The ability to influence the people you report to-especially a frustrating boss-is as essential to your leadership success as the ability to influence your own team. Ask yourself these five questions before you try to manage up.
I sat across from Jim, the Executive Vice President, and made my case.
I suggested the company change the way it handled a specific process and made my five-point argument why it was a good idea.
The VP listened, grimaced, and then grinned. “If only it were that easy.”
“But it is that easy,” I challenged, “It’s just a matter of having the will to do it!” (I was young and hadn’t quite learned diplomacy yet.)
Fast-forward thirteen years.
A new team member stood on the other side of my desk—standing in the same place I had once stood, presenting the same case I had made thirteen years earlier.
But this time, she was speaking to me. Now that I was the executive, would things would be different?
Managing Up Starts with Perspective
In nearly every leadership training program we deliver, someone asks “How should I talk to my boss when their behavior is damaging, self-defeating, or just doesn’t work?”
The answer to this question starts with perspective. A frustrating boss’s behavior may look very different from where they sit. Their behavior may look damaging or self-defeating to you, but it’s possible that this is only your interpretation and they have excellent reasons for doing what they do.
The better you understand your boss’s goals, challenges, and how they see the world, the more influence you will have. You don’t want to rush into a conversation without this perspective.
5 Questions to Ask Yourself When You Have a Frustrating Boss
When you face a supervisor whose behavior appears to be damaging, self-defeating, or ineffective, the first thing to do is to reflect. Here are five questions to ask that will help you get perspective and be more influential.
1) How serious is the issue?
After you talk with a friend, take a walk, and breathe, is the issue truly significant or just a minor irritation? If it’s not serious, you’re better off to not waste your time, energy, or relationships–even if you are 100% right about the issue.
Save your energy and influence for the topics that truly matter.
2) What’s the lesson for you?
Yes, the lesson for you.
You won’t find a better leadership textbook than the leaders around you—including your frustrating boss.
When Jim told me, “If only it was that easy,” he was giving me a chance to learn about strategic issues and think at a higher level.
After my stubborn insistence that it could work, he was patient and walked me through the world from his view. I didn’t like the more complex viewpoint, but I needed to hear it.
The areas that irritate you the most likely have the most to teach you.
c) What keeps your boss or boss’s boss up at night?
Jim had his own challenges and constraints. Up until that moment, I was unaware of them.
He had Board politics to contend with, budget constraints, obligations to other departments, and changing customer behaviors, just to name a few.
This was an important moment of insight for me. People do what makes sense to them.
What realities do your supervisor and their boss deal with every day? How can you help them meet their goals?
d) What’s my motivation?
Before you talk to your boss, get clear about what your best self really wants. Are you asking for something that’s in the best interest of your team, the organization, and your supervisor?
If not, your motivations will impact your actions and you likely won’t have a chance to get the results you want.
For the best chance of success, focus on how you can build the relationship and achieve results for everyone involved.
e) Should you stay or go?
You cannot change anyone else. I wish I had a fairy-dust suggestion, but the fact is that there are some bad supervisors out there. They do what they do because it’s easy, because it’s what they know, they have different values, or because it works and meets their needs for the time being.
Understand who you’re working with and how they might react.
If they lack integrity, are hostile, insecure, and you need this paycheck to care for your children, you’ll deal with the situation differently than if you have six months of expenses in the bank and your supervisor is reasonable.
We’ve been there. And we encourage you to think this through carefully.
Influencing your own supervisor is possible, but depending on the person, it takes work, time, and a relationship.
And sometimes … they simply won’t change at all. They don’t see enough benefit to go through the pain of changing. In these situations, you’ll have to decide if it makes sense to stay or to leave.
As tough as these choices are, they help clarify the power you have over yourself and the leader you will be.
When It’s Your Turn
As you work with your frustrating boss, remember that you are or will be the source of frustration for someone else. We’re all someone’s knucklehead, after all.
How can you use what you learn from your irritating boss to inform your leadership?
When you’re a manager of managers, one of the most important parts of your job is to know the managers on your team are leading well. Which can be tricky. Because every now and then you run into a two-faced leader, who acts one way in your presence, and completely different when you’re not around.
I’ve been there. And it’s not easy, but dealing with this scene is so vital for morale, productivity, employee engagement, and culture.
