People want to succeed. The vast majority want to feel good about themselves and their work. Nevertheless, sometimes, it is tremendously difficult to balance day-to-day duties with the emotional needs of your employees.
There are no quick fixes or simple formulas for generating a culture that unleashes the competency of people. It occasionally requires intervention into a number of dimensions of organizational life: challenging management philosophy and practices, communicating and aligning everyone to the business strategy, cultivating processes and systems, providing training in social and business skills, etc.
Whom would you rather have at your side in a tough spot? A partner who shares full responsibility for decisions and their outcomes? Alternatively, a subordinate who does just what you say and shuts up about ideas he has that may be better.
Rationally, you want the former; emotionally, you may choose the latter. Leaders bow to a multitude of short-term pressures: severe demands for quarterly earnings, risk aversion, distress with uncertainty, resistance to change, linear extrapolation from past experience, and reluctance to cannibalize established businesses.
Reflect on your career. Have you ever kept quiet when superiors were creating problems? What caused you to withhold your counsel?
I guarantee you they were being “the boss.” Everything about their tone, body language, verbal language, and behavior was indicating you that they were the boss and you were the subordinate. Chances are you learned from them what a boss looks and sounds like. Whether you admired their style or not, some of it rubbed off on you.
When you act as a superior, you will have subordinates. Act as a partner, and you will have partners. Yes, you may be the senior partner, but they are still partners, not underlings, or subordinates.
One key dissimilarity between the behavior of a “boss” and a “partner” is the way you talk. You talk differently to partners. It is not just what you say, but how you say it. To a subordinate, you might say, “This client wants his order fulfilled now. Make it happen.”
What is the message? It is not just “Get the order done now,” but it is also “I’m the boss; this is what I want—and there could be outcomes if I don’t get it.” It does not require a dramatic act to make the point that the receiver is your subordinate. Are you aware of how often and in how many ways you send similar messages?
This is not how you would talk to a partner. You might be just as clear about what you want and when; however, your delivery would create partnership, not subservience. You might ask, “How can we do that?” Alternatively, “Can you make it happen?” You would seek the individual’s knowledge, responsibility, and mutual obligation. When employees are seen as partners, they will understand that their leaders do not simply see them as the means to achieve their own personal targets.
You talk differently to folks below you than to folks across from or above you. So what? The higher you go, the less direct experience you have of customers, stakeholders, and problems. It is harder to get a real feel for what is happening. You become more reliant on on good information and insight from those who are in touch. So, they need to feel invited to tell you the reality they see, especially when it differs from the one you believe is out there.
You likely think that you already extend this encouragement, but you may discourage people from giving you inconvenient information. Unless you make an effort to discover in what ways you do this, you will continue to do so.
Create Partners with Your Subordinates
To create partners and have your employees’ best interests in mind, try this exercise:
- Start every meeting with a question: “Is there anything I’m not getting about this issue that you think I should?”
- Whatever the answer, respond with interest and ask, “Can you tell me more about that or give an example to help me understand it better?”
- Ask questions until you have clarity on the points. Do not argue. Do not cross-examine—just clarify.
- Thank the individual or group making these points.
- Incorporate what makes sense into the decisions.
- If no one spoke up, after the meeting ask the individual who is likely to be forthright, “What am I doing that keeps everyone from talking?”
- If this individual gives you insight into how you dissuade feedback, convey your gratefulness. Find a way to reward the honesty.
- Invite this truth-teller to sit in on more meetings and after each one gives you feedback on anything you did that made others act as subordinates.
Build Trust with Your Employees
Trust is established when even the newest rookie, a part-timer, or the lowest paid employee feels important and part of the team. This begins with management not being reserved, as well as getting out and meeting the troops.
By doing this you will have the self-awareness to create partners. You will also have earned their trust. They will give you their best advice and devotedly support decisions that are based on reality.
By creating this environment where your employees are treated as partners working toward a shared purpose, you will foster in your employees a sense of ownership not simply to their job, but to the whole process. This will inspire not only partnership between the company’s divisions/teams, but it will also help nurture innovation as employees are stimulated to look beyond what they usually work on or how they approach their job.
Good partners invest time and energy in making cognizant judgments about who their leaders are and what they espouse. Then they take the appropriate action.