I have had the opportunity to coach a number of different leaders. Sometimes I am asked to observe how a leader interacts with their team members and then provide the leader with feedback about the impact of their behavior on the team. When I observe a lack of engagement in a leader’s meeting, I interview team members to discover the reasons for their lack of engagement in team meetings.
My observations have led me to identify a number of behaviors that can hurt a leader’s credibility with their team. I hope by sharing some common ways leaders undermine themselves, you can look for similarities that may be negatively impacting your leadership and make any needed course corrections.
1. “You can tell me anything!”
This statement is made to solicit input or feedback on a particular idea or course of action. However, sometimes leaders will completely discount the idea or opinion offered, especially if it’s something they don’t immediately agree with. They don’t take the time to honestly consider the proffered information or to understand the reasoning behind it. I have even observed leaders going so far as to label the idea as “stupid” or completely unacceptable. Shutting down the conversation so abruptly and negatively will not promote continued sharing of ideas. Rather, people will be so intimidated they will say little to nothing, or just tell you what they think you want to hear—correct or not. People will learn that there is a price to be paid for speaking up and may decide it’s just not worth it.
2. Don’t coerce support.
Sometimes in an attempt to win approval for an idea or decision, leaders will say something like, “I need you to support my position today in the meeting. You have to back me up!” Often there’s an implied, “Or else.” Such behavior destroys candor, honesty and team morale. Negative interactions such as these will permeate your environment, and people will end up doing what they are told rather than honestly participating, speaking up and offering ideas.
3. Give up the rescue mission.
Sometimes leaders feel like it is their duty to rescue or excuse the poor performance of certain people. If a leader is on a rescue mission, then they tend to intervene to “save” the same individuals repeatedly. This leads to others interpreting that the leader is playing favorites. While such attempts to help others who are continuously struggling may seem like a nice idea at first, this behavior does not establish clear parameters of responsibility and accountability for the offending party.
In addition to enabling the poor performance of the individual, constant rescuing also signals to others that they don’t matter or their poor performance will also be forgiven. Rescuing a few may lead to a loss of morale, trust and discretionary effort from others.
4. Solicitation implies action.
When a leader solicits ideas or solutions, it is implied that the leader will do something with the ideas or solutions that are provided. This doesn’t mean that a leader has to implement or take action on every idea that is offered, but it does require that the leader share what they might do and why. This reinforces the importance of contribution and collaboration. To solicit ideas or solutions and then do nothing signals to individuals that their ideas are not important. Do this, and it won’t be long before people quit speaking up or offering ideas.
5. Avoid manipulation.
I have seen leaders ask people for ideas and then use them as evidence that their original idea was the best idea. This ends up feeling like manipulation. If leaders ask for ideas, then they should be open to exploring those ideas. I have often wondered if the act of asking is used as a strategy to create respect. Then, perhaps, the increased respect will lead to the acceptance of the leader’s idea. Rather than soliciting ideas on a decision you’ve already made, it would be better to simply make a command decision, explain the rationale behind the idea and then move on.
6. Make a decision.
I once noticed that a leader I was coaching seemed to go out of his way to avoid making a decision. I confronted him about his inaction and asked him why he was so slow to move forward and commit. He responded with two words: “Plausible deniability.” He explained that his organization did not tolerate mistakes well so, from his perspective, it was better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. By stalling, however, this leader was undermining his leadership credibility through his inaction and causing a loss of respect from both his team and his superiors.
7. Pick the proper place to give feedback.
The proper place to give any kind of negative feedback is in private! Some leaders feel it is appropriate to give negative or critical feedback to a person in front of others. I have had some leaders say that they like giving feedback in this way because it is motivating to others. Such behavior strikes fear into the heart of any conscious team member who learns to dread interactions with them. Sharing negative or critical feedback in front of others is highly disrespectful and does not inspire candor or openness. In fact, it will likely cause people to keep bad news to themselves and hide their mistakes.
8. Be vulnerable.
Some leaders think that to express their doubts, thoughts or insecurities is a sign of weakness. Consequently, such a leader may be more guarded in their interactions with others. Employees who work with a guarded leader tend to feel disconnected, have a hard time relating to the leader, and may even mistrust them.
When I asked them why they feel this way, they said that, because they don’t know their leader well, they don’t know how she or he will react, leading them to be more hesitant, especially when sharing a difficulty or challenge. While it seems somewhat counterintuitive, showing some vulnerability as a leader will encourage others to be more candid with you, to share questions and concerns, and to feel more connected with you -- allowing you to have greater impact as a leader.
9. Recognize the repercussions of your behavior.
Sometimes I am asked to coach leaders who are oblivious about how their behavior affects others. This presents a real challenge. It is difficult for us to experience ourselves as others do — we all lack a degree of self-awareness. Effective leaders are great at soliciting feedback from others about what they do well and what they could improve. Doing so communicates to others that you are serious about being an effective leader, and you are willing to make changes to do so.
10. Keep your composure.
There is much to be said for keeping your composure when you are stressed out and everything seems to be going awry. Emotional intelligence is critical to being an effective leader. Losing your temper, calling people names, and using negative emotion to make a point will sabotage your credibility. Once you lose it, people timidly watch for the shoe to drop the next time that things don’t go as planned. They will struggle to trust and respect you. The next time you feel those “hot” emotions bubbling to the surface, remove yourself from the situation if at all possible and figure out how to calmly address the circumstances in a respectful way.
I believe that people are generally well-intended. However, seemingly small behaviors can negatively affect your leadership effectiveness. Take the time to candidly assess your leadership practices and make any needed changes, and you'll go a long way toward increasing your credibility and becoming the type of leader that people will respect and work hard for.
John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter.