The Perils of Perfectionism

Employees generally agree that leaders with a passion for excellence, quality and accomplishment benefit their organizations. These qualities place leaders at the top of their fields. No one faults managers who give their all and make sacrifices, but too much of a good thing can also pose problems.

Perfectionistic leaders may be as damaging as those who embrace mediocrity. Perfectionists often obsess over process, commonly insisting that tasks be completed their way. Often accompanying perfectionism is obsessive-compulsive behavior, with leaders demanding adherence to narrow windows of acceptable norms. While ostensibly committed to doing what’s best, perfectionists have tightly controlled definitions of what best means.

Perfectionistic leaders frustrate their people, burden them with extreme expectations and cause resentment. A leader’s desire to do the right thing leads to a rigidly controlled, distrusting and unaccepting culture that smothers people into submission. Fortunately, there are ways to understand and deal with perfectionism while maintaining excellence and productivity.

Do You Have Perfectionistic Tendencies?

Perfectionists believe they have a keen mind for what works (and what doesn’t). They assess optimal methods and outcomes, endeavoring to implement them—a fine goal, as long as leaders avoid obsession.

By definition, an obsession is a dominant, persistent focus on a thought or feeling that overrules all others. Obsessions take leaders down ineffective paths, where they’re blinded into believing that effectiveness is possible only when absolute perfection is achieved. The cycle then escalates: The more leaders focus on efficacy, the greater their need for perfection.

Perfectionists strive for excellence and virtue in everything they do, notes psychotherapist and leadership consultant Beatrice Chestnut, PhD, in The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace (Post Hill Press, 2017). Their quest, however, manifests as a noticeable compulsion and calculated culture that alienates many employees. Though perfection is truly unattainable, perfectionistic leaders remain unconvinced. They continue to push for their desired outcomes, even as the consequences of their actions call for corrections.

Perfectionistic leaders develop the skills to blend reason, logic, emotion and insight. They rely on these tools to affirm their sense of purpose—a strategy that helps them solve and avoid problems, while providing motivation and comfort.

If you spot some of these tendencies in your behavior, you may, indeed, be a perfectionist. Despite your best intentions, you may be causing your people and organization to struggle. The more you focus on raising the bar, the less likely you are to see the harmful effects on those around you. Fortunately, a qualified leadership coach can help you assess your issues and develop a healthier, more effective leadership style.

Perfectionism’s Pros and Cons

Leaders who strive for excellence can lay strong foundations for their organizations. They:

  • Aim for the highest standards, through ethical conduct and honorable motives
  • Are dedicated to the organization’s mission, with support and intentionality
  • Exude reliability, honesty, integrity, diligence and perseverance
  • Honor organizational policies, rules and practices with the structure they provide
  • Are detail-oriented, with a clear understanding of how things work
  • Have few ego issues, seeking every opportunity to excel
  • Are terrific teachers who help others learn and improve

But when taken to extremes, these traits create dissent, employee dissatisfaction and turnover. When leaders prioritize outcomes over people, employee morale and a leader’s legacy suffer. On the negative end of the spectrum, perfectionistic leaders:

  • Hold unrealistic expectations of excellence that people can never meet
  • Engage in black-and-white thinking, leading them to reach rash or unfair conclusions
  • Believe their way is the best way—in short, the only way
  • Criticize those who disagree with their assessments and solutions
  • Assume others cannot complete work as effectively as they can
  • Take on too much work, without delegating, believing others will achieve lesser results
  • Make goals seem more critical than necessary
  • Often micromanage or control projects to ensure their standards prevail
  • Can be tough to please, as results are seldom good enough
  • Pressure themselves into doing better and continually need more from their people
  • Are so focused on methods and results that they fail to notice (or deal with) their detrimental effects on employees
  • Are unwilling to develop other leaders or successors, believing no one can lead the organization or replace them

If some of these behaviors sound uncomfortably familiar to you, perfectionism may be jeopardizing your organization and career. Your people need room to breathe and the freedom to contribute with the skills they have. There’s almost always more than one way to achieve a goal. Perfection, as desirable as it may seem, is deceptively dangerous.

Signs and Symptoms

Perfectionistic leaders exhibit widely observable behavioral patterns. They have a precise manner, with a keen attention to detail, punctuality, specificity and process. Tunnel vision causes them to adhere strongly to established policies and procedures. They show displeasure with those whose priorities differ, and they instruct their people to follow “the plan.”  They issue compulsively frequent reminders and criticisms.

Perfectionists assign people to one of two categories: those who support their values and methods vs. those who dissent. Their attempts to teach or make suggestions are largely firm or critical. When these leaders receive negative feedback, they become judgmental and biased.

Perfectionistic leaders are generally inflexible and loath to entertain other ideas. They may become self-righteous when they’ve determined their analysis is thorough and needs no improvement. They hover over employees, attempting to ensure each task is performed perfectly. They emphasize the value of hard work, obsess over details, quickly highlight errors and believe mistakes are catastrophic. Their language and tone convey distrust in others. Declining to delegate is their way of protecting their systems, values and control. Working for them can be unbearable.

Breaking the Habit

Perfectionism’s negative tendencies outweigh the positives when taken to extremes. Consider retaining an experienced executive coach if you’re struggling with a perfectionistic personality. Coaching encourages collaborative, reasonable behaviors that allow you to accomplish noble goals.

Perfectionists must learn how to back away from the relentless urge to seek an unblemished track record. Virtually no project will run flawlessly in the business world, nor should this be one’s goal. Excellence is attainable, so learn to differentiate it from perfection. Over-the-top efforts to realize perfection are unnecessary and counterproductive.

Perfectionistic leaders can learn that success is earned by giving their best and making the most practical choices. Mistakes and oversights are common, and there are always creative ways to work around, mitigate and minimize their impact. The world will never run on perfection, nor will any conscientious leader.

Leaders must recognize how their criticisms affect people and their work. Take the time to gauge morale and productivity levels. Work with a trusted colleague, mentor or coach to improve how you offer feedback and suggestions.

Leaders who are determined to conquer their perfectionistic tendencies will make the greatest strides, Dr. Chestnut explains. Changing one’s mindset is a process that requires transparency and humility. Diligent leaders can learn to adopt proper perspectives.

Reformed perfectionists learn how to be open to other ideas, agree to be teachable and recognize that no one has all the answers. Problems can be solved in multiple ways. The most successful leaders surround themselves with smart, innovative people who bring great ideas to the table. Collaboration is a strength; valuing only your own ideas is a liability.

Working for a Perfectionistic Leader

If you report to a perfectionist, resist the urge to express resentment, defiance or disrespect. Rebelliousness goads perfectionists into reacting, thus worsening your relationship. You want to avoid doing irreparable damage. Be advised, however, that submissiveness is not the answer.

Perfectionistic leaders value unity, knowing it’s key to attaining excellence. They want to be understood and have their core values appreciated. Demonstrate your commitment to excellence by telling your boss that you, too, value quality and integrity—a strategy that will enhance your relationship. While you may disagree on specific methods, work toward conveying your opinions and finding workable compromises, Dr. Chestnut advises.

Emphasize common goals so your boss values your partnership enough to address disagreements willingly. Discuss differences in rational, calm and respectful ways. Help your boss see alternative paths to goals. Outline pros and cons to discover why your leader prefers one approach to another. Detail-oriented leaders value input when they’re guided to objective conclusions. Be willing to critique your own ideas, as well.

Perfectionists, who think clearly and definitively, are more likely to be on your wavelength if you work methodically, as well. Find ways to express appreciation for your boss’s willingness to solve problems and make decisions jointly. Be accountable and willing to apologize for mistakes or delays, which builds trust and prevents judgmental responses. Perfectionistic leaders appreciate positive, but honest, feedback when their teams are attentively pursuing their goals.

You can support your boss’s coveted processes and procedures while offering additional ideas. Let your boss see you as a consistently positive and trustworthy influence, which may diminish hypervigilance and micromanagement. When perfectionistic leaders accept alternate strategies, their grip on black-and-white thinking may loosen. They may come to realize that success doesn’t require perfection or a breakneck work pace. As they learn that processes benefit from some give-and-take, their leadership style may evolve.

The Benefits of Vulnerability

The traditional definition of vulnerability is to be capable of, or susceptible to being wounded or hurt; being open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc. Most people in business understand these definitions and avoid vulnerability at all costs. Nowhere does this have more impact than in leadership circles.

However, recent research in leadership has exposed many old ways of thinking as outdated, ineffective and damaging. With today’s emphasis on human relations, employee engagement and softer leadership skills, greater emphasis is being placed on interpersonal connection and consideration for people.

