal. Whatever you decide, follow these leadership lessons to rise above the inevitable mobs that will criticize and undermine your leadership and soar to the success you deserve.
At this very moment on the cusp of a new year, you have people, projects, or tasks you need to eliminate from your life. Maybe you’ve been dealing with a troubling employee situation for months, or even years, and despite your best efforts you don’t see any hope for improvement. Or maybe it’s a project that got off track months ago, but no one, particularly you, wants to admit it’s a failure and a new strategy is needed. Perhaps it’s a particular task or process you’ve maintained for years because “that’s the way it’s always been done,” but you have an inkling that if you stopped doing it tomorrow, no one would notice or care.
If this resonates with you, then it’s time for some pruning.. The core definition of pruning is to remove anything considered superfluous or undesirable. As Dr. Henry Cloud points out in his book, Necessary Endings, the areas of business and life that require your limited resources—your time, energy, talent, emotions, money—but aren’t achieving the vision you have for them, should be regularly pruned in order to reach their full potential.
Consider the cultivation of a prized rosebush to understand the purpose of pruning. The gardener removes branches or buds that fall into any of three categories:
Healthy buds or branches that are not the best ones,
Sick branches that are not going to get well, and
Dead branches that are taking up space needed for the healthy ones to thrive.
These three categories of pruning apply to the types of people, projects, and tasks you are dealing with right now.
Type 1 – The Good Detracting from the Great
The rosebush produces more growth than the plant can optimally sustain. The plant has only so much life and energy to power its development, so the gardener trims what may be healthy, yet average blooms, so the plant can direct its resources to the best producing roses. The good roses, if left alone, will suck life away from the great roses. The result? A rosebush with average blooms performing below its potential.
What people, projects, or tasks are you involved with that, although good in and of themselves, are taking time and resources away from achieving greatness with your team or organization? There is no shortage of things demanding your attention, so the key is to prune your priorities down to the most essential ones that fuel the majority of your success.
Type 2 – The Sick That Can’t be Cured
Some branches in a rosebush become diseased and have to be removed to protect the health of the entire plant. When the caretaker notices a sick branch, he will spend some time trying to nurse it back to health. At some point in time the caretaker will reach a decision to prune the branch because he realizes that no amount of water, fertilizer, or care is going to heal the branch. Sick branches take energy from the rosebush, and pruning these sick branches allows the bush to direct more energy to the healthy ones.
You have people, projects, and tasks that are diseased and need to be removed. You have fertilized them, watered them, nurtured them, and done everything in your power to help cure them. For whatever reason, they aren’t getting better and they’re only taking time and energy away from the healthy things you need to focus on. This can be one of the toughest decisions a leader has to face. It might mean confronting the difficult truth that a key company initiative isn’t working as intended, or a long-term employee isn’t able to improve his performance to meet the needs of the organization. On the plus side, it is liberating to admit things aren’t working and changes need to be made because it frees up time, energy, and resources to focus on areas of new growth.
Type 3 – The Dead Preventing Growth of the Living
The third type of pruning is removing dead branches in order to make more room for the living branches to grow. If the dead branches aren’t removed, the path of the living branches will be obstructed and limited. The living branches need room to spread in order to reach their full potential and the dead branches impede that growth.
You have dead branches in your business and personal life that need to be removed if you want to reach your full potential. It might be misguided organizational strategies that served your company well ten years ago but are no longer relevant. Or maybe it’s processes, systems, or meetings you engage in but don’t add any value to the purpose you’re trying to achieve. If it’s dead and just taking up space, get rid of it. It’s time to cut that branch.
Prune with a Purpose
The gardener doesn’t prune willy-nilly, just clipping branches and blooms here and there without discretion. The gardener has a purpose. He knows what a healthy rosebush should look like and he prunes toward that standard. It illustrates the importance of having clear goals and expectations for your organization, your people, and yourself. Without clear goals and standards, you don’t have an objective measure by which to prune and you handicap yourself from reaching your full potential in 2019.
