WARNING: Another leadership life hack article? Curious Reader, rest assured, I write this with you in mind. Be quick. To the point. Elegant and enjoyable. Like a tiny overpriced beverage that your friend gave you for free! Let’s begin by processing that 50% of employees quit their job because of their managers (according to Gallup). This stuff is important, and I like to think that we can do better than a coin flip after a couple hundred thousand years of modern humanity, but who’s counting? To improve the odds, cross three no-no’s off your naughty list, and make three leadership resolutions for the new year. It’s like the opposite of Y2K. Come on, Y2K21!
Not to do:
This is numero uno. In Edelman’s Trust Barometer for 2013, less than one in five respondents believed a business or governmental leader would actually tell the truth when confronted with a difficult issue. Not good. In Edelman’s 2020 global report, 66% of respondents did not have confidence that current leaders would be able to successfully address their country’s challenges. Still not good.
Lying includes being unreliable (not doing what you said you would do) and/or hypocritical (being critical of others while claiming that you meet a higher standard, when everyone knows you don’t). These are two softer ways to lie, but they represent dishonest leadership nonetheless. Dishonest leadership is a fast way to lose followers, and eventually a position of leadership.
Use shame and sarcasm
As a student teacher, I learned that sarcasm is the killer of relationships. Shame does that too, but it also reaches farther than the relationship and destroys people as well. Speaking of teaching, consider this analysis of classroom management:
It is not unusual to see practicing teachers who want to hang on to the old, comfortable classroom management techniques because they “work,” even though they may not be appropriate. Many things work; this does not mean they are necessarily appropriate. Extra work given as punishment, writing “lines,” and teacher sarcasm are all examples of interventions that may “work” in that they temporarily stop the behavior but are never appropriate. (Martin, 1997)
I love this reminder. Leaders need to rise above their anecdotal evidence of “working” strategies (like sarcasm and shame). The science is out there — fun fact: 80% of people trusted scientists to address problems in the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer. Add the work of Brené Brown to the mix, and it’s hard to keep advocating for the beneficial effects of sarcasm and shame: “Shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure” (2013).
Speak to nobody
How does one speak to nobody? Let’s start by acknowledging the sad finding that the number one quality leaders lack is good communication (as high as 91% of employees say so in some studies). But I try to communicate and they just don’t listen! Sorry. Not going to cut it. Leaders need to do better.
Here’s one quick question to ask yourself: Am I talking to nobody, or somebody? Everyone has been in that meeting where the head cheese is going on and on about the cheese’s gratitude for the team’s work. Believe me when I say this, I’m just so grateful for all you do. Well, the truth is, people don’t believe vacuous statements aimed at no one in particular. Leaders should speak to and about people — referencing their actual, tangible actions. People in the huddle hear specific praise and think, That’s right, everyone. I did that, and my boss knows it.
Leaders who aren’t sure if they are doing this well should ask for feedback. People will tell you, and then you can show if you are listening based on your response (as in what you do next, not what you say you will do). Or you can go ahead and keep talking to an amorphous blob and bathe in the overflowing disconnectedness.
Take the worst job and make it the best one
Eleanor Roosevelt said it well: “It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.” This is quick and dirty (sometimes in the literal sense), but effective. Scan the room, survey the scene, and figure out what the least desirable job is, the job that everyone is waiting for someone else to do, or the one that gets passed off to the rookie with an all-in-good-fun pat on the back (OK, if we’re being honest, that is a little bit fun in moderation). Then, make that the absolute best job of the bunch. Make it so everyone else wants to do it. Do it with a smile. Maybe sing a little tune. Whatever you do, do it well and with style, leaving everyone else appreciating your positivity and willingness to help. As long as you don’t tell everyone to appreciate you.
Disclaimer: Don’t belittle or humiliate someone in your effort to do the least desirable job or leave behind more work in your wake. You may be well-intentioned, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Noble deeds can backfire big time. Example: You surprise the cafeteria staff by stepping into the line and serving food. You are having the greatest time, chatting people up, making a meal of it (no cringey pun intended haha). Meanwhile, the replaced person is standing in the background with nothing to do, feeling anxious about the slow service and building line, their onlooking supervisor who already thinks they are lacking that “x-factor,” and your decision not to wear sanitary gloves while serving food during a pandemic. Sugar plums.
Give everyone a brush
Think of the product a team produces as a painting, a masterpiece. Bad leaders have everyone stand behind them holding paint (unless you managed to find a whole bunch of passionate paint holders). Good leaders, and courageous ones, give everyone a brush. The size of the brush and the amount of paint everyone gets may differ depending on their work ethic and competency, but everyone needs something to call their own. Everyone needs a little freedom.
It’s as basic as Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. People have esteem needs, the need of accomplishment, and as many as 79% of employees who quit their jobs claim that a lack of appreciation was a major reason for leaving. Here’s another opportunity to speak to somebody instead of nobody, by appreciating someone’s contributions to the team.
Now, back to brushes and painting analogies. If you have a picture in mind for your product and need it to turn out perfect, you may want to consider being a solo artist. If you want to lead a team and have good culture, then you steward the idea of how the painting should turn out, give everyone their brush and supplies, and empower others to produce a masterpiece. It won’t look exactly the way you pictured it, and that’s fine. It might actually look better than you could have ever imagined. You’ll also have a bunch of inspired admirers ready for the next project, rather than a sulking group thinking, I don’t get it. Next please.
Oh, and people like freedom. It’s why they stick around.
Establish a feel-good correlation
When offering advice to leaders in training at summer camp, I used to talk about establishing a fun-correlation. In short, if you convince kids that following your lead is fun and beneficial, then you’ll have buy in from the group and few cases of outright rebellion. As one of my best camp friends would say, “If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing your job.”
Nowadays, I call it the feel-good correlation, because fun on its own can be misleading. For the fun to be legit, you need to meet other critical human needs: physiological, safety and security, belonging and love, self-esteem, and self-actualization (thanks again, Maslow). The most essential needs come first. Fun in the absence of human needs is possible, but not sustainable. In the case of someone acting out, what looks like fun may be a cover or a cry for help.
Updated correlation: Buying into the community standards and expectations will meet my human needs and yield purpose and joy. If you establish this correlation — assuming your standards and expectations are just — you’ll have great culture.
Culture. Talk about a vacuous word, yet, an important one. Consider this from Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in “What Science Tells Us About Leadership Potential”:
Culture is key because it drives employee engagement and performance. However, culture isn’t the cause of leadership so much as the result of it. Thus leaders create the explicit and implicit rules of interaction for organizational members, and these rules affect morale and productivity levels. When people’s values are closely aligned with the values of the organization (and leadership), they will experience higher levels of fit and purpose. (2016)
Organizational culture is not coincidence. It is a product of thoughtful and caring hands. A feel-good correlation comes with standards and rules so that bad apples can’t corrupt the growth of the tree. Leaders should not take good culture for granted. Values erode and become unaligned without fastidious caretaking of expectations and norms.