Bridging the gap between leaders and those they seek to lead requires a kind of alchemy.
The separation between ineffective or underperforming leaders and those they seek to lead is often expansive. Trust and communication erode. If the gap persists, what are the possible consequences for the business?
Because of widening gaps, disconnected or even fearful employees tend to keep problematic situations or negative perceptions to themselves. They often engage in side conversations—concerns that are conveyed to specific groups of co-workers or team members via texts and email chains that aren’t carried over into meetings.
The results of such secrecy can be catastrophic. A recent example: Many Boeing employees were alarmed by a host of problems surrounding the development of Boeing’s ill-fated 737 Max jetliner, but they never conveyed their concerns to the company’s senior executives.
The plane has been grounded for over a year after 346 people were killed in two 737 Max crashes.
Earlier this year, 117 pages of internal communications among employees, many of which derided their leaders, were turned over to Congress, revealing a toxic work culture.
Why didn’t anyone step up and say something to the people capable of making major decisions and changes? Because typical workplace culture teaches employees that meetings are the boss’s domain, an occasion set aside for the majority to decide among themselves. In unhealthy, disconnected workplaces, the implicit message to employees is, “Don’t speak up; don’t raise objections.”
What steps do leaders need to take in order to bridge these serious gaps, to welcome input from all, to design a space of safety and inclusion? When employees are silent at meetings, or nodding their heads in agreement, or never asking questions, there’s a problem at hand, writes Amy C. Edmondson, author of “The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth,” in the Harvard Business Review.
It’s up to leaders such as senior executives to transform “organizational pathology” marked by side conversations about substantive issues into a “culture of psychological safety,” where employees believe their honesty is expected and welcome, Edmondson says.
That requires leaders to “be explicit about tensions and challenges that plague all new endeavors, and constantly remind people that you understand the risks, uncertainties and complexities.”
Another method to implement: Insist on input, especially from subject matter experts, in meetings. Ask questions. Put them on the spot.
And show your appreciation for the messengers, the bringers of bad news.
“Respond productively to bad news and concerns,” Edmondson says. “You never know how much courage it might have taken someone to speak. Focus on solutions. Invite ideas and look for volunteers to team up to help solve the problems raised.” Listen to people. Seek their input. Don’t shut them out. But give them their space.
Don’t mandate transparency
Maintaining a strict code of transparency in the workplace can bring on another harmful effect. For instance, what are the effects of employees copying their supervisors every time they reply to co-workers’ emails?
“Rampant cc’ing leads workers and managers to squander precious time sorting through unnecessary messages,” David De Cremer, founder of the Leading Artificial Intelligence & Digital (LEAD) management platform, wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “My research shows it can have another cost: reduced trust.”
De Cremer and his associates conducted six studies to find out how cc’ing the boss influences organizational trust.
One of his first findings was that the more often supervisors were included on emails to coworkers, the less trusted those coworkers felt. His studies further showed that this feeling of mistrust led coworkers to infer that the organizational culture must be low in trust overall.
He summarized that, first, complete transparency in communications isn’t a holy grail for promoting efficiency, as it can lead employees to become suspicious that what they say and do can be used against them. De Cremer’s studies also suggest that supervisors might choose to intervene when a team member always includes them on emails—or to take a proactive stance, clearly stating at what stage of a project it is appropriate to include them in email exchanges.
In this way, effective leadership requires the gift of maintaining a delicate balance.
Another key to bridging the gap is finding ways to engage workers—especially millennials, who are becoming the dominant factor in workforce management.
Gary Harpst, CEO of the firm Six Disciplines, commissioned a study based on more than 800 randomly selected employees in manufacturing, services, and higher-education markets. Participants were asked how well their organizations were using more than 60 organizational excellence best practices. They were also asked about their level of satisfaction and engagement in the organization.
Compared to senior leadership, the front-line worker emphasized the personal aspect of the culture—setting the top modes of engagement as “The organization cares about me,” “openness and honesty (no hidden agendas, truthfulness),” and “I care about the organization.” Meanwhile, senior leadership is mostly engaged by non-personal aspects, such as “valuing excellence,” “setting pace of change,” and “quarterly update.”
“So, here is the main point: Healthy organizations have to develop leaders who truly understand the value of different perspectives in the organization,” Harpst writes. “Each of those perspectives is critical to achieving potential. This is something we have all given lip service to over the years, but when it comes to millennials, we can’t get away with this any longer.”
Harpst adds, “If you see people as interchangeable parts that should just stand at the assembly line, then that is all you will get from them. But if you start seeing and treating them as individuals—and looking for ways to use their uniqueness and unlock potential—you will create a completely different kind of organization.
“It leaves us all with the question, how do we equip all of our leaders at every level to act on these truths?”
“Side conversations”—off-the-record exchanges between peers and co-workers—prevail when employees feel a need to go along with the folks at the top, stemming from fear of management. When leaders are oblivious to these privately discussed concerns, the end results can be cataclysmic.
