I saw this tagline recently in an advertisement for a digital security product. The company’s message was straight-forward and clear—when it comes to digital security, you should never, ever, ever trust anyone or anything. Always verify.
Sadly, this advertising tagline struck me as ringing true for the way many people treat relationships in this day and age. Our current polarized political and social climate pits people against each other with little room in the middle. You’re either Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, patriotic or traitorous, a coastal elite or a fly-over country bumpkin.
This either/or mentality is shaping the way we build trust in relationships. In order for trust to be established, one person has to make the first move to extend trust to the other. It’s risky and there’s no way around it. If there wasn’t risk, there wouldn’t be a need for trust. How can you make the first move to extend trust if you believe you should never trust and always verify? You can’t.
If we hope to make any progress in finding common ground with each other we have to learn to trust. Trust isn’t all or nothing. Trusting someone doesn’t mean you trust them 100% of the time in all situations. Trust is situational. It’s contextual to the individual and circumstance. For example, I have a high degree of trust in Tim, my auto mechanic. Over the years he’s done quality work, charged a fair price, and been honest in his dealings. He’s earned my trust. Would I trust Tim to prepare my tax returns? No, I wouldn’t. He’s not a CPA.
So, if trust is situational, how do we know when we can trust someone? An individual is trustworthy when he/she is…
Able—An able person demonstrates competence by having the knowledge, skills, and expertise for their particular job. They achieve goals consistently and develop a track record of success. They show good planning and problem-solving skills and they make sound, informed decisions.
Believable—A believable person acts with integrity when they tell the truth, keep confidences, and admit their mistakes. They walk the talk by acting in ways congruent with their personal values and those of the organization. They treat people equitably and ethically and ensure that rules are fairly applied to all members of the team.
Connected—Trustworthy people care about others. They are kind, compassionate, and concerned with others’ well-being. They readily share information about themselves and the organization. Being a good listener, seeking feedback, and incorporating the ideas of others into decisions are behaviors of a connected person who cares about people.
Dependable—People trust those who honor their commitments. DWYSYWD—doing what you say you will do is a hallmark of a trustworthy person. They do this by establishing clear priorities, keeping promises and holding themselves and others accountable. Dependable people are punctual, adhere to organizational policies and procedures, and respond flexibly to others with the appropriate direction and support.
Never trust, always verify. It’s a catchy phrase that plays well for a company advertising a digital security product, but it’s a relationship killer. There’s no way to have any sort of relationship with someone without a modicum of trust. Someone has to make the first move to extend trust, with the hope and belief the other person will prove him/herself trustworthy.
Dr. John Gottman is world-renowned for his work on marital stability and is one of the top thought leaders in the field of marital therapy and psychology. Much of his research and writing focuses on the behavioral patterns that formulate healthy relationships, and conversely, the behaviors that destroy them. Through his research, he has been able to predict with 90% accuracy the four behavioral patterns that destroy relationships. He calls these behaviors the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The negative impact of the Four Horsemen behaviors is felt in all relationships, not just marriage. Being aware of these behavioral patterns, and how to prevent them, are key to establishing healthy and trustworthy relationships in the workplace. Let’s look at the Four Horsemen and their antidotes:
1. Criticism—Criticism is different from critiquing or voicing a complaint. Whereas critiquing/complaining is focused on a specific issue, criticism is directed at the person, not the behavior. Criticism is filled with accusatory language and “you” statements: “You always forget to complete your reports on time and don’t care about how it affects me. You’re so unreliable.” Criticism makes a person feel picked-on, rejected, and hurt, and opens the door for the other deadly horsemen to follow. Antidote—Using “I” language is the antidote to criticism. Rather than blaming or criticizing another person, describe how you feel and its impact on you by using “I” statements. “I feel let down when you miss the reporting deadline because it forces me to work over the weekend to complete the reports.”
2. Contempt—When treating people with contempt, we are being mean and disrespectful. Contempt is demeaning others through sarcasm, ridicule, and body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. The victim is made to feel “less than” and in a morally inferior position as the perpetrator. Contempt sounds like: “You think you have it tough?! You come into work, do a half-ass job all day, take long lunches, and then expect everyone to help you get the work done so you can punch out at 5:00 sharp! I’m tired of carrying you on my back around here. You have no clue what it takes to succeed!” Contempt is the single biggest predictor of relationship failure. Antidote—The antidote to contempt is to treat each other with respect and appreciation. No matter the difficulties you’re encountering with someone, that person deserves to be treated with a modicum of respect and decency. Focusing your attention on the positive aspects of the relationship and expressing gratitude is a way to cultivate a culture of appreciation.
3. Defensiveness—People react defensively when they feel threatened and it’s often in response to criticism. Defensiveness destroys relationships from the inside-out. It creates a climate of contention and tension that eventually leads to a loss of trust, alienation, and separation. When we blame or criticize someone and they react defensively, we often respond in kind, leading to an ever-increasing level of conflict. Antidote—Accept responsibility for your part in the conflict. Accepting responsibility is not an admission of guilt or wrongdoing; it’s demonstrating that you value the relationship more than you value being right.
