It’s really hard to be a leader right now. Declining budgets, scarcity of resources, bid wars, change fatigue and demoralized employees make it hard to stay motivated to get the daily tasks done – much less champion growth and innovation. And in this mess, we often find ourselves one step (or less) away from joining the water-cooler grumbling – the blame and leader-bashing prevalent in unhealthy organizational cultures.
And it’s easy to go from there down the proverbial slippery slope to an “us” vs. “them” mentality.
You fail to lead when you fail to own it.
When you choose leadership, you choose to be “them.” Every time you undermine the organization or your leaders, you undermine your own authority.
This does not mean drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid or blindly following every new initiative without speaking up. As a leader, it is your responsibility – your moral imperative – to speak up and share your insights with your senior leadership. You know your group better – and see the potential impacts of changes more clearly – than those further up the chain.
But it does mean that once you have said your piece and the decision has been made, you have to own the decision. And share that decision with employees as your own. It is critically important to understand what you can and cannot say about the decision – and as I said in Part 1 of this blog series, you need to communicate in language everyone will understand.
That’s not to say you can’t show empathy, but you must be careful to walk the line between empathetically supporting your team and taking their side in an argument already lost.
You are the voice of the employees you lead.
Allow them to vent – it’s part of the process – then help them move forward by focusing on the future and the things they can control. Suppose, for example, that your already under-resourced team has been told it will lose another member. You (rightly) push back against this decision, detailing the impacts to the team and the work, but you are overruled.
When you talk to the team, it’s okay to say things like, “I know this is hard…I understand this will increase your already heavy workload…I’ll be picking up some of the slack myself,” but it’s important to balance that by explaining as much as you can about why the change occurred. Something like, “Resources are limited across the company, and the other project has a tighter deadline…”
Transparency does not equal full disclosure.
Before saying anything to your team, get clarity from your leadership about what you’re allowed to say. Confidential details and dirty laundry (no matter how enticing) have no business being shared and will only erode your team’s trust in you. It may feel like you’re bringing them into your confidence, but you’re actually showing them that you break the confidences of others. They’ll think twice before sharing with you in the future.
In an ideal situation, you’ll be able to explain the reasons why the change has to happen. This may not lessen the impact but it can go a long way toward maintaining or even strengthening the level of trust. Again, plain language is key. You have to use real words that don’t sound like a cover-up if you want to build and maintain trust.
“But I don’t want to be one those guys”
I hear this all the time from clients who want to fully step into their leadership roles but struggle with having to disseminate news and direction they don’t agree with. And more importantly to most of them, their teams aren’t happy, and they don’t want to be on the side of the villains. It’s a tough spot, but here’s the bottom line: either be the leader you’ve agreed to be or step down.
If your objections are because what you’re seeing is illegal, unethical, discriminatory or truly harmful, you have an obligation to do something about it.
But if your objections are philosophical (e.g. you disagree with the leader’s vision or believe leadership is making bad decisions about the direction of the organization), you have a decision to make.
Help them focus on what they can control.
In our work lives (much like real life), we often find ourselves in control of far fewer variables than is comfortable. There is a common myth that this issue disappears at the top of the organizational ladder, but the CEO’s struggle for autonomy is no less than at other levels. At the top level, control may not be shared with a boss, but the board, the bank, the market, the government, the competition and even the employees all have their share of control.
So at any level, rather than focusing on the feeling of disempowerment, it’s most useful to help your team focus on what they can do going forward. And get them focused on details – what they can do. In a case of tighter resources, you can have them document the impacts so that you have metrics to appeal your case again later. If it’s the move to a new system (which often causes a disproportionate amount of consternation), see if you can give them some relief for their level of production as they get up to speed and have them document their challenges along the way.
Empower them to take the lead on how the change is implemented within your group and give them a say where you can. The more empowered they feel, the more buy-in you’ll get.
It’s not about you or your fiefdom.
Remind team members (and yourself) that the goal isn’t the success of your particular stovepipe but rather the success of the organization. That can be easy to overlook, especially when change causes your group pain, with no hint of reward.
Make the connection for your team and align their goals – and those things on which they are rated – more closely with that of the organization. Encourage your senior leaders to praise and reward the team for their part in making the overall organization successful.
Bottom line: to lead your team, you have to find the balance between organizational, team and individual priorities. And when you open your mouth, remember who you represent (hint: it’s all of those constituencies), so don’t speak unless you’re fully prepared to own what you say.
This is Part 2 of the “Leaders – Just. Be. Real.” blog series. Check out Part 1, Leaders – Just Be. Real. Use real words.
Carol Robert is a coach, instructor and organizational culture change agent. Her workshops, coaching and hands-on organizational interventions have helped hundreds shift their behavior to find success in their work and more joy in their lives.