See something, say something

Most of us have worked for (or at least heard horror stories about) that blowhard boss who just loves to hear themself talk. Their droning words and impractical ideas fill the room, drowning out the contributions of the team. What they see as “rallying the troops” typically results in eye rolls and an increase in Happy Hour gripe fests. Team members lose the will to share ideas and become mired in status quo. Gross.

I have worked with many leaders who seem to have built their entire leadership philosophy around trying to avoid being that boss. They view management as a dirty word and go to great lengths to just be supportive. They defer to the team whenever possible and rarely offer a strong opinion of their own.

Look, there is no question that their heart is in the right place. Research (and my professional experience) strongly support creating an empowering environment for employees. Skilled employees given the authority and tools to solve problems creates stronger teams and happier customers. However, the problem I see is when this approach is taken to extreme and born out of a knee-jerk reaction to not being that boss as opposed to a deliberate intent to be the type of leader who…In other words, please don’t build your leadership solely around what not to do.

It is easy to list the problems attributed to that blowhard boss, but an overly silent leader also has unintended consequences.

  • Neglecting to publicly acknowledge a job well done leads to a “why bother?” attitude.
  • Silence regarding unethical behavior creates mistrust and fear.
  • Avoiding conversations about low performance leads to complacency and resentment.
  • Not sharing details about what matters to you creates an atmosphere of secrecy.
  • Ambiguous direction results in competing pet projects.
  • Not providing predictions about the future and what is possible contributes to the belief you don’t have a vision and your team cannot count on you to create one.

Simply put, while being a blowhard leads to team members shutting down and feeling resentful, being too passive leads to confusion, stress and mistrust in your capabilities. What’s a leader to do?!

It seems to me that working for an overbearing leader has created a false dichotomy where people are led to believe “Leaders are terrible! Let the team lead! Who needs a leader anyway?” But if a crappy leader can cause so much damage, then obviously leaders matter! You know that person who gets invited to all your parties but doesn’t really contribute anything? They don’t crack jokes. They don’t have new things to discuss. They don’t really laugh. Sure, they are nice enough. They don’t cause any problems. They show up, they observe, they eat and they leave. In my household, we refer to that person as “one less slice of pizza” in that the only tangible thing they contributed was less pizza to go around. Now contrast that with your friend who is a bit rambunctious. They show up, slap backs, play pranks, maybe spill a drink or two. They are annoying, but their party fouls make the experience all the more memorable and give people something to talk about for years to come.

I am not suggesting you strive to be a Party Foul leader, blustering and buffooning your way around the office. However, I am pleading with you not to go to the other extreme to try and overcompensate. Please do not be One Less Slice of Pizza. I am serious. Your team needs you. And if they don’t, why does your role exist? Like it or not, once you are in a formal leadership role your words carry weight. Even if you strive to be unassuming and unintimidating (which is admirable), the bigger your title, the more people look to you and depend on you.

There is a time and place to be quiet and defer to the team’s expertise. In fact, that is what leaders should be striving towards. But do not automatically start there as a method to avoid being perceived as “too command and control.” A team is defined as a group of people coming together towards a common goal. They have shared purpose and objectives. They have a shared definition of success. If you are lucky enough to inherit a team that is already achieving their goals and is rocking and rolling, congratulations! You have two options. One, you could coast for a while and wait for your boss to realize that your role is no longer needed because the team already has it under control. Or two, you can get out there, talk to your customers and understand what could be better. And then create that future with your team before you all become obsolete.

A leader’s job is to look beyond the day-to-day and set direction towards a successful future. To define what is possible, what good looks like and create the environment and the team to get there. Do you know what that requires? Having an opinion and sharing it. Frequently. In multiple ways.

Based on my experience, here is what team members want from their senior leaders:

  • An inspiring direction and vision for what is possible
  • Clear definition of success
  • Insights into the broader landscape impacting them, within the organization and externally
  • Someone with clout who has their back
  • Willingness to hold people accountable for the good of the team
  • Someone who has “seen it before” and can mentor and guide them
  • Someone who listens to their ideas and helps make them happen
  • Willingness to advocate for the team’s needs with other groups and leaders

The list can go on and on, and obviously different people have different needs. But all these attributes require the leader to speak up.

Ready to find your engaging, empowering voice? Here are a few tips:

  • Lean on your natural ability to listen, and couple it with good questions, and offer your reflections. Demonstrate that you heard what was said and share how it may or may not inform your thinking.
  • For any scenario facing your team, take a few minutes to answer the following questions. Keep it simple, specific, and honest.
    • Where are we going? Why?
    • Why does this matter to the organization?
    • Why is this important to me?
    • What am I excited about?
    • What am I worried about?
    • What are my expectations?
    • What questions do I have?
    • How do I think the team can help the most?

Then share your thoughts with your team. It can be during your regularly scheduled meetings, a special session or even via email. Do what makes the most sense for your situation. But do it. As the great Billy Joel reminds us, “Listen boy, it’s not automatically a certain guarantee. To insure yourself you’ve got to provide communication constantly…Tell her about it.

Leadership is full of gray areas. Keep at it. You got this.

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