As I drove home recently, the freeway transitioned into a city road and I eased up behind a gentleman in a black Mercedes. He immediately slowed down significantly below the speed limit in a not so subtle attempt to tell me he didn’t want me following too close behind. I slowed down, all the while observing him eyeballing me through his rear-view mirror. Still not satisfied with the distance between our cars, he continued to pump his brakes and slowed down even more, to the point of holding up traffic several cars deep. Continuing to drive significantly below the speed limit, the grumpy Mercedes driver kept his attention focused on the rear-view mirror instead of watching the road up ahead. I switched lanes to pass Mr. Grumpy Pants and watched him as I drove by. He never took his eyes off the rear-view mirror as he proceeded to do the same thing to the next driver who moved up behind him.
The grumpy Mercedes driver got me thinking about how easy it is to lead by looking through the rear-view mirror instead of the front windshield. What I mean by that is we can get so focused on what’s happened behind us that we forget to look forward to the opportunities ahead of us. Here are 10 signs you may be suffering from rear-view mirror leadership:
1. Your natural response to change is “That’s not how we do it around here.” Change brings out interesting behaviors in people. I’ve found most people don’t mind change as long as it’s their idea, they’re in control of it, and it benefits them in some way. But most of the time, though, change is thrust upon us in one way or another and we have to deal with it. Rear-view mirror leaders usually fixate on what they’re going to lose as a result of a change and they expend all their effort in trying to prevent or minimize the impact. Forward-looking leaders search for the opportunities of growth and improvement that will result from change. It’s our choice as to how we respond.
2. Things are never as good as “back in the day.” I’m a nostalgic person by nature and am susceptible to this attitude or line of thinking. However, I’ve learned by experience that the past is a fun place to visit but it’s a bad place to live. Nothing new ever happens in the past. There’s no growth, improvement, or change. Our jobs, organizations, and industries are not the same as they were 20 years ago. We have to stay relevant with the times, personally and organizationally, or risk becoming relics of the past.
3. You’re pessimistic about the future. Sometimes it’s hard to be optimistic about the future, especially in today’s day and age. If your outlook on the future is dependent upon the performance of the stock market or the headline news, then you’re in trouble. The best leaders are dealers of hope. They maintain an optimistic view of the future, keeping focused on their purpose and core values, and putting forth a vision that encourages and energizes their team.
4. You’re focused on maintaining status quo. I’m not one to make a big stink about the difference between leadership and management. Leaders have to manage and managers have to lead. But there is one key difference that I think is worth noting—leaders initiate change whereas managers focus on maintaining or improving the status quo. Status quo leadership is often about looking in the rear-view mirror, making sure everything occurred exactly as planned. Forward-looking leadership involves surveying the open road and charting a course to move the team to its next destination. There will be occasional wrong turns, rerouting the course, and asking for directions. It will get messy and chaotic at times. But it will never be status quo.
5. You micromanage. Micro-managers tend to not trust people. Since trust involves risk, micro-managers default to using controlling behaviors to minimize their dependency on others. They want to maintain power so they hoard information, don’t involve others, and make all decisions of any consequence. Micro-managers tend to believe they know what’s best and will act in ways to keep themselves in the center of any conversation, meeting, or activities in order to exert their influence.
6. You spend more time assigning blame and making excuses than focusing on what you can control. Rear-view leaders are consumed with what others are doing or not doing, and almost always believe their lack of success is a result of factors outside their control. “If only Marketing would have provided us with the right kind of collateral that appealed to our clients…,” or “If Operations hadn’t delayed in getting that order into production…,” and “Customer Service does a horrible job at client retention…” are the kinds of blaming statements or excuses you often hear from rear-view leaders. Proactive leaders understand there will always be factors outside their control, so they spend their energy focusing on what they can influence and trust their colleagues to do the same.
7. You wait for someone to tell you what to do instead of taking the initiative. Failure to take initiative is a symptom of rear-view mirror leadership. Because rear-view mirror leaders are focused on the past, what others are doing or not doing, or focused on maintaining the status-quo, they are often caught watching from the sidelines when they should be actively involved in the game. Do you find yourself surprised by decisions that get made? Find yourself out of the information loop about what’s happening around you? If so, you might be sitting around waiting for someone to tell you what to do instead of taking the initiative. Find a need, meet a need. See a problem, fix a problem. That’s what forward-thinking leaders do.
