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A New Element of Management, Part I: Three Scenarios of Employee Disengagement

All in the same week, I had the opportunity to deal with three very different senior managers. Each was responsible for a different organizational function, and each had a different leadership style. And yet all three senior managers — we’ll call them Silvia, Ophelia, and Felix — behaved in characteristic ways that unintentionally undermined employee engagement.

In this post, we’ll look at some of the ways they conduct themselves with members of their staffs. See if you can spot any common elements:

Silvia: “I trust you to handle things, but I’m here whenever you need me.”

As international vice president, Silvia was only periodically physically present with her various staffs. She was extremely encouraging to Elise, a brand new director who was clearly used to a more accessible boss with a more directive style. According to Silvia, Elise was coming along wonderfully. Unfortunately, however, it didn’t feel that way to Elise, who was in a constant lather about when she should act unilaterally, when to consult with Silvia, and which problems absolutely needed to be escalated to her.

Even though Silvia’s message of total trust had worked well with other people, it backfired with Elise. That’s because Elise didn’t have enough confidence in herself to feel trustworthy yet, so when she didn’t know what to do, but knew that Silvia thought she did, she was afraid to ask for help. Not wanting to seem like a weakling or a nuisance, Elise started clamming up, and took less and less action.

Ophelia: “I can’t decide this on my own; I need your opinions.”

Ophelia is a fast-track, shooting star kind of executive, and younger than many of her subordinates. She’s also highly collaborative by nature, and wants everyone to participate and to know they count.

Ophelia was very well aware that her quick ascent had ruffled a few feathers, so she was careful not to lord it over others or make displays of her authority.

Her team meetings typically included a pep talk about what the group was going to be able to accomplish. Instead of laying out her plans, though, Ophelia usually probed for everyone’s opinion, promising them that nothing was final until they had all weighed in, and went out of her way to be accommodating to everyone’s views.

Ophelia’s inclusiveness and willingness to consult with others came across to many members of her team as weakness and indecisiveness: Sometimes she even seemed to be in the position of flip-flopping as she tried to incorporate first one person’s views and then another’s. Some members of her staff started behaving almost as if they were in charge of various meetings or initiatives, and Ophelia was just “supporting” them.

Felix: “Take care of this. Then come back, and I’ll tell you what to do next.”

Felix has an extremely strong work ethic and exacting standards, and he doesn’t believe in asking anyone else do to something he wouldn’t do himself. His staff appreciates his willingness to “get in there” with them, as well as his deep industry and operational knowledge — and the visible success of their department. But he was turning the “high potentials” off with his micromanagement. His staff wanted more latitude to figure out the timing and process of carrying out assignments themselves, and chafed at having to check back with him constantly on details.

What’s the Remedy?

Consider these three managers’ communication processes. What judgments are they making? How do they treat people? Do you see yourself in any of the situations as either the executive or the staff?

In Part II, I’ll share with you the remedy and result for each of these situations — and the simple, underlying element that ran through them all.

Onward and upward,

LK

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