Why? Because we’ve learned that employee satisfaction is paramount to organizational success. People simply shut down or leave if they don’t feel appreciated. The focus is transitioning from leaders to employees, although this has yet to make deep inroads into every organization.

Autocratic leadership styles are yielding to democratic ones, where people are individualized and supported. Harsh, impersonal treatment is changing to accountable, considerate acts of empowerment. Cold, impenetrable leaders are learning humility and vulnerability.

Definitions are changing with the times, and these behaviors are recognized for their benefits— for employees and leaders alike. The transformations are not easy. It’s difficult to overcome engrained paradigms. But if leaders can do this, the rewards are unlimited.

Perhaps the most challenging soft skill many leaders still have trouble grasping is vulnerability.

False Notions of Vulnerability

The word vulnerability generates negative impressions for leaders because of past experiences of their own or people they know. Generally, vulnerable situations don’t go well, so leaders do what they can to avoid them. They see vulnerability as having their weaknesses or mistakes exposed, which leads to criticism of their abilities or character.

When leaders believe that criticism reflects negatively on them, a number of possible fears come to mind. Their worth in the organization feels devalued, which ultimately means that they are devalued. They sense they are appreciated less, trusted less, and likely not to be viewed as capable of handling challenges. In other words, their careers are handicapped. This can be a big blow to a leader’s world.

As Emma Seppälä describes in her 2014 article for HBR, What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable, vulnerability tends to be accepted as a weakness. Leaders can be seen as being unknowledgeable or incapable, unconfident, soft or ineffective. Typical scenarios of vulnerability for leaders include:

  • Promoting a new project that doesn’t succeed because of inaccurate assumptions.
  • Misjudging someone’s proposal and realizing the error.
  • Needing help from a colleague when the relationship is damaged or strained.
  • Trusting the unproven skills of a key team member on an important project.
  • Applying principles learned in a prior field that don’t really work in a new field.

The most successful leaders have learned that these kinds of seemingly vulnerable situations don’t need to portray weakness at all. Everyone makes mistakes, but it is a strong character that is willing to own up to them. Expressing need and being honest and up-front about mistakes reflects an inner strength that doesn’t rely on the approval of others, but rather confidence in oneself. Advances in soft leadership skills are overturning negative thinking about vulnerability and finding ways to make it a positive.

The Positive Side of Vulnerability

When leaders admit their mistakes and show that they want to learn from them, the negative aspects of vulnerability can be minimized. People see this as taking responsibility, being accountable or transparent. These are admirable traits that display relational skills. Employees want leaders who can relate with them and behave more like “regular people”. This dispenses with traditional pretenses of being better or more important, which are resented by subordinates.

Human connectedness is the new attribute that engages people and draws them to a leader. Admitting and apologizing for being wrong prompts a relational restoration that builds trust. Honesty and authenticity signify a leader who cares about relationships and the strength that they afford. Deeper relationships draw out the best in people, and this enhances attitudes, productivity and loyalty.

As Seppälä points out, people can sense what their leader is feeling, and this influences their response. When employees see their leader as genuine and willingly vulnerable they feel good about it, and respond favorably with admiration and respect. Pretenses of superiority or infallibility, which are old-school vulnerability missteps, often work against a leader causing damaged relationships and disunity.

A leader who is willing to be open and vulnerable shows courage. They prioritize team unity and effectiveness above personal image, choosing to sacrifice for everyone’s benefit. This is the image of a person receiving inner strength from their belief in themselves rather than being dependent on the opinions of others. People are open to being influenced by a leader with this kind of character and are often inspired to be more like them.

A leader who asks for feedback, help or advice can use vulnerability to an advantage. Leaders demonstrate they want to learn and be the best they can be by expressing need. Who doesn’t want to follow someone like that? Their drive for improvement is contagious. Everyone wants in on it.

Acquiring a Willingness to be Vulnerable

Most leaders find comfort with the knowledge that vulnerability is a skill that takes time to develop; after all, it is contrary to our human nature to protect and defend. When expressed in a constructive way, vulnerability is a leadership strength, and draws more respect than if you pretended not to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability can be demonstrated in unfortunate ways, which are equally damaging. Doing it for show draws attention to yourself, as David Williams asserts in The Best Leaders Are Vulnerable. This is a false humility designed to impress people with an overly-relational air, hoping to gain favor. Being humorously critical of yourself may be effective on occasion, but when done regularly its fakeness is detected.

Instead, be honest. Sincerely owning up to mistakes is the most effective way to show vulnerability. Doing this in a spirit of humility is very effective. A leader who accounts for their actions well enough to take the heat turns vulnerability to an advantage.

Asking someone for forgiveness can feel like an extremely vulnerable act, but its benefits can be great. Showing the desire to restore a relationship, and taking the lead, is an honorable, trustworthy behavior that draws people. Likewise, offering forgiveness to someone who’s hurt you doesn’t mean you are weak. It means you are above the discord and strong enough to initiate its repair.

Leaders resistant to expressing vulnerability are often concerned that they will be taken advantage of. Displaying genuine vulnerability will show you that this is not the case. It takes courage to head down this path, but it’s a journey that can enhance your leadership more than adopting any other trait.

A leader who identifies their weaknesses can develop the ability to reveal them in the proper setting and manner. The skills of a qualified leadership coach can be of great benefit in this area. Self-awareness leads to greater comfort in being transparent about your vulnerabilities. A keen focus on being relatable with your people lets you expand your comfort zone. Turn your vulnerabilities into strengths!

How to Avoid Leadership Drift

Business is an active, demanding endeavor. Only those who consistently apply themselves succeed. Organizations that thrive require leaders who actively dream, plan, engage, solve, pursue and network. It’s a lot of work, and there’s no finish line.

But no one can keep up the pace indefinitely. Every leader experiences profound peaks and valleys, seasons of being on track or feeling lost. This can be repeated throughout the career of even the most seasoned executives.

Organizations flourish when their leaders are in sync and on their game, and they flounder when their leaders drift off course. Many leaders find themselves off the path because they have gradually, unnoticeably, drifted there.

Leadership drift is increasingly responsible for management failure and turnover. Many leaders face forceful influences and events that detrimentally change them, diminishing their organizational influence and reputation. Without discernment and internal awareness, external factors can cause damage that isn’t recognized until it is severe.

Leaders benefit by applying a dual strategy: addressing the external factors to minimize their impact, and handling their responses to such factors, overcoming the personal issues that can lead to drifting. Most find the second to be much more difficult.

All leaders experience drift at some point in their careers, some of it minor and recoverable, some significant and troubling. The greatest danger is failing to recognize it and taking steps to reverse it. Prolonging a short stretch of drift can render it irreversible, leading to career and team failures.

Fortunately, leaders can take concrete steps to prevent irrevocable consequences. However, since drift is primarily an unconscious issue, leaders generally need a second set of eyes to recognize it and bring it to the forefront. Even when recognized, drift is a critical topic best mitigated through the helpful resources of a qualified leadership coach.

Signs and Symptoms

As the word implies, “drift” is a loss of direction or purposefulness. Any pattern of behavior that reduces leaders’ impact or influence is cause for concern. Leaders who have forgotten their core mission have drifted, explains Cornell University organizational-behavior professor Samuel Bacharach, PhD, in “How to Avoid Leadership Drift” (Inc.com, April 2016). Drifting manifests in a variety of ways, signaling that leaders have distanced themselves from their roles.

Drift can be linked to a loss of interest or control. Expressing apathy toward current issues or projects is a discernible sign, as is coasting on past accomplishments. Drifting leaders often concede their principles or work ethic, permitting situations they never would have tolerated earlier in their careers. Adopting a hands-off management style commonly indicates that a once-diligent leader has drifted.

Leaders who isolate themselves from colleagues or resist feedback may have succumbed to drift. Shutting down, saying or contributing little, and making fewer decisions are red flags.

Just as a boat slowly drifts from shore, leadership drift slowly progresses and may be observed only after a significant occurrence. When employees begin to notice behavioral changes and wonder what happened to their once-respected leader, whispers become conversations. It becomes clear that leadership drift has been going on for some time. Drifting leaders eventually cause their organizations to veer off course, with potentially devastating implications.

“…progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road…“

~ C.S. Lewis

Circumstances are not always under a leader’s control. But drifting, distancing yourself from your role and duties, is. It is a result of choices, made either consciously or not, intentionally or not, calmly or desperately. You may think that drifting was something done to you. But it is something you did to yourself.

Why Leaders Drift

All leaders endure impactful changes or trials. Troubling life events can profoundly affect one’s behavior, mindset or motivation, notes Brigette Tasha Hyacinth, MBA, in Purpose Driven Leadership: Building and Fostering Effective Teams (independently published, 2017).

