Emily was younger than many of the people she managed, and she sometimes felt ignored and dismissed as a leader. Despite her frustration, she wanted to remain open minded and show her desire to learn from the experience of others.
She came to our call one morning, seething. “This morning I noticed that we were past start time for a presentation and our audience was waiting. I mentioned to our presenter that it was time to get started, but she just ignored me and continued to have a casual conversation with someone else. She finally stepped up to the podium 5 minutes later. I can’t believe she would ignore and disrespect me like that, but even worse – the audience saw her casually chatting when we were well past time. I was embarrassed at the lack of professionalism and frustrated by her behavior. However, I didn’t want to confront her in front of our customers, so I bit my tongue.”
As we continued to talk, I asked Emily how often these situations happened, and how she usually handled them.
“My normal reaction to push-back is to provide information to help explain my decisions. I find it helps people get onboard, and if they have counter-suggestions for ways to manage the situation, I’m open to using those or letting them know I can push their ideas up the chain of command if it’s appropriate. This type of conversation creates mutual respect and engagement, and team feedback helps our program innovate.
However, I increasingly find myself simply smoothing things over in public, because we have become very busy and we are often talking in the open, where customers may overhear us. In these cases, I often handle things in a few different ways. Sometimes I simply give in to my employee, and then handle the task myself. Other times, I let the issue go in the moment, and end up talking with the person later.”
It sounded like Emily was great at getting buy-in when she had time to gather feedback from her team, and to discuss the thinking behind decisions. But when situations required her to make decisions in public, or to make quick judgment calls, she didn’t have a strong enough presence and her team didn’t take her seriously.
I asked what she was most afraid of when she thought about asserting herself on these types of decisions, and she replied:
“I’m afraid egos will get hurt, and my team won’t like or respect me if they disagree with my decision. I also worry my delivery won’t be smooth enough to make everyone feel good about it. With the newer staff members, this isn’t as much of a concern. But with team members who are more senior in age, or in their tenure – enforcing a policy or decision can be a real challenge. These employees represent an inversion of normal social hierarchies, and I don’t want them to feel disrespected. My goal is always to create a positive and cooperative work environment, which respects all members.”
In our conversation we zeroed in on two things:
- Emily valued having a positive and cooperative work environment
- Emily wanted to be respected and taken seriously as a leader
Up to this point, these two values had been in conflict with each other, so Emily’s efforts to be strong were undermined by her concerns about keeping everyone on the team feeling good.
Once we identified Emily’s underlying values conflict, we now needed to bring both sides of the conflict to the table. Our question together was….
How could Emily be respected and taken seriously, while also cultivating a cooperative environment?
As part of this question, we also discussed boundaries in work relationships. I asked Emily who is responsible for a person’s thoughts, feelings and behavior? She acknowledged that this responsibility belongs to each employee. She then realized that she had been inadvertently taking responsibility for the feelings of those on her team, thus diminishing both her own power and theirs.
What Emily Did
We agreed that Emily would practice three strategies to change the dynamic:
- Set Clear Expectations – Continue communicating to her team: “I am always interested in your perspectives and experience and am opening to discussing anything that concerns you.” But Emily would now add, “However, when I ask something of you, I expect you to hear and honor my request.” Emily decided to write a list of expectations so she herself was clear on them, and then to make sure she often repeated these “ground rules” in her conversations with her team.
- Give Consistent Feedback – Using our feedback tool, we set Emily to the task of circling back to every issue and addressing it, even on a casual basis. Using our feedback script, Emily went back to the presenter she mentioned earlier and said:
“I noticed this morning that we started several minutes late, and I was wondering if you heard me when I mentioned this to you?” [No, I didn’t hear, and I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.] “I get that you don’t see a few minutes either way as a big issue. However, I was watching the audience and many of them were looking at their watches and watching you. While you may not have noticed the extra few minutes or the looks, people make judgments based on how long they are kept waiting. Starting on time can make a significant impact on the experience our customers have, and so I ask that you always begin on time. You can always let me know if there is a problem.” Emily then waited for the presenter to acknowledge this commitment before ending the conversation.
- Strengthen Personal Boundaries – As a leader, you are responsible for your own behavior, and you should definitely be compassionate and in tune with your team. But when you slip into trying to manage the feelings of your team members, you’ve crossed the line and you are not actually giving them the respect they deserve. When you have to say something that others might not take well, you can put boundaries in place, while still delivering your message in clear manner: 1) make sure you are using respectful language, 2) use neutral tone of voice, and 3) discuss facts and behaviors, and their relative impacts on the objective of the team. For example, “Starting on time provides a better customer experience than starting late” – rather than “Starting late is disrespectful”. Emily’s job was to take responsibility for how she communicated but allow that her team members may have reactions or disagree for a period of time. This approach allowed her to trust that her own leadership style of being open to ongoing conversation, would help people process potential negative responses faster and get on board.
Emily came into work over the next few weeks feeling relieved that she didn’t have to expend energy trying to anticipate and manage her team’s feelings. Being freed up in this way allowed her to be more at ease and to set the tone. She also recognized some key problem areas where she tended to get the most push-back from her team. This seemed to happen when they might be on the spot, whether in front of customers or during other high-pressure times.
Recognizing these problem spots, she decided to spend more up-front time in her program areas during these times, to set clearer expectations at the start, and provide more immediate and regular feedback, while remaining supportive. She praised the actions of team members who were running programs smoothly and highlighting successful actions in a positive way.
Emily also began experimenting with delivering constructive feedback in a clear, objective, and timely manner. Due to some strong personalities on the team, this proved to be the most challenging change to make. It’s still a work in progress, but Emily now knows that the first step is remembering to relax and feel confident in her own judgment and decisions, so that her delivery is effective. She also remains mindful that she cannot manage anyone’s feelings for them.
Setting clear expectations, giving consistent feedback, and having strong boundaries with your team conveys a confident energy, and builds the kind of presence that automatically garners respect. And none of these behaviors need to be at odds with a positive and cooperative environment.
In fact, they set the stage for a great mix of high performance and positive energy! But these skills take practice and time to master. If you would like coaching or support as you build your own strong leadership presence, don’t hesitate to contact Nahid and schedule a complimentary coaching consultation.