4. Stonewalling—This behavior is usually in response to contempt. Stonewalling is when an individual withdraws from the interaction, goes quiet, doesn’t respond or engage, and essentially shuts down. Instead of actively participating in resolving the situation, the stonewaller retreats and isolates himself. Gottman says this is usually the result of the individual feeling physiologically flooded, and when in that state, the person literally may not be capable of responding in a productive manner. Antidote—The way to address stonewalling behavior is to take a timeout. Give each other at least 20 minutes to calm down and process the situation before re-engaging in conversation. Having time and space to process your feelings allows you to gain perspective which often isn’t visible when you’re in the heat of the conversation.
The Four Horsemen can be defeated with conscious effort. Early diagnosis of these negative communication patterns, and replacing them with positive ones, will help you develop healthy and productive relationships.
I coached youth baseball for over 15 years, from five-year old kids to 14-year-old teenagers, and at least two things were common across all the age groups: 1) the kids always kept score, and 2) they were the first ones to remind me if I wasn’t being fair.
Whether I was coaching a bunch of energetic five-year old kids in tee-ball where we didn’t keep an official score of the game, or with older kids playing a practice game against one another or an opposing team, the kids always kept score of who was winning and losing. And if I made a coaching decision that an individual player or the whole team didn’t like, one of their first complaints was “That’s not fair!”
Switch the scene to the modern-day workplace. I’m a leader working with mature adults, yet I’ve found that not much is different from coaching kids in baseball. People still keep score, only now it’s about who received the new project, promotion, or corner office. And as soon as someone perceives I made an unjust decision, the first thing I hear is exactly what five-year old tee-ballers said: “That’s not fair!”
Leaders aiming to build trust in relationships need to pay attention to the issue of fairness. “No problem,” you may say, “I treat everyone the same, no matter what.” Actually, treating everyone the same is the biggest and most frequent mistake leaders make when trying to be fair. A quote from Aristotle speaks to this: “There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.” People should be treated equitably and ethically, given their individual needs and circumstances, and the differences between people should be recognized and valued, not diminished.
There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals. ~ Aristotle
To build and maintain trust with followers, leaders need to exhibit fairness through the distribution of organizational resources and application of policies to all team members. It’s helpful to understand exactly what “fairness” means in an organizational context. Fairness is composed of two main elements: distributive justice and procedural justice. Distributive justice is fairness in the organization’s pay, rewards, and benefits for employees. Procedural justice is fairness in the organization’s decision-making processes in how those rewards and benefits are doled out. Of the two, procedural justice is the element most under control of individual leaders and is the aspect of fairness most closely linked with building or eroding trust with followers.
Based on research from The Ken Blanchard Companies, procedural justice was ranked as the most important organizational factor for employee retention. Additionally, over 60% of respondents believed the primary responsibility for influencing and improving procedural justice rested with their immediate supervisor.
So how can leaders be fair and build trust with their team members? Here’s a few suggestions:
Be transparent – Share information about the criteria and process that you use to make decisions. Putting all your cards on the table eliminates doubt and mistrust.
Increase involvement in decision-making – As much as possible, involve the people who will be affected by your decisions in the process. People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.
Play by the rules – Clearly establish the rules, play by them, and hold others and yourself accountable to following them.
Listen with the idea of being influenced – Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you know it all. Ask others for their input and genuinely listen with an open mind and be willing to change course if needed.
Don’t play favorites – No one likes a teacher’s pet so don’t create one. That will eliminate a key source of jealousy.
Save spin for the gym, not the office – Be authentic and genuine in your communications. People see through the political spin.
Remember, people are keeping score of your every behavior. Broad-brushing everyone with the “same” treatment is the easy and lazy approach to being fair. Treating people equitably and ethically, given their unique circumstances, will help them see you are being a fair and consistent leader.
I was following the college baseball World Series a few weeks ago because my beloved Michigan Wolverines were in the final against Vanderbilt. While watching one of the games, I learned a powerful lesson about success and teamwork from a 19 year-old college baseball pitcher.
His name is Kumar Rocker and he’s a 6’4, 255 lb. freshman at Vanderbilt. Coming out of high school in 2018 he was the 3rd ranked right-handed pitcher and rated the 8th best overall player in the nation. He would have been a first-round MLB draft-pick but was committed to attending college (which means he can’t be drafted by MLB for 3 years…after his junior year in college).
When asked what his baseball goal was while attending Vanderbilt, what do you think he said?
“I want to be the best teammate Vanderbilt baseball has ever seen.” Wow!
He didn’t say what you might expect: “I want to break all the school pitching records,” or “I want work on my game before I turn pro,” but “I want to be the best teammate Vanderbilt baseball has ever seen.” Quite a bit of humility, maturity, and wisdom from a 19 year-old who has had people fawning over his athletic skills for years.
