All Articles Leadership Management Leaders: Are employees creating or in coping mode? How to tell

Leaders: Are employees creating or in coping mode? How to tell

How leaders behave will generate team creativity or send people into coping mode. Learn what behaviors matter and how to get the feedback you really need.

8 min read


Image for the post "Leaders: Are employees creating or in coping mode? How to tell"

unDraw/SmartBrief illustration

An important barometer of your effectiveness as a leader is assessing whether your employees spend most of their time in coping mode or creating with you.

If polled, I’m sure most bosses would select “creating,” yet, in many instances, the reality is very different. The top issues I encounter in workshops and coaching sessions are less about performance, development and scaling success and more about surviving and coping in the boss’s world.

Note to bosses everywhere: That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

When people focus more on coping than creating, everyone’s energy, morale and results suffer. In this article, I point to some of the big bad habits that bosses display to push employees into coping mode and offer ideas for bosses everywhere to get more feedback on themselves.

It turns out that we all need help seeing ourselves as others do to determine when our behaviors are hindering the creative work of problem-solving and innovating.

3 big ways bosses push people into coping mode

1. Everything is a top priority

Everything cannot be a top priority, yet it’s common to find too many projects chasing too few resources in many settings.

When I dig into these situations, there’s almost always one significant boss-caused factor at work: the absence of a clear strategy. When the strategy is vague or non-existent and supporting goals invisible or abstract, the ability to filter ideas and say “No” breaks down.

The “undisciplined pursuit of more” emerges, as senior managers either flail to figure out how to support the organization’s direction or say “Yes” to everything that might enhance their standing.

Your daily work to clarify strategy and help everyone tie their priorities to critical personal and organizational goals is priceless. Give your team members proper context for their work and help them realize a solid connection to it. Then, the creativity floodgates will open and ideas pour forth.

2. Stifling initiative and blocking ideas

I would love to believe in a world containing an endless supply of leadership books, articles and programs that micromanaging would be relegated to a footnote. Sadly, rumors of micromanaging’s demise are untrue.

I regularly encounter senior managers — managers of managers — who are stuck trying to cope in their boss’s world. Micromanaging takes on a different complexion at higher levels. It’s more oppressive than the stereotypical supervisor constantly looking over an employee’s shoulder.

Consider these examples:

  • In one situation, a senior leader constantly shut down an experienced middle manager hungry to help eliminate bottlenecks and inefficiencies. “That’s not our problem to fix” is his favorite phrase, she offered.
  • In another environment, the big boss “comes unglued” in the words of a team member when his employees stray across functional boundaries and engage or collaborate with people from other areas. When it is required for his managers to work across functions, attendance at the practice session to script responses is mandatory.
  • In yet another example, employees describe their one-on-ones with their senior leader as a nonstop justification of their priority lists. “There’s no problem-solving, coaching or idea-sharing going on in these sessions,” offered a senior contributor. “The focus is all on justifying why we are doing what we are doing,” he added.

While I wish those examples of stifling creativity and initiative were rare, they’re not. The need to “control the message” and script interactions and not engage in the broader organization puts people in a coping mode where nothing productive or innovative happens.

3. Generating skip-level interference

This one is just irritating. I’m describing the boss who regularly jumps down a level to engage with their manager’s team members and either deliberately or inadvertently redirects work priorities. Regardless of whether this is a sin of omission or commission, it’s a problem for everyone involved.

One senior leader holds weekly one-on-ones with his manager’s directs without involving the manager. This behavior is a combination of silly, dumb and stupid. It’s also just plain destructive for trust. This disenfranchised manager had no idea what she was getting into joining this organization and is stuck in coping mode every day.

Another senior leader reorders work priorities with a manager’s reports as he practices management by walking around. The manager has learned to check in with team members after the big boss has been out for a stroll to gauge what might have been added, deleted or reprioritized with the team.

Directly interfering with the work of the people you’ve appointed as managers is guaranteed to stifle initiative and keep them squarely in the coping stage with you.

Team working creatively together
undraw/SmartBrief illustration

But wait, there’s more!

One of the most-read posts last year here at SmartBrief on Leadership was my article “Resolve to Stop Doing These Things as a Leader.” In this article, I point to seven additional behaviors that step all over and stifle the creativity and engagement of your direct reports.

I encourage you to spend a few minutes and reflect on whether some of these behaviors are part of your repertoire. And while you might be quick to deny them, your opinion on your behaviors and practices doesn’t count. Your effectiveness is best gauged via the eyes and minds of those who report to you.

How to gain quality input on you

One of the challenges senior leaders struggle with is a shortage of quality feedback. It’s either nonexistent or ridiculously softened and filtered as to be meaningless.

And, before you suggest your 360-degree system — if you have one — gives you enough of what you need to know about you, I beg to differ. You need near-real-time input from people who trust you enough to tell you when your behaviors are shoving people into coping mode.

Get help from a swim buddy to thin-slice behavior

In an article from 2018, I offer guidance for leaders to cultivate “swim buddy” relationships with individuals who will help them identify and dissect individual behaviors — the thin slice — and identify strategies to eliminate or improve them.

My swim buddies have saved me from myself numerous times—or at least allowed me to redeem myself. From the nervous tic of constantly drinking water in a tense board meeting to feeling a bit too full of myself and showing it during staff meetings, my swim buddies dared to metaphorically club me over the head and help me see myself in situ.

Armed with their fast, blunt input, I took corrective action that moved me out of jerk mode and back into acting as the leader I aspired to be.

You can stack up all of the feedback surveys and 360-degree reviews you’ll receive in your career, and the insights will pale in comparison to developing a trusting relationship with someone who can help you hit the brakes when the wrong part of you shines through in your behaviors.

Find a swim buddy today.

Ask people to hold you accountable

There’s something powerful about putting yourself out there and explaining to the people around you who you are as a leader and how you aspire to impact them in your relationship. Invest time thinking through who you are as a leader and what behaviors you commit to bring to every day, situation, and encounter.

Of course, the key is having both the humility and self-confidence to ask people to hold you accountable to your aspirational self.

How willing are you to put yourself out there and let them hold you accountable for being you at your best? Do this, and watch the creative floodgates open wide across your team.

Fix your team’s feedback culture

One of the reasons feedback is in short supply or just poor quality in most environments is the failure of leaders to ensure the need and obligation to give and receive quality feedback as a price of admission.

There’s a universal need to receive input on behaviors that support or detract from the pursuit of high performance, yet what should keep most leaders awake at night is all the conversations that aren’t taking place on teams or inside organizations.

Don’t leave the critical conversations on challenging topics to chance. Teach your team members the importance of feedback. Teach them how to give quality behavioral input. Evaluate them against it, and most importantly, model great behaviors of feedback giving and receiving. Do all of this, and you will increase the quality input on you!

The bottom line

The cartoonist Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, nailed it a long time ago with his character’s famous saying: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Why so many in leadership roles missed this memo and remain emotionally clueless about their behaviors is a bigger question for another day. For now, strive to control yourself. Adopt behaviors that push people to think and create. Identify and eliminate those behaviors that keep them in coping mode. And redouble your efforts to gain quality feedback on you.

Do all of this and you’ll enjoy the benefits of a creative, engaged team that doesn’t go into coping mode.

Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

If you liked this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free email newsletter on leadership. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.