Employees Know Your Leadership Shortcomings

Identifying A Leader's ShortcomingsWhenever I’m speaking to a large business group, I ask everyone to play a made-up game we call, “We Know That Boss!”

In my most exaggerated game-show announcer voice, (think Family Feud) I call out a few characteristics of a particularly onerous manager, and then quiz the audience to see if they ‘ve ever worked for someone like that (and, therefore, “know that boss”).

Here’s a sample:

“I enforce routines.”

“I can’t delegate responsibility.”

“I monitor everything you do.” 

“I’m a                             Manager.”

If you quickly guessed the word “Micro” as the answer to this one, you’re like every single person ever to have played the game.

Here’s another:

“I need to control you and your work.”

“I constantly intimidate you and keep the pressure high.”

“I manage by (a) Love (b) Fear (c) Hugs?”

I’ll give you automatic credit for the correct answer to this one, too.

What amazes me every time we play this game is that the audience never sees these descriptions as being overly dramatized or cliché.   Instead, many people are desperate to tell me during and after each speech that they work for someone exactly like that right now.

I saw a close friend recently and asked her how she enjoyed working for her boss.  Yikes!  She described her manager as someone who never delegates meatier assignments and projects – and takes them on herself in order to receive the direct praise from her boss.  Call that one a “glory hog!”

I asked my friend if her manager’s boss was any better.   She described him – someone very senior in her organization – as one who kept his subordinates under constant pressure to perform.  She said his attempts at employee recognition always rings hollow because he can’t resist reminding workers what challenges and goals await them next.  He won’t allow people a single moment to truly savor an accomplishment and re-charge their batteries.

There are a few things to draw from all this.

First, many, many people today believe they work for a bad boss – someone who has leadership practices that sap their spirits and undermine their motivation and drive.

With 55% of the US population unhappy in their jobs, the odds would have it that you’re not as compelling of a leader as you might imagine.  It’s actually quite possible that some employees on your team perceive you as a being a micro-manager, someone who consistently influences with fear and intimidation, a glory hog – or worse.

Because leaders are human, we’re often blind to the weakest spots of our managerial practices.  We go about our days acting out of instincts that too often are off-putting to the very people we’re seeking to motivate.

Ironically, our employees see our leadership limitations very clearly (“We know that boss!”) and can help us grow and improve our effectiveness if we chose to ask them.

Since leaders can ill afford to have chinks in their armor if their objective is to direct a super-charged team that consistently achieves its goals, here’s a great way to iron them out.   Next time you meet individually with your employees, tell each person that you very much want to be the best leader possible for them and would genuinely appreciate their guidance.

Ask them this question first:  “Can you identify one thing that you believe I do well as a leader today?”

Your employees will have no problem telling you what you do best and you’ll enjoy hearing their answers.  It’s even likely they’ll tell you more than one!

Next, ask them: “What’s the single most important thing I can do better?”  Some employees will be inclined to tell you that you’re entirely perfect. You’ll want to politely resist this.  Since your employee already has told you how great you are, insist on getting one limitation identified.  Get ready.  Some of what you’ll hear likely will be painful.

Honestly, it takes a lot of guts to ask people to point out your flaws, but it’s the smartest thing you can initiate if you want your team supportive, happy and fully engaged.  I speak from experience here and can tell you some of the feedback I received the first time I tried this exercise made me wince.  But I plodded on, built a (long) list of my shortcomings, and then went to work on eliminating them.  The next time I had my entire team together, I went so far as to share the collective feedback I’d received and expressed my appreciation for their candor.

I learned afterwards that just by asking for my employees’ help, I’d elevated the trust between us.  But by taking the feedback seriously, I not only showed how much I respected the guidance, I soon found myself with far fewer limitations.  Not surprisingly, our team performance soared soon after.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.