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When good intentions and leadership behavior don’t always line up

July 6, 2017

Although I’m generally considered to be a strong leader with the people I am privileged to serve, I am still susceptible to making mistakes. We all get caught up in the moment every now and again, and sometimes forget that it’s all about empowering, engaging, and empowering our people. Even great leaders occasionally misstep. If you’re lucky, you have the right feedback mechanisms in place to let you know early enough to learn and adjust quickly.

As leaders, we make a mistake and always ask those above us “how can I do better”? But the people above you only have one view – they can only see you relative to your peers. Asking your team gives you a full 360 view. I know it sounds like motherhood-and-apple-pie, but we still don’t do it enough.

If my team members can give me authentic feedback, I know I have built a healthy relationship because they can feel safe enough to give me that feedback. If I don’t get that feedback in conversation but I get it through anonymous channels like surveys, that’s when I know I’ve really got work to do.

When I was recently doing mid-year reviews, I thought it was only fair that I ask my team members to also review me. What am I doing well? How can I serve you better? I got answers like: “Be more available”, “Allow us to help more” and “Hold us to task”. This simple dialogue allowed us to re-establish what we need from each other.

The reality is that good intentions and behavior don’t always line up. Here are some of the missteps I know I’ve made recently:

Intent: Empower the team, give them autonomy and let them solve problems independently

Unintended consequence: I over-swung the pendulum, so to speak. Feedback from my team told me this created a lack of direction and priority. I had to learn to balance autonomy with enough control parameters.

Intent: Keep my organization flat.

Unintended consequence: Scaling the team quickly meant that I was no longer able to create strong relationships with all team members, and to be available when I was really needed. It turns out that having a middle layer of leaders in place would actually give the team the support they needed, and make it possible for me to be more available when they need me. 

Intent: When things get super busy, manage my schedule tightly to stay on top of things

Unintended consequence: An inability to be responsive. A leader shouldn’t look at filling their day to keep busy, because you need to preserve enough time and energy to react and respond as your team needs you to. If you keep yourself busy with things you think are overly strategic, you can’t react to things going on day-to-day.

Intent: Protect and shield the team from external noise

Unintended consequence: The team felt I wasn’t being transparent. I inadvertently created an environment of perceived evasion and threatened overall levels of trust. I have to share more of my pains as a leader to help the team understand how I am serving them.

Feedback, at least the constructive kind, stings everybody. It’s human nature to become defensive or to look for ways to rationalize and explain it away. But, as leaders we have to regularly ask for feedback from those we are privileged to serve. We have to be comfortable getting feedback, continually be checking in and realizing that, despite the best of intentions, sometimes we are going to do the wrong things. The important part is asking. This way you learn how to serve your team better. I hope sharing my missteps encourages others to share theirs. We say fail fast…but we need to live it on all levels.

What missteps have you made?

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