Challenges often shuffle priorities and strain perspective on personal matters. A loss of a family member, marital crisis, health scare or financial calamity can turn a leader’s world upside down, and one’s focus can quickly blur. Leaders who lose their enthusiasm and determination find themselves drifting.

Alternatively, drift can follow a period of working too hard, for too long, and running on fumes. Burnout is a serious problem, leaving afflicted leaders with no gas left in the tank and no energy or desire to maintain the required pace. Self-preservation supersedes daily responsibilities and issues. Leaders who drift from exhaustion eventually become ineffective, and their role within the organization is compromised.

On the other end of the spectrum, drift may result from boredom. Leaders who are denied new challenges or goals will lose interest in, and enthusiasm for, their jobs. Bored leaders have no determination or satisfaction. There’s little motivation to apply themselves to their tasks. They drift from their responsibilities, abandoning any concerns, and look for ways to escape ever-increasing monotony.

Leaders burned in the past by setbacks or failures may build resistance to risk-taking. Their guard is always up, and they settle into their comfort zones. Coasting is perceived to be the safer route, reducing stress and posing little risk to job security (or so they erroneously believe). Leaders who aim for comfort are assuredly in drift mode, unlikely to move their organizations forward with new programs or products.

Leaders who have experienced rapid success or advancement tend to become self-absorbed. Pride and privilege dull their sense of responsibility, and they issue directives that benefit themselves. If they see the organization as a vehicle for personal gain, they and their values have dishonorably drifted. Their actions will ultimately derail their organizations’ efforts and their careers, and they’ll wonder where they went wrong.

Drift’s Damages

Drifting from one’s appointed responsibilities has consequences for leaders, their people and the organization. Initial signs often go unnoticed. It’s vitally important to spot them in time to prevent a prolonged drift that cripples the organization.

Leadership drift’s most immediate effects hit the operations level. Leaders who lose track of their purpose and discount critical duties cede control and oversight, causing a variety of setbacks: missed deadlines, ruined efficiencies, costly mistakes and poor financials. Problems may emerge slowly, but they can cascade rapidly.

Operational stumbles are often accompanied by damage to human capital. When the machinery begins to groan, so do people. Setbacks and challenges give rise to employee dissatisfaction, low morale and production deficits. Employee frustration compounds operational dysfunction, and the downward spiral continues.

Drifting leaders are likely to miss important tactical information concerning day-to-day happenings, which handicaps their decision-making abilities. When they make poor decisions and fail to perform due diligence, outcomes suffer—along with reputations.

Drifting leaders also miss opportunities. They forfeit their ability to make improvements, changes or corrections, especially when problems result from their lack of oversight. Missed opportunities tarnish leaders’ legacies. They fall behind in dynamic activities and are left out of the planning and developing processes, further limiting opportunities.

Leaders who develop a reputation for trailing behind soon fall out of favor, and career prospects grow dim. Drifting is a common cause of leadership reassignment, demotion or dismissal. In their shortsightedness, drifting leaders often blame their environment, team or upper management for their misfortune. A qualified leadership coach can help leaders grasp the internal reasons for drift.

Drift’s most unfortunate outcome is a loss of values, Hyacinth asserts. Conceding on excellence and accepting mediocrity lead to habitually cutting corners, justifying mistakes and lowering standards. The organization is ripe for failure, making victims of every employee.

Conquering Drift

Drifting leaders rarely have an accurate picture of what’s happening to (or inside) them, so the highest priority is a proper assessment by a trusted colleague, mentor or, optimally, a qualified leadership coach.

An honest evaluation offers observations, feedback and direction, allowing leaders to better grasp the reasons for drift. Coaches help them gain insight into its causes and develop strategies to cure it. Regular assessments are beneficial to tracking progress, tuning areas of difficulty and determining when the desired improvements are achieved.

When leaders understand drift’s underlying issues, they can reclaim the passion they once had for their jobs. They’ll remember what fueled the beginning of their careers and identify the moment when the shift toward drift occurred. They’ll take stock of what they value and reassess what they want to do. Reevaluating career goals allows them to put drift in perspective and reestablish their purpose.

Leaders must relearn some motivational basics:

  • We achieve satisfaction only by applying ourselves.
  • We fulfill our roles by serving and enhancing others, not ourselves.
  • Drift won’t keep us safe or preserve our positions; rather, it drives our decline.
  • We must catch and reverse any tendency to “check out” through continuous self-reflection and honesty.

Executive coaches have the tools to help leaders identify their susceptibilities and make corrections. Addressing problems early can help prevent full-blown drift.

Leaders must put drift in perspective by remembering who’s counting on them. If they chose the leadership track to help people, they must give them the tools required to succeed, reject mediocrity, encourage high performance and be present—each and every day, without exception.

Drift is a leader’s way of surrendering to dissatisfaction after sensing a battle loss. Leaders must fight the urge to withdraw, remain actively engaged and invested, and find the motivation to endure even the most challenging setbacks. Those who monitor their performance with an accountability system can successfully prevent, reverse and repair drift.

The Art of Delegation

An alarming number of leaders suffer from the sensation that each day they are losing ground, unable to stay in front of the wave of overburdening workloads, deadlines and expectations. The toll on productivity, morale and health often goes unrecognized until a crisis hits.

Equally alarming is that in some cases it is self-induced. Many leaders take on assignments, unnecessarily retain work or fail to delegate when the opportunities exist. Granted, in this do-more-with-less culture, leaders may have fewer resources, but overworked managers often fail to understand what true delegation is and are unable to delegate even when they do.

Leaders who don’t delegate suffer from an inability to manage, as desperation becomes the norm. The added stress and anxiety flows from the leader’s desk to the staff, and sets the entire organization on edge. Conditions around the team worsen as attitudes, engagement, efficiency and profitability degrade.

Many leaders view delegation as a sign of weakness, an inability to handle the job, something done out of desperation. However, delegation is a strategic tool used by wise leaders to make the most of available manpower to clear tough obstacles. Learning to delegate offers leaders relief and equips them to manage at their best, which is ultimately best for everyone.

Categorizing Work to Delegate

If piles of work are spilling over on your desk, your last thought might be how to redistribute some of the work, but this is exactly the thing to do. Do it while you still have some clarity of mind and grasp of the projects at hand. Skillful delegation builds team unity and accountability, as people pull together to achieve a goal and help each other get better.

The baffling issue may be where to begin. The pile of work looks overwhelming. The first step is to categorize and separate it into two groups: one that cannot be delegated and another that can. As a leader, you certainly have assignments or tasks that must be handled at your level with your experience, connections or authority.

However, many leaders are surprised by the amount of work on their desk that can be handled by lower levels. Some of it may be busywork, manual-type of work, revising work that has already been done or tasks that can be done with the experience and skills of a staff member. This is the group of tasks that are candidates for delegation. Will it take a sizeable investment of your time to sort through your piles to make these determinations? Of course, but you will find the investment well worth making.

Workload priorities must also be taken into account. As Jayson DeMers, CEO of AudienceBloom writes in an article for Inc.com, develop a priority system for tasks. What is essential and what can wait? Delegating hotter projects may give you enough time to catch your breath and resume a more normal routine sooner than you think. Another tactic is delegating simpler, quick work and allow yourself to tackle the more complex with better focus.

Seasonal businesses offer experienced leaders some predictability to periods of higher expected workload, so it pays to make other staff members available for delegated tasks based on a calendar. Plan for those before the rush hits.

Releasing Control

Some leaders misunderstand the nature of delegation. They believe they can wash their hands of responsibilities when staff members are handed assignments that were originally on the leader’s desk. The employee is now on their own to deal with the outcome, whether favorable or unfavorable. This abdication is not what delegation is about.

An organization still holds the leader responsible, regardless of whose hands actually performed the work. Leaders who try to dodge responsibility by pitching work to others soon experience a myriad of negative consequences, including distrust and disloyalty from their people.

Most delegation hesitancy lands on the other side of the control spectrum, where leaders are not willing to let go of control. As Jesse Sostrin, PhD, describes in HBR, overextension fuels an instinctive reaction to “protect” work. Leaders who keep the workload to themselves often believe that somehow the delegation of work reduces their importance, or at least how superiors perceive it.

Ironically, delegating work puts a leader’s control into action with decision-making, task coordination and goal achievement. The more that work is reserved for leaders, the less of it actually gets done. This doesn’t reflect well on a leader’s state of control. Leaders who can be helped to see this are more able to break their control-clutching behavior.

