Even at the most senior levels, it can be awkward and uncomfortable to manage people. Maybe you don’t understand them or maybe they don’t understand you. In any case, they aren’t doing the things you expect them to do, and when you give them critical feedback they’re clearly miffed or demoralized — you’re left feeling frustrated and a little exasperated.
If your leadership style is all about directives and delegation — in other words, all down, down, down — it’s actually hard to get people’s best work unless everything is going extraordinarily well — which, often, it isn’t. Many employees will feel intimidated, make more mistakes, or suppress their own creativity or even their own thinking — except when they need to get around you to avoid disruption or pain.
Leaders who draw that kind of reaction from their staff usually wind up with a mixed reputation by the end of their careers — even if their businesses are successful. These types are micromanagers of the highest order who rarely incorporate their followers’ thinking, recommendations, or needs. Instead, they follow their own lights to the end — even if the end might turn out badly. Some famous examples of this type of leader are “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, Leona Helmsley, Steve Jobs, and Martha Stewart.
Good Leaders Help Their People Manage Up
In most organizations, effectiveness operates on a two-way street. Most businesses are too complicated to be successful in the long term if they’re being guided by only one person’s thinking. Barring actual leadership genius — and, sometimes, even then — there has to be at least a shared level of understanding between the leaders and the led about how to interact and get things done.
So if you want your employees to learn and grow, you have to give them the room, space, and bandwidth to experiment and communicate to you about it. (See How to Help Your Employees Learn Self-Reliance.) You also need to communicate your views with candor and clarity to help them work in ways that work for you. (See How “Clear and Compelling” Outdoes “Nice and Neutral.”)
What definitely doesn’t work is keeping people on edge — whether it’s intentional or unintentional. We’ve all known leaders who are indecipherable, who, when they’re reacting to a presentation or proposal, will shake their heads a bit, and say, “No, that’s not it,” and send it back. And when they look at the revisions, they’ll say, “No, that’s not it,” and send it back again. On the third try, they might say one specific thing: “It really needs to be a blue one.” But when the next draft comes back entirely blue, they’ll say, “Hmm, that’s just not it.”
While these leaders can’t understand how anyone could ever be so stupid as to turn the entire draft blue — after all, customers have never wanted things entirely blue before — their employees are left wondering why they’re being jerked around again. And again.
What Goes Down Must Come Up
Your staff will learn to accomplish the goals you’ve set for them after they discover how to interpret what you really mean from what you actually say and do. So take care to clarify your thinking until they recognize how you make decisions. Don’t expect them to make decisions the same way you do, necessarily, but make sure they understand how to present their recommendations and rationales to you.
Many employees may talk to you in the verbal equivalent of the titles in a PowerPoint presentation: just the top lines. But you might really want their background notes — or, in some cases, access to their original sources and data — so you can make your own analysis. Other employees want to tell you the exact details of every story when all you want to hear is the happy (or unhappy) ending and some options for the sequel. Coach them on the level of detail that will be persuasive to you — and let them know what your cues are for more or less information.
Emphasize what the checkpoints or milestones are so you can mutually verify progress and realign anew if somehow an individual or a project strays from the desired trajectory. And, under all circumstances, describe what you will identify as success in the endeavor, and how you’ll know it when you see it, so they’ll know with certainty what they’re aiming for.
Onward and upward,