So what does that mean for us as teammates at work? I think it’s pretty clear. How can each of us be the best teammate possible? If that was our goal, how enjoyable would work be and how well served would our customers feel?
So what does being a good teammate look like? To me, it looks like servant leadership in action. It looks like:
Putting the needs of my teammates ahead of my own
Honoring my commitments
Doing what’s best for the team/customer even if it’s not the best for me personally
Doing what I can to set my teammates up for success
Running the play that’s been called (i.e., following processes, standards, etc.) rather than making up my own play and throwing the rest of the team into chaos
Being more concerned and committed to the team winning versus garnering personal accolades
The legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler was famous for preaching these words: “The Team! The Team! The Team!”
That’s what success is all about. The team! Ask yourself today—What can I do to be a better teammate?
Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity…over the last several years, the term VUCA has gained momentum in everyday life as a way to describe the fast-changing, chaotic, and unpredictable global environment in which we live and do business. Everywhere you look in leadership circles it’s VUCA this or VUCA that. A recent internet search on “VUCA leadership” returned over 347,000 references! It’s clearly a dynamic that leaders must manage in today’s world.
When faced with complex issues or situations, a leader’s job is to simplify things down to a reasonable level that allows people to understand what’s going on and to act in ways that create positive, forward progress; not get stymied or stuck in complexity. Unpredictability and chaos breed distrust, so just by living in a VUCA world, distrust has the power to run rampant. It’s imperative for leaders to understand what VUCA means and how to nurture trust with their followers amidst change.
But what exactly is VUCA? And whatever it is, how can a leader build and maintain trust in a world that seemingly can change overnight?
In a recent Forbes article, author Jeroen Kraaijenbrink provides a helpful definition of VUCA. When you understand the individual components and their relationships to each other, it’s easier to know how to lead in such an environment. Within each VUCA element, I believe there are four principles leaders can apply to build trust with their teams and organizations.
Volatility has to do with the speed of change. A tweet from a world leader can set a new wave of change into motion. New markets emerge overnight, or business models appear out of nowhere that put other organizations out of business in a snap of a finger. The more volatility there is in the world, the faster things change. The trust-building antidote to volatility is for leaders to be reliable and consistent in how they respond to change. Freaking out, making rash decisions, or retreating into a shell to resist change will further erode trust in leadership. Steady, thoughtful, and predictable leadership builds trust. As my fellow trust activist Stephen M.R. Covey points out in his book The Speed of Trust, when trust is high, teams and organizations can move faster and adapt to change easier.
Uncertainty is the extent to which we can reasonably predict the future. With change happening so fast, this is a tremendous challenge for 21st century leaders. The trust-building corollary is to emphasize what is known and to keep teams focused on things under their control. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, leaders need to extend trust in times of uncertainty. Trust requires risk. If there’s no risk, there’s no need for trust, and risk and uncertainty are brothers in crime. Leaders must resist the urge to control and play their cards close to the vest. Control is the opposite of trust, so if leaders resort to controlling behaviors like micromanaging or withholding information during times of uncertainty, they’ll further erode trust with their teams and kill their ability to thrive during change.
Complexity is the number and variety of factors a leader must consider and their relationships with one another. Often, a leader’s challenge is not having enough information to make a decision, but having too much information. We are overwhelmed with data, and many times it is too vague or inaccurate to breed a sense of confidence. When dealing with complexity, a leader builds trust by leveraging the skills and abilities of team members. They involve others in solving problems, bringing their best and brightest to the table to help figure out these complex issues. Trustworthy leaders share information liberally and foster a culture of transparency, because they believe that people cannot act responsibly if they don’t have the right information. High-trust leaders know that the answers to their most frequent business challenges often lie with the front-line people who deal with them every day. To build trust, ask questions, listen to learn, and incorporate your people’s ideas into decisions. A good team axiom is no one of us is as smart as all of us.
Ambiguity refers to the lack of clarity about how to interpret something. Information may be incomplete, the truth may be indiscernible, or the data may be contradictory. Fuzziness, vagueness, and indecisiveness reign in times of ambiguity. To build trust, leaders must be clear on the vision and purpose of the organization. Proverbs 29:18 shares the ancient wisdom that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” When your team has a clear vision of where they’re headed, they can cut through the noise, confusion, and distractions swirling around them. The leader’s job is not just to articulate a clear vision, but also to equip team members with the necessary mindset and skillset to achieve the vision.
I believe that high-trust leaders are uniquely positioned to successfully navigate their teams through the waters of VUCA. People are craving leaders of integrity and truth. They are searching for anchors of confidence and hope during turbulent times. Leaders who act in trustworthy ways build trust with their teams and gain their commitment and loyalty. That is what’s needed to survive and thrive in a VUCA world.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you are a scientist running a grand experiment on leadership. Your laboratory is an organization with hundreds of leaders at varying levels, and with technology, you can watch and listen to them 24-hours a day over an extend period of time. Sort of like the TV show Big Brother, except corporate style (and minus all the drama-filled antics). Essentially you get to observe the species Homo Sapiens Laederes in their native environment.