Another control-related reason leaders choose not to delegate is the perceived time and effort needed to train an employee or bring them up to speed. It seems too inconvenient or too remedial for someone at their level to do, and it feels too much like a sacrifice of control. Leaders who can deemphasize their sense of control and turn their attention to solving problems resist delegating less.

Learning to Trust

When a leader delegates a task, they face a risk of the assignment not getting done exactly the way they expect. This frightens some managers into thinking the employee’s results won’t meet their personal criteria, and the simple way for this to be avoided is not to delegate.

Bordering on the control theme, this concern stems from a leader’s lack of trust in the employee’s abilities. Leaders who doubt anyone can perform a specific task as well as they can severely limit what their team can accomplish. A leadership coach can help mitigate this mindset with one that empowers employees to prove themselves.

If the employee’s skills aren’t fully understood, the leader must be the one to correct this. Fortunately, this is relatively simple to address. If it is a matter of the leader not believing in a specific employee, they may find delegating easier if they use a process of monitoring the employee’s progress.

However, monitoring doesn’t mean smothering or micromanaging someone. People need the freedom to work and use their skills, and are benefitted by leaders who only occasionally verify how they’re doing. Periodically inquiring about their progress is a fair tradeoff for debilitating, pestering distrust.

Keeping knowledge to oneself is not the job-security anchor many seem to think it is. Knowledge is not power, rather, power is the ability to harness the collective knowledge of the staff. Leaders succeed by teaching and trusting people and allowing them to contribute in ways they couldn’t before. Encourage growth and suggest ways to make improvements.

Following Up with Feedback

A critical aspect of delegating is what occurs after the task is finished. This is the delegation follow-up stage, which includes feedback.

The project assignment, whether delegated or not, should come with a clearly communicated set of expectations. How the employee met those expectations is the subject of the feedback. Employees who meet expectations deserve appropriate praise for their success. Giving people recognition and thanks for their efforts keeps them engaged and willing to do more.

On the other hand, when expectations are not met, a constructive feedback process is necessary. This is a considerate discussion on the improvements needed, while pointing out the positive things that took place. Leaders who can give instructive feedback while expressing consideration and thanks earn trust from employees and guide them to improvement.

Nothing causes your people to dread delegation more than an unfortunate response from you. When they dread it, the result of their work suffers accordingly. This in turn causes you to dread it, and the cycles spirals down.

As an expression of humility and openness, ask your people for their feedback on your delegation methods. Can your style be better? This dialogue helps to improve the delegation relationship and make you a better leader. Keep in mind that each employee may have a slightly different approach to feedback and discussion. Knowing them personally gives you the best advantage.

Your goal is to have a staff that welcomes delegated tasks so they can be better contributors. Many leaders find this to be the most freeing way to be better delegators; when the process yields two-way success the organization is better suited to manage high workload situations. Make delegation a welcomed tool in your arsenal and raise the level of production for you and your staff.

Essential Communication Skills for Leaders

Leaders continue to assume greater responsibilities and pressures as markets and technologies call for increasingly faster commerce, responses and results. Information overload and business volatility have become the norm, requiring nimble management and staff interconnection. Leadership success depends on a most essential professional skill: strategic communication.

Task completion and organizational achievement demand peak-level communication. A leader’s fundamental role is to be an excellent communicator and a proponent for a communication-based culture. Organizations led by great communicators are far more likely to prosper, especially when faced with onerous challenges.

Unfortunately, too many organizations are hampered by leaders who fail to grasp the power of good communication (or discount its importance). Some leaders consider information to be communication in and of itself, but it’s really just data. Communication is the ability to convey information strategically—the very core of leadership, affirms executive coach Dianna Booher in Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017).

Leaders develop and use communication—a soft skill—to work with others, recognizing that success relies on unity and collaboration. When combined with the traditional hard skills of quantitative analysis and decision-making, communication rounds out a leader’s ability to bring people together and achieve high performance. A lack of communication causes multiple obstructions, debilitations and failures, as Booher notes:

In survey after survey, managers report that their team understands organizational goals and initiatives. Yet team members themselves say they do not. In a recent worldwide Gallup poll among 550 organizations and 2.2 million employees, only 50 percent of employees "strongly agreed" that they knew what was expected of them at work. Obviously, there’s a disconnection here.

Leaders must therefore master three essential skills to avoid these disconnects:

  • Communicating deliberately
  • Communicating interpersonally
  • Communicating by adding value

Communicating Deliberately

Giving your people the information they need to complete their tasks and contribute to your organization requires thoughtful and appropriate communication. Assuming that people are getting the information they need or can figure things out for themselves yields unpleasant surprises. Information left unmanaged does irreparable harm. Misunderstandings, confusion, misrepresentation and assumption distort information.

Without accurate and timely information, your people will end up doing the wrong things at the wrong times for the wrong reasons, notes communication expert Dean Brenner in "The True Cost of Poor Communication" (Forbes, November 2017). Good communication requires a deliberate and thorough approach, coupled with significant forethought and diligence.

Communication’s foundation is built on three components:

  • Clarity
  • Specificity
  • Relevancy

Clarity. Information—be it instruction, updates, plans, orders or analysis—benefits everyone only if it’s clear and concise. Asking questions and seeking feedback affirm understanding. Use language geared for your audience to enhance clarity. Present information in a decipherable order and tempo so people can grasp it immediately and avoid confusion. Be clear about expectations and requirements. Set a well-defined, purposeful standard that points everyone in the right direction.

Specificity. Information should be specific enough to be understood, but not over-explained or expressed condescendingly. Convey challenging topics with unambiguous descriptions and explanations. Avoid using generalities on detailed subjects to prevent assumptions and misunderstandings. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes to see if information makes sense and will be meaningful later.

Relevancy. Leaders must be relevant communicators, Booher confirms. Give people information that pertains to them and what they’re being asked to do. Impertinent data may be interesting, but it dilutes the mission and makes staff question your priorities. Timeliness is critical, so share information as soon as your people can benefit from it. Don’t hold it to benefit yourself.

Also keep the following in mind:

  • Forthright and truthful leaders convey information their people can count on, carrying weight and reliability.
  • When leaders hedge or dance around a topic, people question information’s validity and their boss’s intentions.
  • When people know their leaders have integrity, they respond commensurately. A leader’s honest communication is rewarded with attention and allegiance.

Communicating Interpersonally

Employees crave more than basic information; they want to feel valued enough to receive it. They respond optimally when they know their leaders appreciate their engagement, involvement and commitment. When leaders communicate interpersonally, workers feel cared for and connectedness increases.

Practice considerate communication by attempting to understand others’ perspectives. Use honoring and appreciative language, and avoid accusatory or resentful approaches. Strive for face-to-face communication that builds relationships. Indirect connections like the telephone, email or social media are often necessary, but none can compete with an in-person dialogue. Let people see how much you care when you talk with them.

Active listening is a vital communication skill. Many leaders focus only on what they want to say and deprioritize what others say to them. This damages communication and the trust leaders need to build with their people. Good communicators show they want to understand what others have to say. They ask questions and repeat back what they’ve heard for confirmation. Leaders who show transparency by admitting they may not initially grasp something gain trust and make greater relational progress.

Good communicators also want to confirm their audience understands the information they’re given. Ask open-ended questions to ensure you’ve succeeded, Booher suggests. Simply asking if you were understood isn’t always adequate. Ask listeners for specific feedback: what they think about your information or the chance to voice alternative ideas.

Tell stories to communicate ideas and connect with people. Everyone loves to hear personal experiences, which you can use to illustrate concepts or offer analogies. Perhaps the best way to personalize your connections and enhance your communications is to be thankful for people’s attention—or as Booher puts it, give people kudos whenever possible. Thank them out of habit, and show them how much you value communicating with them.

Communicating by Adding Value

Transferring job-related information is a key leadership responsibility. While content is certainly important, the manner in which you convey it is equally critical. Our communications should enrich relationships by making people feel more valued and able to contribute.

Leaders who provide information with confidence enhance trust and promote self-assurance. They achieve a sense of accountability and believability, which boosts people’s trust and improves communication efforts. Successful leaders can build a culture of trust, where communication is central to operations and heightens accountability.

  • Demonstrate that you value your people by communicating with appropriate timing. Determine the best time to have difficult conversations, and anticipate how people will receive them.
  • Always account for your audience’s perspective to ensure effective communication. Your people should sense that you’re fair and considerate, which ultimately strengthens relationships.
  • Never overlook an opportunity to learn what people think or how they feel. People feel valued and appreciated when they’re encouraged to share their personal positions on issues. Inclusive discussions help them rethink their views and forge deeper understandings.
  • Ask open-ended questions that call for thoughtful responses—a technique that builds trust and sets the stage for clarifying expectations, delineating action items and achieving goals.
  • Measure communication success by examining whether follow-up activities match fair and reasonable expectations. Achieved goals give people a greater sense of ownership, purpose and value, which positively impacts your culture.

