Workplace Wisdom

How to Use The Platinum Rule to Engage Employees

Remember Silvia, Ophelia, and Felix, from last week’s blog — the senior execs who were turning off members of their staffs? This post will show how we adjusted these execs’ behavior to match the realities of their staffs’ experiences. See if your view of the underlying through-line matches what really happened; to refresh your memory of the three sets of circumstances, review How 3 Leaders’ Mistakes Undermined Their Leadership.

Confidence Can Undermine Competence

Silvia, the optimistic vice president, had so much confidence in her subordinates that she abandoned one of them.

Remedy: Silvia took a more formal, structured approach with Elise until they both had new evidence of Elise’s competence and sense of security. Silvia invested in Elise’s development and success via a weekly phone call for a quick review of each of Elise’s areas of responsibilities. During these calls, Silvia checked for areas of concern, gave guidance on cultural norms, helped with contingency planning, and created a sense of shared decision-making.

Result: After six weeks, Elise felt more comfortable, and at the six-month point, she was stepping up more assertively and knowledgeably.

Collaboration vs. Clarity

Young, rapidly rising Ophelia worked so hard to include her staff’s input that some people thought of (and treated) her as weak and ineffectual.

Remedy: Ophelia began to make clear to her team when she was collecting information from them, asking for their general recommendations, conferring with them to strengthen her plans, or actually letting them make a decision.

It wasn’t productive for Ophelia to act as if she didn’t have a plan or know an answer when she actually did. Her staff couldn’t get comfortable just because she was being nice to them and treating them as equals; they felt safer when she was explicitly open-minded and interested in their views, and also clearly definitive about the difference between her responsibilities and theirs.

Result: Ophelia developed a more authoritative presence, and her staff started contributing more substantively in meetings. Some of the quieter people even began to emerge as staff leaders.

Can Micromanagement Be Managed?

Long-tenured Felix’s experience in the trenches and his strong desire to hit departmental targets had turned him into a micromanager.

Remedy: Felix wanted to have a staff that reflected well on him, so he understood that his people had to learn to function independently, even if that meant they’d make more mistakes. He began to describe his end goals and any absolute process requirements, but held himself back from detailing every single step he himself would take. He was also candid with his staff; he told them how hard it was for him to give them more leeway, and that they would make it easier for him to resist micromanaging if they volunteered more of the details of their processes to him. He committed to correcting errors only, not things that were merely different from his preferred way.

Result: Over time, Felix cut down on the frequency of his check-in meetings as he developed confidence that his staff would come to him with questions or blow the whistle if something was truly wrong. Individual members of his department complained less about his pickiness and started making better decisions in context.

The New Rule

Despite the real differences among these executives, here’s what worked in every case to reengage their staffs: (1) Communicating their goals with clarity and (2) learning to provide the level of direction and support that their staffs needed to be comfortable and to function well — not the amount that the execs themselves would have wanted.

The receiver’s perceptions — not the giver’s intentions — create the receiver’s reality. Any management philosophy, no matter how conceptually sound, must be checked by and against the real employees and how they react to it. A deeply-held philosophy may be the guiding force for an individual executive, but if it isn’t tempered by the realities of the situation, an exec’s strengths may manifest as weaknesses.

Here’s the takeaway: Sometimes the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is insufficient. Sometimes you need the Platinum Rule: Do unto them according to what they need.

Onward and upward,

LK

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