Without doubt, most leaders want to do a good job. Indeed, most were promoted into management precisely because they were terrific individual contributors, and someone figured that an employee with savvy technical skills would be a natural candidate for leading others.
But the fact remains that far too often one hears the lament, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of management!” Too many managers fall short in their leadership practice by doing things that limit their effectiveness, often without realizing what they’re doing wrong. This is an account of five leadership practices that lead to employee apathy, poor morale, and lackluster performance.
One: Poor leaders strive for compliance, not commitment
Employees do what they do for one of two reasons: because they have to, or because they want to. Leaders who rely on their positional power use fear to drive performance. They strive for compliance – they manage by command. They avoid employee involvement, they don’t share decision-making, and they are quick to point out what’s wrong. They will get a certain level of performance – enough to avoid a painful consequence, but rarely will they get much more.
Fact: Research has shown that the typical employee is given 16 pieces of negative feedback for every positive.
Leaders who understand that outstanding performance stems from commitment know that people thrive in an environment characterized by a clear vision and mission, a set of shared values, and a pervasive belief that people want to make a contribution, accept responsibility, and excel at their jobs.
Two: Poor leaders are almost always poor listeners
In study after study, when employees are asked the characteristics they most desire in their manager, the one that tops the list is the feeling of being heard when they communicate. Poor managers often say they listen, but they are really faking it – pseudo-listening at best.
Authentic listening may be the most important skill for a leader to develop. We trust and are much more willing to follow people we believe take a genuine interest in our concerns. Good listeners are able to encourage dialogue by asking open-ended questions, paraphrasing and summarizing, and conveying in their own words both the message and the feelings attached to that message.
Three: Poor leaders confuse intention with impact
A leader attends a meeting with one of her staff, who is there to give a brief presentation. Afterwards, as the two walk back to the department, the leader decides to share some feedback with the employee on how he could improve his presentation skills.
Unfortunately, she begins her coaching on a crowded elevator. When they exit the elevator, the supervisor walks toward her office, feeling good about helping her employee improve. The employee returns to his desk, seething with embarrassment and anger. What went wrong?
The supervisor confused her intention (which was good) with her impact (which was awful). Without realizing it, she’s created a resentful employee.
Four: Poor leaders deliver negative consequences for desired performance
Managers sometimes scratch their heads and wonder why employees aren’t stepping up to the plate to “give 110%.” Perhaps it’s because they are given negative consequences when they do:
- The employee who makes a problem-solving suggestion at a brain-storming meeting is tasked with the responsibility to head up a task team to solve the problem.
- The overworked employee who is great at getting things done under pressure is the first one the leader delegates the next unexpected assignment.
- The employee who manages his time well and completes assignments on time is rewarded with sarcastic comments about whether she has enough work to do.
Behavior is a function of consequence. Leaders must be careful that when they get the behavior they’d like (ideas at a brainstorming, grace under pressure, good task management skills) they don’t deliver a negative consequence which will extinguish the behavior over time.
Five: Poor leaders offer positive consequences for poor performance
Jim nearly always comes to staff meetings late. Mario fails to turn in production reports on time. Susan has a poor attitude, constantly bad-mouthing her co-workers, gossiping about others, and putting in a minimum effort.
Why? Because their manager actually rewards their poor performance by giving each of them a positive consequence. By ignoring Jim’s attendance problems and not addressing the issue, he gives Jim more free time to pursue other interests. By working around Mario’s late reports, he relieves Mario of any deadline tension. And, by not coaching Susan because he’s uncomfortable with difficult conversations, he gives her freedom from being held accountable for her performance.
Leaders need to look within themselves from time to time to see whether they are a contributing factor to employee apathy, poor morale, or lackluster performance.