Some warning signs that an organization is plagued by these communication gaps:
Speed and profit are positively emphasized in meetings about a new development, with no discussion of risks, uncertainties, and potential setbacks. After the meeting, concerns about this disparity run rampant in private emails, texts, and hushed personal discussions.
Subject matter experts offer little to no input during official discussions of a new project in the presence of management; they may be stifling their urge to offer a negative perspective. Afterward, experts shake their heads and mumble to one another about how the project is unfeasible.
There is across-the-board agreement on what managers deem as crucial issues, despite a lack of data, comments backing up the decision, or enthusiasm.
Source: Harvard Business Review
Minding the gaps:
Finding Fractures and Fissures
Experts weigh in on the warning signs of looming leadership gaps and how to act on them.
Look for accountability ownership: In the wake of a glitch, some project leaders refuse own up to their contribution to the problem, creating backstories to explain their lack of accountability, finger-pointing, blaming tight timelines or denying the gravity of the issue.
Pay attention to the ‘canary in the coal mine’: Employees who seem difficult, demanding or arrogant are often the first to notice trouble ahead. Rather than silence them, listen. They may be aware of what’s brewing. What they’re saying can help you identify and course correct early, allowing you to avert disaster.
Keep an eye out for team member ‘silos’: When team members—even extraordinary ones—are failing to connect and collaborate with one another, there may be a gap in that team’s leadership.
Study post-mortems: After the end of a project, emphasize the “did well/do better” analysis. These after-action reviews often reveal leadership gaps that would otherwise remain invisible for too long.
Use narrative 360 feedback: Have conversations with key stakeholders, collecting stories of what’s working well and what isn’t. Often, an external coach is the best option to guide this process of gathering information and relaying it to leaders.
Identify your team’s status: Take note of signs of dysfunction, such as lack of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, accountability avoidance, and disregard of results. You can find these potential gaps through feedback surveys, coaching sessions, or simple observation of the way the team operates.
Are your leaders still leading?: When a leader no longer has influence over a team, there’s a gap. Find out why the leader has lost the support of their people. It may be time for additional training that will give the leader a chance to turn things around.
Get in touch with your employees’ needs: Is the business growing too fast? Is leadership disconnected from the team? When you refocus on employees’ needs and perspectives, you implicitly motivate positive outcomes.
Reverse-analyze performance evaluations: Often, performance evaluations say more about the person who writes them than the employees they are written about. Are some issues a failure of the manager to support the employee, rather than the reverse? Hear what managers are saying about their staff to see if problems are stemming from the leader’s perspective.
Seek honest feedback from employees: Confidential, anonymous assessments from employees can point to patterns of leadership gaps that need to be addressed. Take it a step further by creating an environment where people feel safe to speak up, which will allow you to identify gaps in real time.
Source: Forbes Coaches Council: Kathy Bernhard, KFB Leadership Solutions; Larry Byer, Success Rockets LLC; Julie Colbrese, Hot Coffee Coaching; John Hittler, Evoking Genius; Jill Hauwiller, Leadership Refinery; Ed Krow, LLC; Sharon Kuhn, Executive EQ; Aaron Levy, Raise the Bar; Jamelle Lindo, PARADIGM People Development; Jenn Lofgren, Incito Executive & Leadership Development
See the individual
Build trust through personal relationships
Now, more than ever, it is critically important for supervisors and other organizational leaders to own the process of influence that drives leadership. When you treat people as individuals, you can create personal relationships characterized by mutual trust, respect, and accountability.
Training employees how to engage in constructive conflict management within psychologically safe workplaces can facilitate this process. This training prepares leaders and their followers to purposefully engage in the multiphase process of delivering bad news in an appropriate manner. Following this process enables leaders and their followers to properly prepare how to present their concerns, deliver bad news in a personally meaningful and practically useful manner, and identify actionable opportunities for managing expectations after the delivery of bad news.
However, not all employees have the same expectations of their leaders. Millennials are a unique generation of employees because they grew up in a time period that included the globalization of the world economy, the rise of the internet, the infiltration of the smart phone into our daily lives, and the replacement of face-to-face contact with emails, text messages, and posts on social media as our primary means of communication with others. All of these things have reduced the need for direct interpersonal communication.
However, the fundamental human nature remains pretty consistent over time. Although this group gets stereotyped as being disinterested, unmotivated, and buried in technology, perhaps it is possible that some of them have not seen or experienced the powerful influence that leaders with the personal touch can provide. Ultimately, the notions of transparency, trust, and interpersonal communication discussed in the adjacent article highlight that leaders can put the human back in human resource management when they treat their employees as individuals.
Dean’s Fellow and Associate Professor of Management
Harbert College of Business
“If your company doesn’t care enough to understand its employees, you’ll be faced with disengagement, slow communication and, worse, people leaving. You can avoid this.”
– Alexander Maasik, communications specialist at Weekdone