Your quest is to learn the behaviors that make servant leaders stand out from the crowd. In a noisy world where a few celebrity leaders grab the headlines, and everyone tries to copy-cat their way to becoming an overnight leadership success, servant leadership has withstood the test of time as a tried and true approach to effectively leading people and organizations. You would observe at least five key ways servant leaders are different from their counterparts.
Listen more than they talk—A servant leader is much more interested in hearing the viewpoints of others than having their voice be the loudest in the room. Make no mistake, servant leaders clearly articulate their point of view and cast a vision for the organization, but they do so after they’ve spent plenty of time hearing from others, incorporating their ideas, and enlisting others in their cause. As Larry Spears observed in the book Servant Leadership in Action, listening is one of ten key characteristics of a servant leader. Listening involves paying attention to what is said and not said, identifying the will of the group, listening to the leader’s own inner voice, and coalescing that input into a clear plan of action.
Say we more than me—When servant leaders do talk, they focus the attention on their team by speaking in the collective we, rather than the personal me. Servant leaders know that leadership isn’t about them; it’s about others. Robert K. Greenleaf, the father of the modern servant leader movement, said the motive of a servant leader is to serve first, and out of that desire to serve rises a conscious decision to lead. Servant leaders are driven to improve the welfare, contribution, and autonomy of others, not to garner fame, attention, or status for themselves. Their focus is on we, not me.
Flex their leadership style to meet the needs of their followers—Since servant leadership is about doing what’s best for others and helping them to realize their full potential, servant leaders adapt their leadership style to provide the right amount of direction and support their followers need. There is no one best leadership style. If someone is new to a task, the leader provides higher levels of direction to teach the how, what, where, when, and why. If the follower has a moderate level of competence but is unsure of himself, the servant leader uses a supportive style to build the follower’s confidence and help him problem solve. Servant leaders understand their followers have varying levels of competence and commitment on their tasks or goals so they adjust their leadership style to the situation.
Look for opportunities to shine the light on others—As you observe leaders in this mythical experiment, you’d notice that servant leaders make an intentional effort to give people the chance to be in the spotlight and to praise them for their accomplishments. Servant leaders don’t care who gets the credit; they care about helping people and the organization succeed. Ken Blanchard likes to say that “people who feel good about themselves produce good results, and people who produce good results feel good about themselves.” It’s a virtuous process that servant leaders look to perpetuate.
Treat failures as learning moments—Failure is inevitable; learning is optional (click to tweet). Servant leaders view failure as an invaluable teaching tool, and rather than punish or demean people for making a mistake, they turn it into a positive and make it a learning moment. This is possible because servant leaders have a high level of trust with their followers. When people are trusted, they aren’t afraid to take risks and try something new. They know that if they fail, their leader will partner with them to use the opportunity to grow, learn, and do better next time. My friend and fellow servant leader, Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, embodies this philosophy. He believes that creating a culture of learning has been one of the pillars of WD-40’s success, an organization with 93% employee engagement.
Although it would be cool to take part in this kind of mad scientist experiment, it really isn’t necessary. Research about the effectiveness of servant leadership is plentiful and the traits of a servant leader are common sense, albeit not common practice. If you look around and see people engaging in these five behaviors and others like them, chances are they’re servant leaders who are bringing out the best in their people and organizations.
My little tree growing strong without the help of a stake.
A few years ago, my father-in-law passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer. My wife decided that she wanted to plant a tree in our backyard as a way for us to remember the good memories of his life. Watching a young sapling grow into a healthy and strong tree evokes positive emotions and a sense of well-being. Focusing on the growth of new life is cathartic and healing for the soul.
When we purchased the tree from the nursery, it was staked to a large wooden pole to help it stand upright. That’s a common practice with young trees. Sometimes they need additional support along the trunk of the tree while they establish a strong network of roots. I had every intention of removing the stake after the tree became rooted where it was planted, but…life happened, I got busy with other priorities, and before I knew it, two years had passed by and I had forgotten to remove the stake. As I researched this topic, I learned that a tree needs to bend and sway in the wind for it to develop a strong trunk and root system. The wind forces the tree to entrench itself further into the earth to withstand the forces of nature. Leaving a tree staked too long can weaken it and prevent it from reaching its full potential. Strong winds make strong trees.
The same principle is true in our personal and professional lives. Experiencing the strong winds of life makes us strong and resilient…if we choose the path of growth. The strong winds can also break us and stunt our growth if we stake ourselves to people, places, or things that provide a false sense of support and stability.