8. You have a graveyard of relationships that are “dead to you.” It’s easy to run over people when you’re not looking where you’re going. Precisely because they’ve been leading by looking in the rear-view mirror, these kinds of leaders have often neglected to invest in relationships across the organization. They have “written off” people for one reason or another, usually in an attempt to exert power and influence to preserve their position and authority.
9. A lack of possibility thinking. If your first response to new ideas is to find all the ways it won’t work, you’re a rear-view mirror leader. Critical thinking and risk mitigation is necessary when considering a new concept, but if the ideas that come your way never make it past the initial sniff test, then you may be shutting yourself off to new possibilities. Instead of shooting holes in the ideas your team brings to you, try responding with this question: “How could we make this work?” You may be surprised at how much energy and passion it unleashes in your team.
10. You have an “us vs. them” mentality. Do you say “we” or “they” when referring to your organization and its leadership? Whether it’s done consciously or subconsciously, rear-view mirror leaders tend to disassociate themselves from the decisions and actions of their fellow leaders. Being a leader, particularly a senior or high-level one, means you represent the entire organization, not just your particular team. You should own the decisions and strategies of your organization by phrasing statements like “We have decided…” rather than “They have decided…” because it shows your team that you are personally invested and committed to your organization’s plans.
The grumpy Mercedes driver couldn’t see he had a wide-open road ahead of him to enjoy because he was too focused on what others were doing behind him. Don’t make the same mistake as a leader. If any of these ten signs ring true, you may be spending more time leading by looking through the rear-view mirror instead of the front windshield.
A total of twelve characteristics were identified, five of which were agreed upon by all of the scholars polled. These five most prominent servant leadership characteristics were:
Valuing People. Servant leaders value people for who they are, not just for what they give to the organization. Servant leaders are committed first and foremost to people—particularly, their followers.
Humility. Servant leaders do not promote themselves; they put other people first. They are actually humble, not humble as an act. Servant leaders know leadership is not all about them—things are accomplished through others.
Listening. Servant leaders listen receptively and non-judgmentally. They are willing to listen because they truly want to learn from other people—and to understand the people they serve, they must listen deeply. Servant leaders seek first to understand, and then to be understood. This discernment enables the servant leader to know when their service is needed.
Trust. Servant leaders give trust to others. They willingly take this risk for the people they serve. Servant leaders are trusted because they are authentic and dependable.
Caring. Servant leaders have people and purpose in their heart. They display a kindness and concern for others. As the term servant leadership implies, servant leaders are here to serve, not to be served. Servant leaders truly care for the people they serve.
Both lists can serve as good starting points for HR and L&D executives looking to bring an others-focused culture into their organizations. What’s been your experience? Feel free to enter additional characteristics of a servant leader in the comments section below.
Interested in learning more about bringing servant leadership principles into your organization? Join us for a free webinar on November 15!
Dr. Vicki Halsey, vice president of applied learning for The Ken Blanchard Companies and author of Brilliance By Design, will conduct a presentation for leadership, learning, and talent development professionals on 3 Keys to Building a Servant Leadership Curriculum.
In this enlightening webinar, Dr. Halsey will connect servant leadership characteristics to competencies and share best practices on how to design a comprehensive curriculum for your organization. You can learn more here. The event is free, courtesy of The Ken Blanchard Companies.
This article was written by my colleague David Witt and originally appeared on LeaderChat.org.
Psychological safety sounds like a complex academic topic, doesn’t it? It’s quite simple when you boil it down to its essence.
Amy Edmondson of Harvard University has pioneered the research on psychological safety. She says psychological safety describes an individual’s perceptions about the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in his/her work environment. It consists of taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea.
When faced with these kinds of situations, we make micro-second calculations to assess the risk and likely consequences of our behavior. We make these decisions in light of the interpersonal climate we’re in, so we say to ourselves “If I do X here, will I be hurt, embarrassed, or criticized? Or will I be praised, thanked, or respected?”
