Are you a good leader? Are you leading in the right direction? Or are you doing some things that might be turning people off and inhibiting peak performance?
Most people are actually somewhere between being a good leader and a bad leader, with the majority uncertain of the connection between their leadership and performance. A deeper knowledge of what good (or great) leadership is will then enable you to break-through and affect change in the performance of your team, organization or company like never before.
Considering that break-through superstar performance is what most bosses hope for in their careers, let's review what represents good leadership and bad leadership in a concrete and actionable way — actions that drive positive sustainable results from an understanding of which managerial actions push negative results and which drive positive results.
Leadership denotes the sending of value standard messages that most people then use to conduct their work.
Leadership in the workplace applies to managing people, not to managing things. And as I have previously defined leadership (watch and read here), in the workplace, leadership denotes the sending of value standard messages that most people then use to conduct their work. This means how industriously, cooperatively, openly, respectfully, caringly, honestly, neatly, cleanly, and the like to perform their work. Thus, we say that employees have been led in the direction of those standards.
How does an employee experience leadership? They experience it through the support provided by management and the quality of this support dictates the quality of their work. The support an employee uses comes in two forms: tangible and intangible.
Tangible support consists of training, tools, material, parts, discipline, direction, procedures, rules, technical advice, documentation, information, planning, etc.
Intangible support consists of feelings like confidence, morale, trust, respect, relatedness (or purpose), autonomy, ownership, engagement and empowerment.
Providing that support may or may not be clear to you, as the boss, but it is clear to whomever you manage, the majority of whom are followers. What this means to you, the boss, is that leadership happens inexorably every minute of every day because the vast majority of people are following the lead of the boss, some more, some less. Followers follow the leadership of the boss. This is a Natural Law. The only choice available to a boss is to set the standard employees will follow—be that good, bad, mediocre or somewhere on the spectrum. We want to be in the very good to great range!
Now we can get more specific in defining good leadership in the workplace and poor or bad leadership.
In order to produce the absolute best products and services in the marketplace, all employees must treat their work and their customers with great respect and care. Everyone knows this. It follows then that good leadership requires treating employees with great respect and care — the better the respect and caring, the better the outcome.
Remember this is a Natural Law (inexorible, inescapable). Treat employees as if they are very important and valuable and you will cause them to feel and become this way. They will then treat their work, customers, peers and management this way. They will follow your lead.
What then characterizes good (or great!) leadership?
Every person wants to be heard and respected. Everyone has something to contribute. Listening and responding respectfully makes it worthwhile for employees to apply 100% of their brainpower on their work thus unleashing their full potential of creativity, innovation and productivity and making them highly motivated, committed and productive. All of this gives them very high morale, enables them to take great pride in their work and then they will literally love to come to work. Good leadership multiplies whatever creativity, innovation and productivity top management has by however many employees they have.
What does that mean for bad leadership?
Bad leadership is characterized by attempting to control employees through orders, policies, rules, goals, targets, reports, visions, bureaucracy, and changes all designed to almost force employees to work and to create and deliver what management considers to be satisfactory products and services. In this mode, management on its own decides what to do, when to do it, and how to do it and listens only perfunctorily, if they listen at all, to what employees have to say.
What characterizes bad leadership?
These actions or inactions are bad because they lead employees to believe that management disrespects them and does not care a whit for them. It also puts employees in the state of having to guess what management wants and management must be right about everything because no one else is allowed to make decisions. Bad leadership shuts off the natural creativity, innovation, and productivity of each employee and slowly but surely demotivates and demoralizes them. With the “I know better than you” and the “be quiet and listen to me” mentality often projected from management, the majority will act like robots waiting for instructions, even if that is not what management intended.
Most bad leadership is the result of a top-down, command and control style of management, where the employee is rarely if ever listened to. This style is prevelant in the workplace and ignores every employee's basic need to be heard and to be respected. It also results in a knowledge barrier and top management becoming ignorant of what is really going on in the workplace and the marketplace, which in turn makes their directives misguided at best and irrelevant at worst.
“What went wrong here?”