In the workplace, leaders can unwittingly shield their team members from strong winds. We can engage in behaviors that appear to be helping or protecting our people, but are preventing them from becoming resilient and strong contributors. Here are three strategies we can pursue to develop resilience in our team members:
Facilitate problem solving—Developing resilient team members includes teaching them how to solve their own problems. This can be one of the hardest challenges for leaders because most of us have risen to our positions by being great problem-solvers. However, that very strength can be a weakness when it comes to developing resilient team members. Resist the urge to rescue team members by providing them the answers to their problems. Instead, rely on asking questions to lead people through the process of solving their own problems. Ask them to define the problem in one sentence. Help them brainstorm options of addressing the problem. Ask them to list the pros and cons of their various courses of actions. Initially it takes an investment of time to help people develop their competence in solving problems, but it saves you time down the road from having to be the answer-man and it results in having stronger, more resilient team members.
Let them make decisions—In order to do this successfully, a leader needs to diagnose the competence and commitment of the team member on the specific goal or task in question. The leader needs to know if the team member is a learner or doer. If the person is a learner, then the leader must take the lead in making decisions. It would be irresponsible to have a team member decide about something she doesn’t know. In that case, it’s the leader’s job to develop the team member’s competence so she can make her own decisions in the future. If the person is a doer, then the leader needs to let the team member make her own decision and experience the positive or negative consequences. Micro-managing, questioning decisions, or removing decision-making authority from a team member squashes her self-confidence and stunts her growth.
Don’t overreact—A tree needs to sway in the wind to develop strength. For a human muscle to grow in strength, it needs to experience micro tears in the muscle fibers from stretching and contracting in opposition to a force. To become resilient, people need to fail. A leader’s job is to find purpose, growth, and learning in the failure. When a team member fails, the leader should not overreact, criticize, or blame the person for failing. The leader should facilitate learning by asking questions like What did you set out to do?, What actually happened?, What did you learn?, and What will you do differently next time?
Back to my tree…I removed the stake and have been closely monitoring the tree as it has weathered some recent stormy weather. I’ve noticed the width of the trunk expanding as the tree has learned to rely on its own strength rather than the help of the wooden stake. I had to trim some branches back, so the tree isn’t so top-heavy and to give the trunk and roots time to catch-up in their growth. I’m confident the tree is going to continue to thrive for years to come.
Strong winds make strong trees. Let’s not deny our team members the opportunity to experience their own challenges and the growth it affords.
Leaders who are wise in their own eyes seem to be the ones who get the most attention in our world. They’re the outspoken, big personality, larger-than-life characters who always seem absolutely convinced of their own wisdom despite any evidence to the contrary. They capture the news headlines, private equity investors, and achieve personal wealth and fame. The only thing they don’t seem to possess is a healthy dose of humility.
Yet a number of research studies have shown that humble leaders are more effective at bringing people together, marshaling resources toward a common goal, and accomplishing organizational objectives. One study showed that firms led by a CEO who scored high in humility developed management teams that were more likely to collaborate and make joint decisions, share information openly, and possess a shared vision. And of course in the classic book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins’ discovered that those organizations who moved from average to superior performance shared a common factor of being led by Level 5 leaders, people who possessed a powerful mixture of humility and indomitable will.
So how can we develop humility in our leadership? I believe it’s a life-long journey, but we can start by:
Considering others more important than our self…and treating them that way. Humble leaders make it a practice to put the needs of their teammates ahead of their own. They look for ways to serve others rather than being served. That doesn’t mean they let their team walk all over them. As Ken Blanchard likes to say, “Being humble doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, it means thinking about yourself less.” Humble leaders facilitate the development of structures, systems, and processes that allow people to effectively use their skills to accomplish the organization’s goals.
Viewing yourself as a steward. Unless you are the founder and owner of the company, you’ve been hired as a steward to manage and develop that which has been entrusted to you. Stewards understand that everything they have is on loan and can be taken away in an instant. Therefore, they view their leadership as a responsibility to care for, nurture, and grow the organization and the people who comprise it.
Remembering all the help you received along the way. Humble leaders realize and appreciate the help they received along their journey. I think there are very few, if any, truly “self-made” individuals in the world. Anyone who has achieved a modicum of success has benefited from the help of someone else. Maybe it was a parent who paid your college tuition, a coach who inspired confidence, a teacher who opened the doorway to learning, or the manager who hired you for your first job. The point is, someone believed in you and gave you a chance. Humble leaders do the same for others.
Believing in something bigger than yourself. The opening line in Rick Warren’s best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, summarizes the heart attitude of humble leaders: “It’s not about you.” At the center of the lives of humble leaders is a values system that drives their beliefs and actions. Whether it’s your religious faith, core values, or personal mission statement, it’s critical to have a philosophical or moral code that serves as the foundation for your leadership. In the absence of such a grounding framework, you will put yourself at the center of your leadership philosophy and that’s the root cause of becoming a leader who is wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26: 11-12 contains a warning for people who reject personal humility and think “they’re all that:” As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.”