Organizational Conditions for Psychological Safety
There are five areas that contribute to the establishment of a psychologically safe environment. The first is Leader Behavior. The leader is always being watched. What you say and do has a profound impact on whether your team members feel safe to be vulnerable with you. Research has shown that bad news is rarely transmitted up the hierarchy and team members are more likely to seek help from peers than their boss. But on the flip side, research has also shown that leaders who exhibit supportive managerial behaviors have positive effects on self-expression and creativity. Leaders must go out of their way to be open and use coaching-oriented behaviors. The three most powerful behaviors that foster psychological safety are being available and approachable, explicitly inviting input and feedback, and modeling openness and fallibility.
The second area that contributes to psychological safety is Group Dynamics. The norms of a group either encourage or inhibit team member vulnerability. Are new ideas welcomed or discouraged? Are divergent opinions solicited or are they criticized? The interplay of team member roles and characters are also part of group dynamics. Have you ever noticed how people in teams tend to assume familial-type roles? You often have a father figure of a group that offers sage advice and direction. You may have team member who plays a mothering role, the favored son who can do no wrong, or even the black sheep of the team who tends to stir up trouble. The interplay of these roles has a direct impact on the level of safety within a team. Additionally, in-group and out-group dynamics and power distribution among team members influence psychological safety.
The third area that influences psychological safety is Trust and Respect. There is significant overlap between trust and psychological safety as it relates to vulnerability. Trust can be defined as the willingness to be vulnerable based on perceptions of someone’s (or some thing’s) trustworthiness. If you don’t feel the leader or team is trustworthy, you won’t be willing to be vulnerable and put yourself at risk. Supportive and trusting relationships promote psychological safety, whereas lack of respect makes people feel judged or inferior, resulting in them keeping their opinions to themselves. Trust is at the heart of creating a safe environment.
The fourth area that contributes to psychological safety is the use of Practice Fields. Peter Senge coined this term in the 1990’s to describe one of the hallmarks of a learning organization. He made the point that unlike other fields, most businesses don’t employ practice and reflection to improve the skills of their employees. For example, what do sport teams do between games? They practice! Practice is a safe environment to learn, make mistakes, and work on skill improvement. Pilots train in simulators before flying a new aircraft. Surgeons observe, assist, and practice new procedures before leading an operation. Employing practice fields creates an environment where it is safe to learn and make mistakes without fear of being penalized.
Finally, the fifth area that contributes to psychological safety is having a Supportive Organizational Context. What does that mean? It means team members have access to resources and information to perform their best. When people have this level of freedom it reduces anxiety and defensiveness. Contrast this to being in a “need to know” environment where suspicion, tension, power, control, and territoriality are the norm. Organizations with healthy and ethical cultures of fairness and trust create the supportive mechanisms that allow people to feel safe, take risks, and innovate.
Results of Psychological Safety
Psychological safety is a win-win for both employees and the organization.
Safe environments allow people to seek feedback more often. Seeking feedback places a person in a position of vulnerability to hear negative criticism, however, when it is safe to do so, the sharing of feedback leads to improvements in quality and performance. Safe environments also encourage people to seek help from those who are in positions of greater power. It’s risky to ask for help from someone who judges your performance, but leaders who foster psychological safety make it easy for their team members to ask for help.
A culture of psychological safety encourages people to speak up about wrongdoing. It alleviates concerns about repercussions of calling out unethical or illegal behavior, which is critical in today’s low-trust environments of many organizations. Innovation is also a benefit of having a safe environment. Innovation is essentially about taking a risk and trying something new. It’s about offering new ideas and challenging conventional ways of thinking which can’t happen if people are afraid of being judged or punished for stepping out of line. Lastly, psychologically safe environments allow team members to work more effectively across boundaries. It increases communication and coordination with other groups in the organization. It lowers the interpersonal risk of asking for help, resources, seeking feedback, or delivering bad news.
It’s vitally important for leaders to establish environments of trust and safety so their people can step out, step up, and achieve new heights of accomplishments. It begins by being a safe leader who is trustworthy, respectful, and committed to prioritizing the well-being of his/her team members over his/her self-interest. It begins by leading with trust.
Few leaders wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “I wonder how I can screw up today?” Most leaders have good intentions and earnestly try to lead in the right ways, but sometimes the actions they think are helpful to their team actually cause harm or frustration. They’re trying to lead right in the wrong ways.