Your degree of positivity is perhaps the most vital value-adding aspect of communication. As you look for ways to inspire your people, remember that encouragement is a great motivator, and positivity is contagious.

Balance Your Leadership Skills

Vast amounts of information are available pertaining to the definition and components of leadership. It is a complex topic, based on the challenges of human behavior; that varying, uncontrollable and often mysterious element that makes leading far more than following guidelines.

Great leaders know that there are crucial skillsets to be mastered early in their career, and others that take time and experience to enhance. Knowing just the theory isn’t enough to be successful. Leadership success relies on a blend of perspectives and skills, all aimed at bringing out the best in everyone.

Leaders benefit by first acquiring a high-level understanding of what effective leadership is, and what it isn’t. There are many ideas on leading that need to be “un-learned” and replaced.

The Meaning of Leadership

Many people embark on the leadership path with an unfortunate mindset about leadership. Historic self-serving mindsets have contributed to the high degree of employee dissatisfaction and disengagement today. Some experts argue that this trend hasn’t changed much in several generations.

A majority of leaders don’t receive leadership training, according to a recent CareerBuilder.com survey. Many years of data reveal the flaws in traditional leadership thinking. Employees have long indicated what leader character traits engage or compel, and which alienate and cause them to leave.

Contrary to old-school thinking, leadership does not succeed when leaders focus on “what’s in it for me”. Leadership prospers only when it aims to benefit the organization; the people they lead. This bashes the notion that leadership is about the four Ps: Power, Prestige, Perks and Privileges.

True leadership is not about titles, seniority, authority or compensation packages. It’s not about promotions, accolades or being admired. These self-centered behaviors alienate employees and cause multiple dysfunctions throughout the organization.

Leadership author and speaker Kevin Kruse defines leadership as, “a process of social influence which maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a goal.” To put it simply, leadership is the ability to compel people to follow a vision. Leaders employ skills to unify people and guide them along a plan that offers a prosperous future.

Most experts regard leading as the ability to deal with people, visions and ideas, while managing is the ability to coordinate things or tasks. It is widely accepted that effective leadership requires a blend of the following skills:

  • Leadership skills
  • Management skills
  • People skills

Leadership Skills

Fundamental leadership skills are necessary to direct an organization and ensure its future. Leaders are the vision setters. They assess the business climate, see opportunities and chart the course.  Leaders analyze trends, capabilities, resources, competition and markets. Making sense of all this input and fashioning it into an achievable plan is at the heart of leadership skills.

Skillful leaders create a diverse, yet cohesive leadership group of individuals who can collaborate and synergistically refine the vision. Once a vision is agreed upon, the leader engages the entire organization. Part of the skills of leadership is selling the vision to the staff.

A leader who sells a vision understands the needs of all stakeholders, from employees to board members. Ideally, the vision points the way to security and offers direction, affirmation and prosperity.

Selling a vision requires corporate communication skills that stir passion and inspiration in others. Skillful leaders tap imaginations, trigger feelings and link to benefits. It takes skill to properly deliver a message that conveys this.

Management Skills

A vision released for implementation requires significant planning and coordinating. These management skills are used by leaders to take the vision to the next phase: action. During implementation, leaders continue to employ their leadership skills of inspiration and selling, but they now share the stage with management skills.

Managing a vision project gets into the finer details, where action plans, schedules and goals are needed. Specific skills are required to coordinate the many facets of a vision project. Delegation is required to cover all the bases. Many things need monitoring including deadlines, budgets, manpower and the problems that spring up.

Problem-solving is a valuable management skill and can keep a project on track. Issues continue throughout a vision-implementing journey, requiring a leader skillful with mitigation. This includes the wisdom to bring in the appropriate resources.

Another management skill that makes vision implementation successful is the ability to assess progress.  This requires perspective, strong analysis skills and insight. Leaders with great management skills know how to make adjustments and keep their staff at peak performance, without losing interest or motivation.

Undergoing significant change while implementing a vision can sidetrack an organization from its everyday course of business. Leaders with strong management skills recognize this and account for it. They keep their hands on both steering wheels to ensure normal tasks are completed and customers are happy.

People Skills

The most important set of skills successful leaders balance with their leadership and management skills are people skills, or soft skills. “Soft” in this context doesn’t mean weak or vulnerable, but simply refers to a departure from the quantifiable, formulaic or repeatable nature of the facts and figures in leadership or management issues.

People skills deal with the variable, emotional and uncertain aspects of human nature. They require caring about people with a personable approach. A leader’s character and personality play an important role in the effectiveness of their people skills.  Those who have great people skills have a loyal following with employees who perform at their best.

Prominent speaker and author Tony Robbins professes that the current difficulties with employee dissatisfaction are heavily impacted by the lack of people skills at the leadership level. Leaders who regard people skills as unnecessary or unimportant handicap their careers and the performance of their organizations. 

Leaders with good soft skills have a personable way of engaging people. This begins with a focus on helping others, getting to know them and attempting to meet their needs. In response, people are drawn in and extend trust and loyalty. People skills include respectfulness, positivity and fairness. Traits that overlap this leadership-skill category are integrity and setting the example of morality in the organization. A leader’s behavior and mindset establish a culture that drives the personality of the company.

Personal communication skills help a leader connect with people as they actively listen, follow through on commitments and offer encouragement. A leader who is transparent, accountable and open to feedback earns significant trust. This is the kind of leader most people dream of having.

Leaders who balance the three primary skillsets have the most well-rounded and successful leadership careers. They lead people who pull together, go above and beyond and prosper, both individually and corporately.

Lead Better by Seeing More

In this over-information age, an alarming number of business plans fail because leaders ignore the facts needed to make sound decisions. Misguided perspectives can be blamed on a lack of data, wrong data or the inability to understand relevance. Even in hindsight, some leaders fail to see what went wrong.

A fast-paced culture requires precise planning, effective decisions and timely actions, all relying on dependable information. Leaders who want to move their organizations forward must gather evidence, ask the right questions, verify presumed facts and decipher vast amounts of data.

Business plans suffer when:

  • Leaders ignore available information.
  • Necessary data aren’t acquired in time to make decisions.
  • Data are available, but leaders fail to analyze them appropriately.
  • Leaders may choose to overlook key details.

Two Types of Thinking

Of all the skills leaders require today, perhaps none is as challenging as adequately processing information. The ability to spot holes in data, conceive solutions and analyze results calls for sharp thinking.

Thinking can be broken down into two primary categories, suggests Harvard Business School Professor Max H. Bazerman, PhD, in The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See (Simon & Schuster, 2015): intuitive and deliberative.

We employ intuitive thinking during crises, when immediacy is required. Our thinking is instantaneous, with emotion as a factor, and it produces reactionary responses. We make use of immediate information, or that which initially impacts our senses. Sudden information is generally incomplete, incorporating whatever is available at the moment.

By contrast, leaders sift through information, take time to gather data and draw conclusions when employing deliberative thinking. Such thinking is reasoned and structured, diving deep into the issues at hand. We gather data from non-immediate sources, compiling and assessing it to make a more systematic evaluation.

Leaders frequently—and unnecessarily—put themselves in the intuitive-thinking mode, Dr. Bazerman asserts. They over-rely on speed, neglecting to step back and analyze data. Consequently, they avoid doing sufficient research and make ill-informed decisions and plans.

Leaders fail to use information efficiently in three distinct ways, each with a specific cause and solution.

1. Missing What’s in Front of You

Bombarded with more information than they can effectively process, leaders can miss things that are “hidden in plain sight.” Information overload causes important facts to be overlooked. Leaders commonly bemoan how something so obvious wasn’t caught. In the fallout, outsiders critique these oversights and question leaders’ abilities.

During the mortgage lending frenzy of the mid-2000s, for example, financial institutions and regulatory agencies were drowning in their efforts to track interest rates, loan traffic, the housing boom and profits. Lost in this ocean was the higher percentage of risky loans being made to fuel the euphoria. Telltale data were completely available, revealing the risk of loan defaults. No one thought to investigate this critical aspect of the lending environment.

Dr. Bazerman and a New York University colleague coined the term “bounded awareness” to describe how we consistently miss readily available stimuli. Our desired goal becomes our overwhelming mission, despite realities that can upend the best-laid plans. When leaders are so caught up in one situational aspect, they fail to observe another, leading to dire problems. Think of the manufacturer who’s so obsessed with delivery deadlines that he overlooks reports of quality problems.