My life experience has been that leaders who are wise in their own eyes eventually suffer a downfall. They may demonstrate signs of success over the short-term, but they can’t sustain lasting success over the long-term. Humble leaders, on the other hand, are the ones I’ve seen that leave teams and organizations in a better position than they found them and create a lasting impact that far out lives their personal contributions.
“You’re not the boss of me!” That was the phrase my younger sister would frequently yell at me during our youth when I was being the domineering big brother. If you’ve had kids, been around kids, or were a kid (that qualifies all of us), then you’ve probably heard the phrase too. Whether it’s the older sibling who thinks she knows better, the playground bully establishing his dominance, or the teacher’s pet who somehow always gets her way, kids enjoy bossing others around.
Strangely enough, adults seem to like it too. We see it all the time in our workplaces where supervisors or managers create toxic environments because of their need to exert authority and control. The only one who wins in this type of culture is the boss. The people and the organization as a whole suffer.
So how do you know if you’re a boss or a leader? Here are seven simple ways to tell:
Bosses rely on the use of “hard” power / Leaders leverage the use of “soft” power — Bosses use hard power like their title, positional authority, or ability to give/withhold rewards as weapons to control the behavior of others. Leaders use soft power like their interpersonal skills, communication, values, and appeals to common interests as a way to enlist the support of others.
Bosses demand respect / Leaders earn respect — Bosses believe others should respect and follow them because of their position. They believe the title of boss demands instant respect. Leaders, on the other hand, know they have to earn the respect of others. They know their walk has to match their talk and their consistent behavior will garner respect from those they lead.
Bosses require compliance / Leaders invite collaboration — Bosses don’t really care what you think or feel, just as long as you do what you’re told, when you’re told, and how you’re told to do it. Leaders understand you have to manage the whole person; their heart, head, and hands. Leaders invite collaboration by soliciting input, listening to concerns, and incorporating team member feedback into decisions and plans.
Bosses focus only on results / Leaders focus on people and results — Bosses tend to have a win-lose mentality. Nothing else matters except the final score on the scoreboard. Leaders value results just as much as bosses, but they don’t sacrifice their people in order to achieve them. Leaders know people are the path to results and they treat them as valuable resources needed to accomplish the mission.
Bosses are concerned with looking good / Leaders are concerned with giving credit to others — You’ll often hear bosses use “I” or “me” language when describing their team’s accomplishments. They like the spotlight and aren’t afraid to take the credit for their team’s performance. Leaders are the opposite. You’ll hear them say “we” and “us” when referring to the team’s achievements. They deflect the spotlight and shine it on their team members instead.
Bosses push people / Leaders lead — It sounds rather simplistic but it’s true. Bosses stand behind the team, barking out instructions and pushing them to move forward. Bosses say “Do as I say.” Leaders are out front saying “follow me” as they work together with their team members to achieve the goal. Leaders say “Do as I do.”
Bosses inspire fear / Leaders cultivate trust — Bosses manage through fear and coercion. If you don’t do what the boss requires then you know some form of punishment will ensue. Leaders inspire trust. They grant people appropriate levels of autonomy and authority and let them do their jobs. If mistakes happen, they treat them as learning moments and coach team members to higher performance. Leaders establish an environment of trust and safety.
If you found yourself identifying more with the characteristics of a boss instead of a leader, don’t lose heart because you can change. It will take time and intentional effort, but you can make the transition. Seek out leadership training opportunities, find a mentor, and learning from others are all ways to get started. Being bossed around as a kid wasn’t a pleasant experience and it’s even worse as an adult in the workplace. We need less bosses and more leaders.
I recently spent time at Alcatraz…as a tourist, of course. The old federal penitentiary hasn’t housed prisoners since 1963. As a history nerd it was fascinating to walk the same halls as some of the world’s most famous criminals like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the “birdman” of Alcatraz.
Some of the prison cell doors are open so you can walk inside and get a sense for what it must have felt like to be confined in such a small space. The cells are five feet wide, seven feet tall, and nine feet long. I could reach my arms out to the side and place my palms on the walls of the cell. The concrete walls hold the frigid chill of the San Francisco Bay and the steel doors are hard and unforgiving. It’s difficult to imagine what it must have felt like to be confined in such a small space for hours on end, day after day, year after year.
Prison cells aren’t just concrete rooms with steel doors; they can be rooms of our own making.(click to tweet) All of us, in various areas of our lives, have constructed cells that imprison us and constrain our ability to experience true freedom and joy.
In the realm of leadership, some of us are career criminals doing hard time and the only life we know is within the four walls of our prison cell. These leaders are guilty of crimes like wielding power as a weapon, hoarding information, sucking up to the hierarchy, micromanaging, breaking trust, playing politics, and over-reliance on command and control styles of leadership. Most of us leaders aren’t hardened criminals serving a life sentence, but we dabble in our share of petty theft that puts us behind bars from time to time.