Here are five common ways leaders try to do the right thing in the wrong way:
1. Valuing results at the expense of relationships—Leaders are responsible for achieving results, and a common mistake is to pursue those results at the expense of relationships. Meet the sales quota…close the deal…finish the project under budget, on time, and with top quality…all important goals to achieve in and of themselves. But how do leaders achieve them? Through the efforts of the people they lead. What good does it do to run roughshod over your people to achieve a short-term goal? It may produce immediate success but it will destroy your long-term effectiveness. Leading right in this instance means valuing results and relationships. Take care of the needs and concerns of your people and they will take care of your customers, projects, and business.
2. Treating everyone the same in order to be fair—Leaders have to balance myriad issues and one of the trickiest is treating people fairly. Playing favorites is a huge trust buster! It kills the morale of your team and makes people suspicious of your motives and decisions. One way leaders try to avoid this problem is by treating everyone the same, and quite frankly, it’s a leadership cop-out. Most leaders do this because it’s easy, expedient, and causes them fewer headaches. Leading right in this case means treating people equitably and ethically given the particular situation. Of course, there are some policies and procedures that need to be universally applied, such as health, safety, and operational business processes, but leaders have more opportunities than they realize to increase employee loyalty and engagement by treating them as individuals with specific needs rather than just another nameless face that needs to toe the line.
3. Not developing relationships in order to maintain professional distance—This can be a particular challenge for newly promoted leaders who find themselves leading people who used to be their peers. In an effort to establish leadership credibility, leaders become reticent to develop personal relationships with those they lead. This results in a lack of connection with people, lowers their trust, and reduces commitment and engagement on the job. Research has shown that one of the twelve key factors of employee work passion is “connectedness with leader.” People want to have a personal connection with their leaders. They want to know and be known. Learn what makes your people tick, what’s important to them, their hopes, dreams, and fears. Leading in this way will gain you trust, loyalty, and commitment in spades.
4. Hoarding information—Why do people hoard information? Because information is power, power is control, and leaders love to be in control. In a well-intentioned effort to maintain proper control of their team, leaders can lead in the wrong way by playing their cards too close to the vest. Lack of information sharing leads to suspicion and distrust. Leaders build trust by sharing information about themselves and the organization. On the personal side, sharing information about yourself allows you to be a little vulnerable with your people and they get to know you as a person, not just as a boss (see #3 above). Sharing information about the organization allows your people to make smart business decisions. People without information cannot act responsibly. In the absence of information people will make up their own version of the truth. However, people with information are compelled to act responsibly.
5. Micromanaging—Micromanagers are like dirty baby diapers—full of crap and all over your butt. Ironically, most leaders don’t realize they’re micromanaging. They think they’re helping someone out by telling them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. That’s fine when a person is first learning a task or skill, but once the person demonstrates competence and commitment in doing the work, the leader needs to back off and let the employee be in charge of the task or goal. Micromanaging competent team members kills their initiative and morale, and over time, creates a state of learned helplessness. They give up on using their brain because they know the boss is going to tell them how to do it anyway.
Most leaders have good intentions and want to lead right, but sometimes we go about it in the wrong ways. Take time to pause and think about your leadership behaviors before you jump into action. If you don’t, you might be causing more harm than good.
In the latest edition of Leaders Behaving Badly, the University of Maryland has placed multiple members of the men’s football team staff on administrative leave, including head coach DJ Durkin, while the school investigates their role in creating a toxic culture that contributed to the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair in June after a football workout.
There is a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation. In one example, a player holding a meal while in a meeting had the meal slapped out of his hands in front of the team. At other times, small weights and other objects were thrown in the direction of players when Strength and Conditioning coach, Rick Court, was angry.
The belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common. In one example, a player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was forced to eat candy bars as he was made to watch teammates working out.
Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often. Players are routinely the targets of obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity when they are unable to complete a workout or weight lift, for example. One player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill.
Coaches have endorsed unhealthy eating habits and used food punitively; for example, a player said he was forced to overeat or eat to the point of vomiting.
There is absolutely no room for that kind of behavior in sports, school, or the workplace. Leaders have to be held to a higher standard.
