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3 practical ways to improve leader/staff engagement

April 18, 2016 Robin Camarote

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinion and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by consultant Robin Camarote, part of her series on modern leadership.

The first step in seeking out a better relationship with our leaders is to separate what’s about you and what’s about them—and sadly, a lot of what we see our leaders do is about them.

How can you tell?

• Public temper tantrums, negative rants, biting or sarcastic asides, and exasperated speeches—are about them. This is the show poor leaders put on. Leaders who let their contempt show publicly figure it’s more efficient to get their message of power and control to a larger number of people. In contrast, good leaders initiate calm, private conversations and provide the opportunity for back-and-forth dialogue. These conversations are worth listening to, even if your boss is awkward in initiating the conversation or stumbles to find the right words.

• Advice that boils down to “just be more like me” is about them and should be filtered before taking it to heart. Great leaders seek to bring out the individual strengths of each person and don’t attempt to replicate their own perceived strengths (which can be grossly distorted) in others.

• Veiled negativity coming from the top is about them. Seeing these patterns can be tricky, but they are often found in the space between the company policy (or the law) and how employees are subtly encouraged by their managers to get work done. Leaders at the top are saying the right words in meetings, but they are getting the message out in other ways that compliance with the rules or laws is bad for business. This more generalized negativity is relayed down through the hierarchy of managers and should be recognized as a big red flag.

• Feedback on how your approach isn’t producing results is about you. Even when the talk is tough to hear because the delivery is awkward or unpolished (or even has a tinge of frustration), feedback about your performance is about you. This is especially true when it’s provided in a timely manner in private and is specific to the issues. As difficult as these conversations can be, feedback is absolutely critical to career survival and, ultimately, to your raging success. I know firsthand how hard it is in the moment to see “fix this” directives as the gift that they are. Dismiss or diminish these conversations at your own risk.

The second step is to recognize just how toxic leadership contempt can be to leader–follower relationships—and to organizations as a whole. Such contempt, and the attitude that it’s “us against them,” can spread quickly within organizations. Attitudes are passed around in every conversation and shape how people think about the issues and what options are on the table to solve problems.

Can contemptuous leaders change? Of course, but they have to want to. They have to want to see the damage to morale and the real, bottomline business costs caused by turn-over and opportunities missed because the staff was too discouraged, distracted or defensive to pursue new work.

Once a leader has decided to change, a world of options opens from leadership training on improving emotional intelligence to effective time management and delegation to crafting inspiring speeches.

However, undoing past damage and preventing future staff loss comes down to the leader growing a sense of empathy that eventually crowds out their negative tendencies. Specifically, get well plans include:

1. Read more. Starting with biographies of past leaders, getting a more in-depth understanding of how respected leaders think can start to sink in.

2. Forget the golden rule. Many of us “grew up” professionally in very different times. Because something was common practice years ago doesn’t make it the right or best way. Further, just because a leader doesn’t believe they’d mind having a specific negative behavior inflected on themselves, doesn’t make it ok to turn around to do it to someone else. Great leaders hold themselves to a higher standard.

3. Turn the tables. It can be helpful in the moment to imagine the person across the table is one’s own child or parent or a dear friend. Trying to see each person’s humanity and inherent value is critical.

Great leaders continually examine their attitudes about staff, competitors, and the business and fix the unproductive ones before they infect the business. One of the greatest opportunities afforded to leaders is the chance to decide in advance what they want their legacy to be. Each of us has the chance each day to lead with contempt or lead with consideration and appreciation.

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