There are ways you can escape from the prison of ineffective leadership practices, but it takes planning, patience, and perseverance. You didn’t build those walls overnight and it’s going to take time to tunnel your way out. Here are four steps to break out of your leadership prison cell:
Discover Your Leadership Purpose
Why do you lead? Answer that question and you’ve discovered your leadership purpose. Discovering your leadership purpose is an introspective process that takes time and effort, but the result is an internal clarity and drive that inspires and fuels your work as a leader.
The process for discovering your leadership purpose begins with reflecting on your own leadership role models. How did those people influence you? What about the way they led others inspired you? What did you learn from them and how do you display that in your own leadership style? Second, how does your leadership connect with your larger life purpose? Do you see your role as a leader integrated with your overall life purpose? Are you clear on your greatest strengths and how you can use them to positively impact the world around you? Third, what is the legacy you want to leave? How do you want to be remembered for the way you influenced those you lead?
As you wrestle with these tough questions, you’ll eventually gain insight into your leadership purpose. Writing a simple purpose statement will help crystallize your thoughts and provide a reminder of why you do what you do as a leader. Do an internet search for “writing a personal mission statement” and you’ll find dozens of excellent resources and templates. As an example, my purpose statement isTo use my gifts and abilities to be a servant leader and a model of God’s grace and truth.
Define Your Leadership Values
Leadership is an influence process. As a leader you are trying to influence others to believe in certain things and act in specific ways. How can you do that if you aren’t clear on your own values? What drives your own behaviors? You have to be clear on that before you can expect to influence others…at least in a positive way.
In the absence of clearly defined values, I believe people tend to default to the more base, self-centered values we all possess: self-preservation, survival, ego, power, position. As an example, my core values are trust, authenticity, and respect. I look to those values to guide my interactions with others. Just as river banks channel and direct the flow of rushing water, so values direct our behaviors. What is a river without banks? A large puddle. Our leadership effectiveness is diffused without values to guide its efforts.
Declare Your Leadership Brand
Your brand image is not only how people perceive you (your reputation), but also what differentiates you from everyone else in your company. When your colleagues and team members think of you, what is it that comes to their minds?
Tom Peters, the guru of personal branding, says, “If you are going to be a brand, you’ve got to become relentlessly focused on what you do that adds value, what you’re proud of, and most important, what you can shamelessly take credit for.” Now, I’m not into shamelessly bragging about personal accomplishments, but I do think it’s important, and possible, to tactfully and appropriately share your successes.
Forget your job title. What is it about your performance as a leader that makes you memorable, distinct, or unique? What’s the “buzz” on you? Forget about your job description too. What accomplishments are you most proud of? How have you gone above, beyond, or outside the scope of your job description to add value to your organization? Those are the elements that make up your brand.
Deliver on Your Leadership Promise
If you’ve ever removed the cardboard sleeve on a Starbucks coffee cup, you may have noticed this statement printed on the side of the cup:
Our Barista Promise
Love your beverage or let us know. We’ll always make it right.
My experience with Starbucks is they live that promise. Whenever I’ve not been satisfied with my drink, they’ve always made it right.
Your leadership promise is the combination of your purpose, values, and brand. It’s who your people expect you to be as a leader and it’s how they expect you to behave. Whether you’ve articulated your leadership purpose, values, and brand to your people or not (which I strongly advocate you do), they have ascribed a leadership promise to you based on your past behavior. You are setting yourself up to break trust with your followers if their perception of your leadership promise doesn’t align with your own.
Escape from Alcatraz
It was simple for me to leave the island when my time was done on Alcatraz; I boarded the ferry and rode across the bay to San Francisco. It wasn’t nearly as easy for the prisoners who once called Alcatraz home. Likewise, it won’t be easy for you to escape your self-constructed prison cell of dysfunctional leadership practices, but it is doable with intentional focus and effort. Discovering your leadership purpose will direct your energies, clarifying your values will guide your activities, declaring your brand will let others know what you stand for, and delivering on your leadership promise will hold you accountable to being the leader you aspire to be and the leader your people need and deserve.
Addressing poor performance with an employee presents a leader with a “moment of trust” – an opportunity to either build or erode trust in the relationship. If you handle the situation with competence and care, the level of trust in your relationship can take a leap forward. Fumble the opportunity and you can expect to lose trust and confidence in your leadership.
Now, I’m the first to admit that having a discussion about an employee’s failing performance is probably the last thing I want to do as a leader. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for both parties involved. I mean, come on, no one likes to hear they aren’t doing a good job. But the way in which the feedback and coaching is delivered can make a huge difference. The key is to have a plan and process to follow. The following steps can help you capitalize on the moment of trust and get an employee’s performance back on track.