Bullying is not just verbal or physical intimidation of someone. Especially in the workplace, bullying can manifest itself in many subtle ways. Any behavior you use to intimidate, dominate, embarrass, harass, or purposely make someone feel inferior could be considered bullying.
Here are six subtle ways you may be acting like a workplace bully without even realizing it:
1. You are condescending—When you act in a condescending manner, whether it’s patronizing someone, being dismissive of a person’s contributions, or minimizing someone’s accomplishments in order to highlight yours, you are sending a message that you believe you are superior to the other person.
2. Wounding with sarcasm—I like sarcastic humor as much as the next guy, but there is a huge difference between sarcasm that highlights the irony of a situation and is self-deprecating, versus sarcasm that is intended to belittle and injure another person. Next time you’re ready to drop that witty, sarcastic joke, pause and consider if it will build up the other person or tear her down.
3. Being cliquish—Cliques aren’t only for high school. Unfortunately, many adults carry that same behavior into the workplace. Purposely excluding people from activities is a bullying behavior intended to send the message that “you’re not one of us” and “we’re better than you are.” Trusted leaders look for opportunities to include people so they feel valued and appreciated.
4. Thinking you know it all—Have you ever worked with a person who thinks she knows it all? How annoying is that?! Much like behaving in a condescending manner, acting like you are the all-knowing expert is a way to intimidate others to go along with your ideas or wishes. Just stop it! No one really believes you anyway.
5. Being passive-aggressive—Perhaps one of the most subtle forms of bullying and manipulation, passive-aggressive behavior poisons teams, departments, and organizations. A common trait of bullies is expressing aggression in order to intimidate another person. Passive-aggressive people are bullies who express aggression in indirect ways such as disguising hostility in jokes, stubbornness, procrastination, resentment, or giving just the minimum effort required. I perceive passive-aggressive people as double-agent bullies disguised as victims. Watch out for them!
6. Gossiping—Have you ever considered gossiping as a form of bullying? Probably not, but it easily could be considered bullying, and some experts even consider it a form of workplace violence because it’s intended to harm another individual or group. Why do people gossip? It’s to make themselves feel powerful. The gossiper believes she knows something that other people don’t and she uses that information as leverage to elevate herself above others.
Leaders are charged with bringing out the best in their people and I don’t understand how some leaders, particularly sports coaches, believe that bullying is an acceptable form of motivation. It’s not. It’s belittling, destructive, demeaning, dehumanizing, and does nothing but feed the power-hungry ego of the bullying leader.
If you’re a leader in the workplace, whether it’s in an office, factory, warehouse, construction site, or any other place, make sure you’re not being a bully without even realizing it. You’re better than that and your people deserve your best.
When it comes to building trust in relationships, someone has to make the first move. One person has to be willing to step out, be a little vulnerable, and place trust in another person. Is it risky? Yes! Without risk there isn’t a need for trust.
So in a work setting, who makes the first move, the leader or the follower? Some would argue that trust has to be earned before it is given, so that places the responsibility on the follower to make the first move. The follower needs to demonstrate trustworthiness over a period of time through consistent behavior, and as time goes by, the leader extends more and more trust to the follower. Makes sense and is certainly valid.
I would argue it’s the leader’s responsibility to make the first move. It’s incumbent upon the leader to extend, build, and sustain trust with his/her followers. Why? It’s the leader’s job to create followership. It’s not the follower’s responsibility to create leadership. In order to create followership—influencing a group of people to work toward achieving the goals of the team, department, organization—trust is an absolute essential ingredient, and establishing, nurturing, and sustaining it has to be a top leadership priority.
When you make the first move and say “I trust you,” through word and deed, you accomplish the following:
You empower your people — Being trusted frees people to take responsibility and ownership of their work. Trust and control are opposites of each other. We don’t trust others because we want to remain in control, which results in over-supervising or micromanaging employees and crushing their initiative and motivation. Extending trust means letting go of control and transferring power to others.
You encourage innovation — When employees feel trusted they are more willing to take risks, explore new ideas, and look for creative solutions to problems. Conversely, employees that don’t feel trusted will do the minimum amount of work to get by and engage in CYA (cover your “assets”) behavior to avoid catching heat from the boss.