Leaders can overcome bounded awareness by broadening their perspectives and thinking beyond their typical frame of reference. Careful consideration of issues always trumps a cursory glance. Bringing in a more diverse, cross-functional team is paramount. Leaders make better decisions when their teams answer critical questions:

  • What type of information is appropriate, and which should be discarded?
  • Do we have all the data we need?
  • If not, where do we access more information?
  • How accurate are the data we have?
  • Have we examined all the issues at play?
  • Is there anything we haven’t considered?

If leaders have a vested self-interest, they may skew information to support their emotional position. Such motivated blindness alters reality to make us see what we want to see (and miss the details we’d rather ignore). A retail-chain founder may believe in his brand and company legacy so passionately that he fails to notice its outdated sales approach, which is turning customers toward more progressive competitors.

To preserve self-esteem, a leader may have a self-serving bias, which causes a false sense of reality. The status quo seems rosy, and problems go unnoticed. These leaders often wonder why those around them seem troubled and continuously point out problems.

Leaders can counteract a self-serving bias by seeking guidance from a trusted colleague, mentor or professional coach. Work on seeing things from others’ perspectives to broaden your views and ensure decisions benefit others first (i.e., how can I best help my people?).

Leaders with too narrow a focus limit their observations to major issues and ignore the minor, yet nonetheless important, ones. Equally problematic is a preoccupation with one specific matter that pulls focus from the big picture. This inattentional blindness often plagues leaders and is caused by distractedness.

Leaders can defeat inattentional blindness if they learn to step back from a situation and deliberately examine secondary and tertiary issues. Know that the most effective solutions are achievable only when problems are attacked holistically, not as a series of disconnected parts.

2. Ignoring What’s Hidden from View

Understandably, information outside the forefront is harder to observe, but it may be the most critical to obtain. Details not initially obvious often have the greatest impact, and their elusiveness causes leaders to underestimate them.

Immediate thinking, where intuition and emotion dominate, often prevents leaders from considering hidden information. Some leaders believe that if they cover the obvious items, most issues will be under control. This dangerous mindset regards small details as non-critical and not worthy of inspection.

Consider the leader of an electronics firm who cuts costs and introduces a cheaper version of a product his competitors provide. His company makes significant investments in design, retooling and advertising. Unfortunately, he ignored known R&D research that would have alerted him to new technology that will render his product obsolete.

Gradual-change blindness also causes leaders to miss information. When a series of small changes occur, they may be subtle and, on their own, go unrecognized. But their collective effect is dramatic, and leaders may be lulled into thinking that nothing is really happening as gradual shifts play out. Leaders realize something’s wrong only when it’s too late.

Remember the tale of the frog placed into a pot of cold water on the stove? When the burner is lit, the water heats gradually, but the frog doesn’t notice. When the water reaches a boiling point, it’s too late: The frog is cooked. Had the frog been immediately subjected to boiling water, he would have jumped out of the pot.

Like the frog, people tend to overlook minor changes. An engineering leader, for example, may not observe his team’s attempts to streamline proven product-testing processes. A series of minor concessions may go unnoticed until the final product displays major deficiencies. By then, it’s too late to make reasonable corrections; the project has failed.

Leaders can prevent gradual-change blindness with a timeline view of recent progress. Seek help from those with personal knowledge who can clearly and objectively present the facts. Take regular snapshots of how a situation develops to avoid surprises and reduce risks.

3. Not Wanting to See the Truth

Oversights caused by ineffective thinking seem innocent and unintentional. However, those caused by self-serving motives deservedly draw more criticism. Emotional blind spots are problematic, but rejecting unfavorable data is inexcusable.

Some leaders believe everything must go their way, with a predetermined outcome in mind. They include only the information that supports their position and overlook anything to the contrary.

Pride also impacts perception. Some leaders think they have nothing left to learn. Additional information isn’t required because they know it all and are convinced they’re right. Overconfidence or conceit ruins their judgment.

A seasoned sales director, for example, may push aside the latest customer price target information, boasting of his successful track record. He insists his charm and negotiating skills will close the deal. Unfortunately, all the good-ol’ boys are gone, and his customers are now sharp, methodical number crunchers who can outthink him.

Taken to an extreme, a prideful bias becomes a conflict of interest. Leaders make decisions to benefit themselves, either directly or indirectly, at the expense of colleagues or the organization itself. This behavior is typically rooted in fear of failure.

Conflicted leaders are extremely difficult to work with. The challenge increases with leaders who refuse to admit mistakes and intentionally disregard data that damage their position or self-esteem. Leaders most interested in saving face cause catastrophic problems: failed projects, staff resentment and disengagement, and declining team performance.

Some CEOs are known for inflating their reputations by acknowledging only positive achievements as they prepare to face their board of directors. Information that disfavors their leadership is cast aside.

Leaders who request assistance from a reliable colleague, mentor or executive coach will minimize prideful bias, Dr. Bazerman suggests. Feedback from someone who monitors your style and behaviors allows you to recognize prideful tendencies and minimize the roadblocks they cause in your decision-making.

Better observation skills lead to improved insights, decisions and results. You have only one opportunity to get something right the first time. Make it happen by seeing as much as you can.

Giving Your Employees the Respect They Need

Today’s work environment is tough enough without having to deal with disrespect or incivility. Harvard Business Review research reveals that over 50% of people don’t feel respected by their leaders. Many employees find that disrespect is indicative of their work culture as well, and 25% of them claim that this is caused by a disrespectful leader as their role model. If a leader can be uncivil, then their people take that to mean this behavior is permissible for everyone. Fortunately, these issues are correctable if the proper approach is taken.

The cost of a disrespectful culture is heavy. People who feel they are not respected have poorer attitudes and work ethic. They are less interested, motivated and satisfied. This leads to lower productivity and inferior quality. Anxiety, frustration, absenteeism and turnover rise. Disrespected employees disagree with each other and communicate poorly. They have less loyalty, creativity and effort.

It’s clear that under these conditions, higher outbreaks of interpersonal conflict are inevitable, causing more disruption and HR costs. Upset employees generally impress their attitudes on customers, and this is the first step in lost business and lower profits.

Leaders who withhold respect for their people pay a high price, making their leadership careers difficult at best, and very short at worst.

Basic Human Needs

All people have fundamental needs, and in the workplace they center on being valued. People want to know they’re needed, that their work means something and they’re able to contribute to a cause bigger than themselves. This fulfills the basic human need of purpose, which imparts value.

Humans also have a need to belong. They need to fit in and be accepted as part of a “family”, those they can trust and offer trust to. Being treated with respect reinforces an employee’s positive self-image and self-esteem. Encouragement, acceptance and respect enhance unity and opportunity.

A lack of respect leads to internal doubts, despondency, lack of motivation and performance problems. Employees who have been affected by a disrespectful leader often have continued self-esteem challenges later in life, even when reporting to a different respectful leader down the road. They search for answers, many times in the wrong places, and blame themselves for the disappointments that follow.

Signs of a Disrespectful Culture

A work environment where leaders disrespect their people has both obvious and subtle indicators. Generally, the disrespectful traits of the leader migrate down the line to the employees, since the culture is reflective of the leader. When disrespectful traits are widespread, the indicators become more repetitive and easier to spot.

  • Rudeness or abruptness: This inconsiderate behavior is harsh and offends people. It can take the form of interrupting people, talking over them or always having the last word.
  • Sarcasm, insults, profanity and verbal attacks: Employees often take on the leader’s bad behavior to either find a way to survive, or release the anxiety caused by the leader’s style.
  • Disfavoring people: Typically, it is communicated via the leader’s opinion of an employee’s qualifications, work ethic, loyalties, employment history or association with certain colleagues.

Subtle indicators of a disrespectful leadership or culture take longer to recognize.

  • Silence: When feedback and free expression are not welcome, managers or key employees are silent about disturbing issues.
  • Shoot-the-messenger: When the status-quo remains unchallenged, a culture of shoot-the-messenger may have taken hold.
  • Stagnation: A lack of ideas, creativity or problem-solving may mean that employees feel too disrespected and demotivated.
  • Stressed-out: Overloaded or anxious staff are indicators of unmet needs, typically manpower, tools, equipment or funding, and suggest lack of recognition, neglect and disrespect.

It Starts with the Leader

Workplace culture begins with the leader; the tone of your environment is, and must be, set by you. If there are signs of disrespect around you, it’s likely you are a large factor. This is the time to do some serious self-assessment. Turn to a trusted colleague or executive coach for objective perspective.