1. Prepare – Before you have the performance discussion, you need to make sure you’re prepared. Collect the facts or data that support your assessment of the employee’s low performance. Be sure to analyze the problem by asking yourself questions like:
Was the goal clear?
Was the right training, tools, and resources provided?
Did I provide the right leadership style?
Did the employee receive coaching and feedback along the way?
Was the employee motivated and confident to achieve the goal?
Did the employee have any personal problems that impacted performance?
2. Describe the problem – State the purpose and ground rules of the meeting. It could sound something like “Susan, I’d like to talk to you about the problem you’re having with the defect rate of your widgets. I’ll give you my take on the problem and then I’d like to hear your perspective.”
Be specific in describing the problem, using the data you’ve collected or the behaviors you’ve observed. Illustrate the gap in performance by explaining what the performance or behavior should be and state what you want to happen now. It could sound something like “In the last week your defect rate has been 18% instead of your normal 10% or less. As I look at all the variables of the situation, I realize you’ve had some new people working on the line, and in a few instances, you haven’t had the necessary replacement parts you’ve needed. Obviously we need to get your rate back under 10%.”
3. Explore and acknowledge their viewpoint – This step involves you soliciting the input of the employee to get their perspective on the cause of the performance problem. Despite the information you’ve collected, you may learn something new about what could be causing or contributing to the decline in performance. Depending on the employee’s attitude, you may need to be prepared for defensiveness or excuses about the performance gap. Keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand and solicit the employee’s ideas for solving the problem.
4. Summarize the problem and causes – Identify points of disagreement that may exist, but try to emphasize the areas of agreement between you and the employee. When you’ve summarized the problem and main causes, ask if the two of you have enough agreement to move to problem solving. It could sound something like “Susan, we both agree that we need to get your defect rate to 10% or below and that you’ve had a few obstacles in your way like new people on the line and occasionally missing replacement parts. Where we see things differently is that I believe you don’t always have your paperwork, parts, and tools organized in advance the way you used to. While we don’t see the problem exactly the same, are we close enough to work on a solution?”
5. Problem solve for the solution – Once you’ve completed step four, you can then problem solve for specific solutions to close the performance gap. Depending on the employee’s level of competence and commitment on the goal or task, you may need to use more or less direction or support to help guide the problem solving process. The outcome of the problem solving process should be specific goals, actions, or strategies that you and/or the employee will put in place to address the performance problem. Set a schedule for checking in on the employee’s progress and be sure to thank them and express a desire for the performance to improve.
A moment of trust is a precious occurrence that you don’t want to waste. Using this five step process can help you address an employee’s poor performance with candor and care that will leave the employee knowing that you respect their dignity, value their contributions, and have their best interests at heart. That can’t help but build trust in the relationship.
I have to admit, it’s easy for me not to notice. I get focused on my own goals and priorities and everything else around me seems to fade from view. That focused attention is a good thing when I need to meet a deadline or accomplish an important task, but when it comes to leading people, it’s a deadly mistake. I can get so wrapped up in my own agenda that I neglect to notice the needs of my team members.
I know I’m not alone here. Many people fall into the same trap because they think that’s what leaders are supposed to do. Make decisions, be in lots of meetings, and wear our busyness like a badge of courage. Let me be the first to break the news to you—that’s not how you should lead. Great leaders make time for their people because they know a leader’s best ability is availability. (click to tweet)
You may not think being a good “noticer” is important but I’d argue otherwise. I think it’s one of the top priorities for leaders because it makes you other-focused rather than self-focused.
Being a good noticer builds morale. Being valued, understood, and appreciated is a basic human need, but unfortunately, too many leaders forget their people are actually human. They view people as utilitarian resources performing a specific job function and treat them as interchangeable parts. But taking time to notice people lifts their spirits. A well-timed praising, note of thanks, or even just a personal conversation can turn around a person’s day.
Noticing people also builds trust. It shows your people that you care about them as individuals and not just as workers showing up to do a job. Everyone has a story and good leaders take the time to learn the stories of their team members. I’m not talking about hugging everyone and singing Kumbaya, but simply building relationships. Asking about their kids, getting their input on new ideas, or eating lunch in the break room with your team members every once in a while. With the trust of your team you can reach new heights, but without it you’re dead in the water.
Finally, noticing others keeps your leadership on course because you’re in tune with the needs of your team. The higher up leaders move in the organization the easier it is to get disconnected from the realities of life on the front line. Being a good noticer means you have to stay engaged with your team. It means you are familiar with the good, the bad, and the ugly of what your team has to deal with daily. That allows you to make leadership decisions based on what’s really going on versus what you think is going on.
So I challenge you to make a commitment this week. Take 5 minutes each day to pause, consider your team, and notice what’s going on around you. If you see a person doing a good job, tell him/her so. If you see someone struggling, ask if they need help. If one of your team members seems downcast, ask if they’d like to talk. It’s not that hard; it just takes a little time and effort.
Feel free to leave a comment this week to let me know what you noticed.