You tap into discretionary effort — Trust is the lever that allows leaders to tap into the discretionary effort of their people. People who feel trusted will go the extra mile to do a good job because they don’t want to let down the boss or organization. Being trusted instills a sense of responsibility and pride in people and it fuels their efforts to succeed.
You free yourself to focus in other areas — What happens when you don’t trust your people? You end up doing all the work yourself. Leadership is about developing other people to achieve their goals and those of the organization. Does it take time? Yes. Is it hard work? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely! Develop and build trust with your team so that you can spend time on the critical leadership tasks that are on your plate.
Let me make an important point—I’m not suggesting that leaders extend trust blindly. It’s foolish to give complete trust to someone who isn’t competent or hasn’t displayed the integrity to be trusted. I’m talking about extending appropriate levels of trust based on the unique requirements and conditions of the relationship. Leaders have to use sound judgement in regards to the amount of trust they extend and it usually begins with small amounts of trust and grows over time as the person proves to be trustworthy. But the point is, someone has to make the first move to extend trust in a relationship.
Leadership and management are separate disciplines yet there is a significant amount of overlap between the two. There are many times when leaders have to manage and managers have to lead.
However, in the work I’ve done with leaders and organizations over the years, as well as my own personal experience, I’ve noticed it’s much easier to gravitate toward management activities than it is leadership.
Why is that? The pressures of daily priorities, overwhelming to-do lists, fighting the unexpected fires that arise, and managing the minutiae of organizational life overtakes our focus. As a result, our leadership gets the short end of the deal. We neglect long-term planning, innovating for the future, and developing our team members for their next growth opportunity.
We can avoid letting our management responsibilities devour us if we keep an eye on where we place our time and attention. Here are four signs that may indicate you are over-managing and under-leading:
You focus more on holding people accountable to the letter of the law than the spirit of the law. Rules are important; no doubt about it. Especially when it comes to issues of law and safety, we need to ensure rules are followed. However, you need to remember that rules and processes exist to bring life to a greater purpose. Your decision-making should be governed by fulfilling the spirit of the law, not the letter. It’s easy to fall back on enforcing rules and processes because it’s tangible and clear-cut. Achieving the spirit of the law often involves more abstract issues, multiple points of view, and difficult decision-making.
You value results ahead of people. Achieving results and valuing people are not mutually exclusive, yet one only needs to look at how leaders behave to discern their true beliefs. However you define results—revenue, margin, profit, customer satisfaction—those are the points on the scoreboard at the end of the game. But your people are the players on the field achieving those results. One has to come before the other. When results dominate your focus, you stop viewing people as human beings and start looking at them as soulless human resources that are tools to be used to achieve your goals.
You spend more time helping people get comfortable with change instead of challenging them to rise to the occasion. Too often we tend to baby employees through change instead of equipping them with skills to be more resilient and adaptable. Change is a constant in organizations and we mistakenly think we can make it easy for employees by selling them on the benefits of the change, making it more palatable, crafting the perfect communication plan, and implementing the perfect roll-out plan. This results in leaders shouldering the responsibility for the change effort and it creates a culture of learned helplessness among employees.
You devote more energy to managing the status quo instead of innovating for the future. I believe the single biggest difference between managers and leaders is that leaders proactively initiate change to improve the organization, whereas managers deal with change on a reactive basis. Leaders display a desire to consistently make things better. They aren’t content to maintain the status quo just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it around here.” Leaders frequently question the way their business operates, with an eye toward making things simpler, better, easier, or more efficient. When was the last time you asked questions like: Why are we doing it this way? What would happen if we stopped doing that? How can we simplify this process?
Regardless of whether your formal position or job title classifies you as a leader or manager, it’s your mindset, and the resulting behaviors, that identify you as one or the other. Managing is often tangible and task-oriented, and checking items off our to-do list makes us feel good. Leadership can be more complex, ambiguous, and the results of our labor aren’t always immediately evident. If we aren’t careful, the whirlwind of organizational life will cause us to drift toward managing instead of leading, and that doesn’t serve ourselves, our people, or our organizations.