The key is to recognize any disrespectful thought patterns or behaviors within yourself, and make corrections. It’s not enough to simply eliminate your disrespectful behavior, rather, you must offer respect in ways you may not have thought necessary. As any coach will tell you; it is very necessary.

Learn and practice expressing genuine respect; regardless of any demographic. The mistake many leaders make is downplaying this subject, giving it low credibility. Great leaders testify to the fact that respecting their people is one of the most critical (and rewarding) responsibilities they have, and how adopting this mindset has made all the difference in the success of their organizations. Once respect is engrained into their culture, leaders understand they can never go back.

The General Right of Respect

People who understand the complexities of the human spirit recognize that respect is the glue that holds relationships together. Mutual respect between two people promotes the affirmation and appreciation people need to work well together, accomplish things and feel fulfilled. An organization of fulfilled people is an organization positioned to reach its full potential.

The need for respect is seen by many as so critical that it is considered a right. People generally believe that everyone has the basic right to be shown respect. From experience we know that a culture depends on people living in mutual respect to function beneficially.

This general right of respect is one of two types of respect, as described by management professor Kristie Rogers in a 2018 Harvard Business Review article entitled, Do Your Employees Feel Respected?. “Owed Respect”, as she calls it, is the respect all people deserve, out of decency and consideration for others. We owe this to each other, and leaders owe it to their people.

This kind of respect is shown by leaders intermingling with their people, expressing interest in them, getting to know them. It tells people that they are worth knowing and worthy of caring. Things as simple as showing courtesy or helpfulness are basic respectful acts. Compliment and encourage your people and see what a difference that makes. This tears down status walls and treats people as partners, not subordinates.

Asking your people for their ideas, feedback and perspectives communicates that they are valuable. Include them in updates, meetings or news. Show them they are respected as part of the team by treating them like teammates.

A powerful way a leader can respect their people is to brag about them to other colleagues or leaders. Support them and cover their backs. There’s no greater display of respect from a leader.

Leaders who take the time to thank their people offer genuine respect. This can be done personally or through an email, phone call or a hand-written note. The effect is amazing.

Performance-Related Respect

The second type of respect is performance-based. Rogers calls this “Earned Respect”. This goes beyond what’s generally owed to people and recognizes accomplishments or acquired skills.

It’s not necessary to distinguish between small, medium or large accomplishments: recognize them all! Let your people hear about the things you appreciate. Some examples of a person’s accomplishments you could inform your staff about include:

  • Gaining extra qualifications through training or a degree
  • Solving a difficult problem
  • Completing a long project that will benefit the organization
  • Favorable comments from customers or coworkers
  • Suggesting a better process, procedure or cost-saving idea
  • A promotion or higher levels of responsibility

You can make these recognitions count even more in one-on-one time, with performance reviews and planning future personal goals. Document their accomplishments and your appreciation. Give some people the opportunity to train others or be a mentor to a younger coworker. Where appropriate, train employees to be leaders. Leaders who demonstrate trust in employees’ potential and efforts convey great respect.

These activities set a tone in your culture that performance, engagement, accountability and respect are highly valued. The key is to be consistent in your respect. Picking and choosing which accomplishments to acknowledge looks like favoritism, and even if this isn’t the intention it will appear to be. Spread the respect equally and frequently. In return, hold everyone accountable for good work, and trust them to do it.

A respectful culture, established and fostered by the leader, is the most powerful means to run an effective, prosperous and dynamic organization.

The Problem with Problem-Solving Leaders

Many employees long for leaders who can solve workplace problems—from flawed systems and procedures to inconsistent policies and managers. They want their leaders to see through the trees and attack forest-sized issues, with the discernment and authority to fix them one by one.

While this sounds great on the surface, employees who report to problem-solving leaders cite challenges that dwarf the problems themselves. Organizations typically benefit from resolved difficulties, but unsound methods or mindsets can exacerbate even the most mundane issues.

Troubleshooting leaders often have skeptical views and have a hard time trusting the workplace culture. They equate run-of-the-mill difficulties with threats to themselves and their companies, prompting over-analysis in their quest to find ideal remedies. Their problem-solving attempts can stymie operations and push people beyond their breaking points. Qualified leadership coaches specialize in helping leaders overcome these tendencies and establish healthier approaches to troubleshooting.

Are You an Obsessive Problem Solver?

Problem solvers look at circumstances with a critical eye, never assuming systems work as well as they should. They’re motivated by risk mitigation and view problems in procedures or systems as weaknesses that jeopardize their future.

Setbacks or glitches are acute sources of personal pain, according to Dr. Beatrice Chestnut, author of The 9 Types of Leadership: Mastering the Art of People in the 21st Century Workplace(Post Hill Press, 2017). Problem solvers persistently look for hazards and make every attempt to minimize, if not eliminate, them to improve workplace conditions.

If you can relate to this description, you may have problem-solving tendencies that detrimentally affect your people. If your critical eye always focuses on what can go wrong, you’re likely causing difficulty for others. You may be an obsessive problem solver if you cannot stop yourself from asking diagnostic questions and exhausting all troubleshooting options. You may feel uncomfortable until all uncertainties are eliminated. You cognitively understand that this is impossible, but you’re nonetheless emotionally compelled to try.

Mixed Outcomes

When obsessing, troubleshooting leaders disrupt the normal pace of business and frustrate their people. They:

  • Are deep thinkers who tend to perseverate over data, diverting their attention away from people and communication priorities.
  • View circumstances with skepticism and need assurances that systems and products are at optimum states, which can drag down those around them.
  • Taint their mindset by overstating negative and minimizing positive aspects, which leads to poor decisions.
  • Are easily paralyzed by analysis and avoid making decisions, thereby blocking progress.
  • Have little trust in processes and procedures, as well as those who adhere to them.
  • Wear people down with endless questions as they seek complete resolutions or fixes.
  • Tend to challenge authority by questioning their motives in supporting the status quo.
  • Can invent negative outcomes to affirm their discomfort with ideas or methods, creating greater challenges.
  • Lack flexibility and a willingness to accept new ideas.

At the same time, problem solvers have some positive traits that benefit their organizations. Leaders who focus on troubleshooting:

  • Are great lessons-learned resources, full of advice on how to avoid past mistakes.
  • Have excellent analytical and problem-spotting skills. They catch errors most people overlook, which reduces waste.
  • Are prepared and calm when trouble arises, as they planned for it.
  • Are unafraid to discuss the elephant in the room, tackling significant issues no one else wants to mention.
  • React honestly, without hedging, grandstanding or bragging.

How many of these traits hit home?

Ideally, problem-solving leaders’ positive traits will outweigh their negative behaviors. Self-awareness can help them minimize damage to their organizations.

Outward Signs

Certain observable behaviors expose a problem-solving leader. Taken to extremes, they can wreak organizational havoc.

Adamant troubleshooters have a reputation for being great problem solvers and often catch the CEO’s eye. They may have earned approval by preventing a huge crisis or finding a way to solve a cost overrun. Their detail-oriented behaviors follow them into leadership roles, where their effects on people are more prominent.

Problem-solving leaders are visibly satisfied by troubleshooting. They’re highly engaged as they calmly and systematically respond to challenges, approaching the process with a self-appointed sense of duty. Problem solvers probe situations with strings of questions, some of which seem irrelevant or exasperating.

Skeptical troubleshooters find fault with existing products or processes, believing it’s incumbent upon them to offer solutions. They confront established viewpoints, assuming they have a noble purpose: to heroically correct problems that plague the organization. Their defiance rubs people the wrong way. Tensions flare when troubleshooters focus on perceived threats but ironically overlook the disunity they promote.

To make their case, problem-solving leaders overstate consequences and minimize advantages, which weaken their trustworthiness and credibility. Their critical perspective prevents them from making decisions, as their quest for ideal solutions is virtually unattainable.

Data-driven problem solvers value numbers over people. They’re resistant to intuition and gut feelings, searching for solutions that can be validated quantitatively. Progress is delayed when hard data are unavailable, which creates rifts with people whose experience and input should be valued and trusted.

A Complex Mindset      

When we work for problem solvers, our survival depends on understanding how they think and feel.

Troubleshooters feel threatened when things go wrong and problems have no readily apparent solutions. They fear their analytical skills—and, by extension, they themselves—are inadequate. A loss of control over circumstances adds hopelessness to the mix.

Many problem solvers deal with their insecurities by fixing things and bringing order to their world. Their mindset is fairly concrete: Everything needs to be fixed. Trouble lurks around every corner and must be snuffed out. These leaders have an innate protection mode.

Problem solvers rarely recognize their fears or desperate need to feel safe, but they’re keenly aware of their preparedness. They’re always ready to dissect problems methodically. They pride themselves on their diligence.

