One of the biggest challenges in leadership is managing behaviour when logic and emotion are in conflict.
Intellectually, leaders know they need team members who see things differently and challenge their ideas — and yet the very human reality is we connect more easily with people who are similar to ourselves.
On any team, leaders likely have to balance this tension with one or two people: They recognize that having these people on the team brings a unique perspective and adds to the team’s effectiveness, but — for whatever reason — leaders have a difficult time building a relationship with them. So, what’s to be done?
First, let’s be clear on the objective. Anyone can manage someone they don’t like. But why even bother if that’s the goal? What we are really looking for here is “leading” someone: Getting her engaged and excited about reaching her full potential and committed to doing the best work of her career as part of this team. This type of leadership can only happen in the context of a relationship.
Rapport and respect
Without exception, elite coaches in sport are incredibly disciplined at building relationships. They understand that the quality of the relationship is what gives them permission to set high expectations and provide direct feedback, and provides a safety net during tough times.
Building a relationship with team members is crucial. However, leaders need to define the type of relationship they want to build. Setting out to “like” everyone on a team may be neither possible nor desirable.
What is both necessary and achievable, however, is a relationship characterized by rapport and respect. This combination means people are able to sit together and have a conversation, and both parties will respect the ideas the other individual brings to the table. Again, this doesn’t mean people necessarily go and grab a beer after work — but it does provide the foundation to lead.
When we ask leaders to self-evaluate their ability on a range of behaviours that build rapport and respect, the bottom three behaviours are, consistently, all about listening. Specifically:
• “I give the person speaking my full attention” (only 23 per cent say they “always” do this).
• “I make it easy for people to tell me they don’t know something” (22 per cent).
• “I do not allow interruptions when meeting with others” (nine per cent).
Here’s the important part: It’s up to leaders to do these things first. They should take conscious action to engage in behaviours that build rapport and respect — it’s likely they will be reciprocated.
Wearing rose-coloured glasses
Let’s say a leader is sitting in a conference room waiting for his team to arrive for a weekly meeting. Most of the team filters in on time — but one person is missing. By the time a couple of fruitless messages are sent to try and locate the missing employee and the leader decides to go ahead, the meeting has already started 10 minutes late.
What does the leader tell himself about the latecomer? If it’s someone he has a great relationship with, he’s likely giving her the benefit of the doubt — “The traffic was brutal this morning.” If it’s someone he doesn’t like? There’s a good chance that while he’s leading the meeting, he’s already mentally rehearsing the “You think the rules don’t apply to you” speech he will deliver later that day.
Here’s the reality: In both cases, the leader is guessing at the cause of the tardiness. But that guess will significantly impact whether the conversation that happens later in the day will help or hurt the relationship.
What’s important to recognize here is the leader has a choice. He is not bound by his immediate reaction. He can consciously choose the story he wants to tell himself. And, if he wants to have a shot at building a solid relationship with someone he’s not immediately compatible with, there is no downside to having an optimistic version of events.
Avoid being an ostrich
As human beings, we don’t naturally seek out the company of people we don’t get along with. Plus, we were all told repeatedly as children: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
All of this may lead us to convince ourselves that the best course of action is to simply avoid engaging. “If I try to give him feedback, it will just lead to a fight and make things worse.” And we learn to live with what we believe is a mutually beneficial detente.
This is wrong, and not helpful.
In 2009, Gallup conducted a survey of more than 1,000 employees to better understand the connection between management and engagement. The most striking finding: Ignoring people is the most effective way to create an actively disengaged team.
Leaders may think that constantly pointing out weaknesses and mistakes would be worse but, in fact, employees who reported that their managers ignored them were almost twice as likely to be actively disengaged than employees who reported their managers focused only on providing negative feedback.
And so, as with many things in management, it comes down to doing the hard things. Leaders should fight off their discomfort and engage, consciously tell themselves the most positive story they can about intent, and be disciplined in engaging in the listening behaviours that build rapport and respect. If they do it, they reap the benefits that come from teams with a diverse array of personalities and viewpoints.
Dane Jensen (@danejensen) is the CEO of Performance Coaching, a Toronto-based leadership development firm that focuses on leadership, team effectiveness and personal resilience. For more information, visit www.
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