Is Your Leadership Suffocating Your Followers?

35186“I feel as though I am being suffocated by my bosses”, Sally said plaintively, “I am publicly being criticized for small mistakes I’ve made in the past, my work is constantly being questioned and my new ideas to get things on track are completely ignored.”

Why is it so difficult for some leaders to focus their leadership efforts on the positive and facing forward?  Sheryl Sandberg in her new book, Lean In makes an important observation. “As hard as it is to have an honest dialogue about business decisions,” she writes, “it is even harder to give individuals honest feedback.”

What makes giving productive feedback so difficult? More importantly, what can leaders do about it?  You can start by considering the high leadership costs of being “stuck”.  That is–being hostage to your own unwillingness or inability–to provide the necessary and proper feedback to a team member who is not meeting expectations.

Fueling public criticism, ignoring new ideas and otherwise marginalizing the contributions of a team member has enormous leadership costs.  What are the long-term impacts of leaders being focused on the negative?  Declining morale, damaged self-esteem, confusion and falling productivity for starters.  You can probably add your own experiences to this list– few of them are ever good.

What are the long-term leadership impacts of fueling a disconnect between expectations and reality of someone’s performance?   Being stuck often feels as though there are no alternatives or options to your current situation.  In differing circumstances and over numerous years, those who continually focus their leadership on the negative tend to demoralize themselves and the people they need most.  Making progress on a complex issue or refocusing the organization after a stumble–big or small–demands positive leadership and re-direction. This is true at all levels across the organization.

Few of us do our best work under the constant duress of criticism, second-guessing or being ignored in the course of our day.  As leaders we need to find a new path forward for ourselves and our teams as well.  Here are some useful questions to help you do it:

  • Have you communicated your expectations clearly?
  • Have you confirmed the team’s or team member’s understanding and reached mutual agreement on those expectations?
  • Have you established agreed upon milestones, monitoring or reporting protocols?
  • Do you have agreed upon boundaries describing who can take action when?
  • Have you provided a mechanism (meeting, review session, checklist) for regular and timely feedback to your team members?

It’s likely members of your team are more resilient than you might think.  People can bounce back from failure and shortfalls.  If they know their leaders stand with them and are committed helping them get back on track.

In his writings about building trust author Stephen R. Covey talks about the importance of leaders making deposits into their team’s emotional bank account.  Offering regular praise when appropriate, complimenting initiative, giving credit in meetings, acknowledging ideas and offering positive feedback whenever possible, all provide leaders and team members with a needed reservoir of goodwill.  When the time comes that an emotional withdrawal is needed, your criticism or negative feedback coupled with the goodwill you’ve created along the way can lessen the defensiveness and help offset the sting of those difficult conversations.  It’s definitely worth remembering effective leaders praise in public, and as necessary criticize in private.

Finally, if there’s a vital lesson of the information age, it is this.  Your organization’s competitive advantage leaves the building and goes home to bed each day.  Smart and savvy leaders do everything in their power to make certain that same “competitive advantage” comes back to work–focused and fueled–to deliver their best.  Your customers, clients and members expect it.  How are you making sure it happens?

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