Or, “So and so said you were doing this instead of that, why are you doing that?”
This actually portrays pure disrespect. Sometimes the boss says it in a casual way, trying to be non-confrontational, while other times you'll see a clenching of teeth, if the boss is not terribly comfortable with confrontation. Would you want to be likewise grilled? Have you experienced such an exchange or something similar? Firstly, the employee does not think they did anything wrong and secondly, due to such passive aggressive behavior, can’t be certain what was really wrong. “Well, don’t do it this way, do it that way,” you might hear the boss say after the grilling. The boss basically sets the employee up for failure again, making them guess what the issue is or was. This is bad leadership and it is top-down in style.
In the top-down model, nobody is really listening to employee ideas, valuing the opinions of subordinates, or giving employees any recognition. The only way that the workforce can deal with managers who treat them in this way is to disengage and ignore the behavior of managers, bosses, and executives. In the workplace this is seen as being sullen, uncommunicative, having a poor attitude, low morale or apathy. Have you seen this? Have you used those words as a manager?
Bad leadership causes a huge amount stress for employees and managers too, and this turns into poor performance, sick days, mistakes, lack of adherence to rules, turnover and a whole host of other issues you may have seen.
With management attempting to manage the work instead of the people, much damage is done as managing the work requires a huge amount of time and effort and leaves management little or no time to actually manage people.
So then let’s look at the above example with good leadership.
You think you have heard that something is being done incorrectly. You walk over to observe, ask some questions and listen. You say hello to the person involved, then:
“Hey, so tell me, how are you going about this job?”
You get an answer.
“Okay, so why like this and not like this?”
If they are doing something that you really think is wrong, then you point it out by saying,“What if you did it like this? What do you think about that?”
“Well, that doesn’t really work, because XYZ group doesn’t get us what we need on time ”
Ah, there you go, a support deficiency. That’s a job for their boss, most likely you in this case. During this exchange, perhaps you find the way the person does something works better or that they get their work done faster that way. That's great! Then on the flipside, you might find this person is lacking some knowledge or training (“Oh, I didn't know I could do it that way,” they might say.) which again is support that you, as the boss, are responsible for providing. Who knows what you will find out, but most assuredly, if you go in with a confrontational demeanor or passive aggressively, the person will shut down, because you are the boss, and from your negative approach, they most likely know to not stand up; they were taught to listen and defer to you; and to wait for your decision. Also, if they do not trust you, they may be very trepidatious about revealing how or why they do something, or even that there is a deficiency from another group, because you didn't support them before, threw them under the bus, didn't deliver what you said you would, etc.
What about those followers, I mentioned above?
Let's say you heard about a lack of tools or training in the above scenario and never did anything about it. This becomes the norm, in the eyes of a follower. They conform to that norm and to the resulting lower productivity. Even if they know that better training and tools will result in higher productivity and a better product or service, it will be unlikely that they speak up, or stick their neck out. After all, they saw some top performers (the non-followers) get nowhere when they brought up the deficiencies. And those non-followers? Well they will try for a while to get the support they need — patch a solution together to get their job done as efficiently as possible — but will stop asking for fear of making waves. Rest assured they will almost immediately look for a better place to work.
So, poor leadership drove productivity down; information flow down (the boss doesn’t know of issues); the team down; and overall team performance below their potential. Powerful. Thankfully, good leadership is as powerful on the upward side.
I could have said, “Be a better communicator. Clear, motivational communication skills is what great leaders have.” But tell me, where would that get you? Not very far, because it is an innocuous statement that could end up good or bad in practice.
What every manager, boss, executive —leader— honestly needs to do for the greatest and most immediate results is to listen respectfully and to follow-up with a satisfactory response (actions) to those involved.
Check out the Five Step Listening Process in this video.
The bottomline is that all leaders lead in either a good direction or a bad direction with a full spectrum existing from exceptionally bad to exceptionally good. And although this direction may not be understood or consciously chosen, quite fortunately, we are all human and we thus all have the power of choice. We can consciously choose to adjust our actions to always lead in the good direction to raise our performance and success in managing people.