Troubleshooting leaders are often the odd one out, taking a minority view. They notice how few of their colleagues grasp their insights, which empowers them. Their research often leads to predictions, which take the form of warnings to heed their advice. Setting themselves apart from others affirms their belief that their contributions are important.

Problem solvers revel in hard data. They dismiss others’ intuition as inferior to facts. Gut feelings are deemed inappropriate and risky. They require a high level of certainty. But when data are hard to obtain or seem misleading, these leaders struggle to make decisions. Pulling the trigger without enough assurance seems riskier than doing nothing. Appealing to their common sense proves fruitless.

Over-analysis is never a problem for obsessive troubleshooters—the more, the better. Extended analysis may uncover other problems—an effective bonus in the war against trouble. Discovering hidden problems is a delightful find for them, akin to uncovering a treasure no one else has spotted.

Problem solvers have trouble taking criticism, which they view as a roadblock to progress or a detriment to morale. But they often accept it as the price to pay for fulfilling their role as protector of the people. Criticism would be far worse if their careful analysis failed to catch problems.

When working with problem solvers, try to understand their perspective and appreciate their gifts of discernment and analysis. Know that they don’t intentionally bog things down with their hyper-focus. Their goals are honorable, though they may pursue them in disruptive ways.

Minimizing Challenges

Problem-solving leaders shouldn’t be expected to forsake their analytical skills or interests, but they can certainly use them in more helpful ways. All organizations have problems, requiring people with keen eyes and minds to solve them.

Problem solvers can learn to develop good personal relationships with peers and subordinates, thus ensuring greater trust in people, processes, practices and products, Dr. Chestnut suggests. An experienced executive coach can help them reduce skepticism and embrace challenges realistically. Rewarding relationships help dull fears of trouble and build greater confidence in well-managed systems. Getting to know problem solvers and hearing them out helps them appreciate relationships and focus on people over data.

Problem-solving leaders can develop better people skills and recognize how others respond to their actions. A coach can guide them through this process, helping them see how defiant or critical questions invite resistance. Leaders can learn to present their ideas more effectively, with everyone’s best interests in mind—a decidedly more palatable proposition. They can work on accepting feedback and consensus. They can express their intentions honorably and seek collaboration sincerely. Ultimately, they’ll learn to work the relationship side of the equation and be rewarded with better professional experiences.

Chronic problem solvers make the greatest strides in overcoming their foundational fears by seeing, admitting and facing them. A coach will point out that searching for problems is a sign of anxiety or negative thinking. A leader’s confidence is the best weapon to override fears and build positivity.

Uncertainty is a given in leadership and life, and self-assurance is vital to achieving success. Problem solvers know they have the skills to identify and mitigate risks, but they also want to trust their abilities to tackle major issues and decisions. Problems are plentiful enough; no one needs to go looking for more. Train your staff to tackle lesser problems, and delegate appropriately. Qualified employees with excellent judgment can lighten your load and any associated anxiety.

Problem-solving leaders must find an effective balance between their analytical skills and everyday time constraints by allowing others to help them. With a healthier mindset, free from fear and anxiety, they can manage problems constructively and unify people, without frustrating or discouraging them.

Persuading Your Employees to Adopt Your Plans

Leaders are continually challenged to assess their organizations for any changes needed to improve function and long-term outlook. They take a deep look at many aspects of the operation, studying information from various viewpoints and departments. Leaders are also tasked with ensuring that all policies, procedures and processes are in alignment with the mission and vision statements.

Mission statements declare an organization’s purpose; what they do and why. Vision statements are (as the name suggests) a vision of where the organization will go; what the results of all efforts will be.

Both statements are intended to unify and focus people with a common purpose and goal. Leaders should understand that ultimate success is possible only when everyone is on the same page at the outset, supporting each other, believing in the mission and the vision. The days are gone where mandated edicts are willingly adopted.

Many leaders struggle to overcome the initial requirement of unity and engagement. Without buy-in from their people, all the magnificent wording of statements, all the splendid planning and budgeting is for naught. The ideas fail before they can be implemented.

What Prevents Plan Adoption

Companies are handicapped when employees are not engaged in the basic mission. Gallup reports that almost three out of five employees don’t know what principles or purpose their company upholds. This lack of assurance leads to another Gallup survey finding that four out of five employees strongly disbelieve their leaders have set a clear direction for their organization’s future.

Why is there such a disconnect between leaders and their people when it comes to their company’s direction? Two possible causes emerge:

  • Leaders may not be communicating what their people need to know, or may not be communicating it effectively.
  • The employees may be disinterested or unwilling to understand what they’ve heard.

Most employees would say that they and their coworkers care about their future and the company they work for. They‘d state that they also make every effort to understand the information their leaders pass on to them about their company’s current state and where they may be heading. The have a vested interest.

The likely cause for the disconnect employees feel about their employer is that they are not sufficiently informed by their leaders. Herein lies the essential issue behind the need for leaders to get employee buy-in when future plans are announced. It comes down to sufficient communication. When all is considered, communication is the essential element in the management of an organization.

People want the assurance that their future is stable; that it’s in good hands, and their careers are safe. When plans or a vision are announced, employees want to feel that they’re a part of it all. They need to sense that the plans were fashioned for their benefit, not someone else’s. These are crucial needs leaders need to understand to get buy-in from their people.

How Communicating Plans Can Go Wrong

The most successful leaders know that communication is two-directional, not one. Developing future plans or visions are monumental tasks. They affect everyone but don’t necessarily involve everyone in each step of their development.

To get broad adoption from your people, they need to have a stake in the plans and see a benefit for them. Employees who see more pain than gain have no reason to approve of your plans. They must be informed to have a way to judge.

Effective communication in big and small settings is the only way to assure this. For every effective way to get buy-in from employees, there are ten ways to fail at it.

The procedural top-down approach to communication doesn’t work in today’s environment.  When managers decide to pass along only the information they believe their people “need to know”, barriers are erected. Filtered information always creates contradictions and errors.  The narrative is often spun to soften its effect, depending on the audience. These things erode trust.

Without trust, people tune out, grumble and become less engaged. At the far end of the spectrum, they stop caring. No leader can gain employee acceptance to any initiative under these circumstances. The same holds true for plans that are mandated from the top office down the line of command, as if they were strict orders to be followed. Employees feel trapped and controlled when they hear about directives they never saw coming, announced after the fact.

Gallup’s Vibhas Ratanjee also notes that if leaders present the need for change under a negative, fix-it mindset, employees become focused on what’s wrong with the company rather that what’s right. If the leadership approach is from a crisis-management perspective, employees formulate a negative impression of their workplace and leadership. This not only stifles buy-in, but may advance desertion.

Another way communication can go wrong is when leaders only inform select people, as if they were more privileged than others. This is done under the assumption that the word will get out well enough. Instead of an equal opportunity for involvement, the “privileged” continue the selection process as they see fit. The disconnection, distortion and discord resulting from this give rise to a resistance of the plans a leader wishes to implement.

Getting Buy-in With a Great Approach

The primary way great leaders have received acceptance for their plans or vision is to involve everyone in their organization from the beginning. People know they are valued and respected when their leader not only informs them throughout implementation, but includes them in its origination.

The beginning steps are key. As Ratanjee explains, visions that include people, with their ideas and feedback, also get their support. Buy-in is at its highest when collaboration is at its greatest. When people see that their needs are being addressed, they commit to seeing the plans put in place. They see a benefit not only for the company, but themselves. This is a double incentive.

Working though the development process—explaining it, talking it out, deciding on directions together­—gives people a sense of empowerment and freedom. There are few things that engage people more than that. Encouraging, challenging and expressing gratitude for all contributions raises the buy-in to its peak.  Everyone will want to see the vision succeed.

Leaders who support people to a higher level of excellence conduct the entire development process from a positive perspective, not looking at how to fix what’s broken, but building on what already works. People want to identify with success. Draw them into a vision that paints that picture.

People need regular communication and update sessions to remain engaged and supportive. Gathering people face-to-face is the most engaging way to involve them in the process. Encourage dialogue and provide opportunities to interact as their ideas, concerns and questions are considered. Great leaders appoint a team of people to facilitate meetings, minutes and follow-up.

Andre Lavoie, CEO and co-founder of Clear Company, stresses the importance of communicating with clarity and specificity. When employees grasp your compelling vision, and then hear a plan entailing concise, logical steps that will require their help, they’ll commit their best efforts. Design plans that create tasks your people can take on, which will enhance their personal goals and address their long-term needs.

If the entire management staff participates in communication and workshop activities, the sense of unity that results will pave the way for maximum employee buy-in and the most rewarding results.