Working with a two-faced leader can be frustrating when it’s a peer. But even more terrifying when you realize that Ms. Two-Faced is actually a direct report snowing you with her charm and strategic stories of effective leadership, all the time hiding what’s really going on behind closed doors.
Show up unexpectedly. Engage with the team in casual settings where they’re more likely to open up.
2. Conduct skip-level one-on-ones
Talk about their leadership style. Inquire about support. Ask what they need most. Ask for examples of great leaders. Some brave guys will bring up “two-faced.” Avoiding the subject is also data.
3. Conduct a 360
Ms. two-faced may not fully recognize the differences in style with different audiences. Conduct an assessment, invite candor, and show her the data. Get her a coach.
Don’t wait until you have files full of evidence. Ask questions without confrontation. “How would you describe your leadership style? How does that play out in these different contexts?” “What would your team say about you” Watch for body language.
5. Talk to her peers
They’ve heard the stories, and have felt the repercussions. They didn’t want to throw her under the bus, but “since you asked” they are more likely to tell you.
What advice do you have for a friend dealing with a two-faced leader?
Innocent communication mistakes can leave a lasting impact on your team. Avoid these common communication mistakes that sabotage teamwork and degrade trust.
Have you ever heard yourself muttering these words, only to realize later it was an innocent communication mistake?
“Oh, she didn’t copy me on purpose.”
“He’s withholding information to make my life harder.”
“Making us guess what he’s thinking is just a big power play.”
“Why would she put something that important in email?”
“What’s that supposed to mean anyway?”
“Why did she copy my boss?”
5 Communication Mistakes Screwing Up Teamwork
The real tragedy is, once you realize it was all a big communication mistake, you’ve already been looking out for corroborating evidence that the bad communicator is really a jerk. And when you’re looking to prove someone’s a bad guy, the “proof” comes in surround sound.
Here are a few common communication mistakes we see consistently screw up teamwork—even in team members trying to get along.
1. Assuming malintent
Sure, some people play games. But not most of us, most of the time.
Don’t let an innocent oversight like being left off an email or out of a meeting degrade trust.
I (Karin) will never forget the time an executive peer left me off a meeting invite a few months after I had transitioned into a new role. Our departments had some competing priorities and I had “been warned” by my new team about the games she could play.
I was sure it was intentional. I stewed on it for weeks. Finally, after I’d let the fuel from my fabricated fable of her intentions combust into full-on stupidity, I blew a gasket when she asked me to move one of my meetings around so she could attend. As the drama unraveled, it became obvious that the original oversight was just that—an oversight.
We cleared the air and it never happened again. I could have saved both of us a lot of angst by just picking up the phone and asking to be included.
2. Hiding behind email
Email is fast and easy, and tempting—particularly in remote teams. But rarely effective for important communication.
When communicating something mission-critical or controversial, don’t assume”they got the memo,” and your work is done.
We are life and business partners. Love one another. Have an incredibly interdependent life and business goals. We TEACH “check for understanding” as a foundational concept you can’t lead without in every leadership program we do.
And you know when we get ourselves in teamwork trouble? Assuming we know what the other person is thinking. And “acting on” their best interest.
Don’t assume someone is picking up what you’re putting down—check to see what they heard.
4. Failure to write down decisions
We’ve seen so many great teams with excellent communication skills create frustration and destroy trust because they miss this simple step.
High-trust teams will often raise a lot of creative ideas, debate pros and cons, and then challenge the decisions some more. All healthy. Once the debate has concluded be sure to summarize the final decisions, along with the next steps and timeline.
With all that discussion, team members each leave with their own memory of what was decided, which may or may not match the recall of other team members.
Writing down and reading back key decisions and next steps is an important way to keep the team all moving in the same direction.
Communicating well builds the most important ingredient of any successful team—trust. Take the time to establish clear expectations around how your team is communicating, and to discuss where it’s working best and how it’s breaking down.
5. The wrong CCs
Email “ccs” are a great thing to keep people informed without an obligation to act. AND, the minute you find yourself “cc-ing” to create action, it’s probably a good idea to step back and consider your motives. Sure, sometimes it’s vital to escalate the situation. If you’re escalating for more attention consider doing it more directly. If not, consider bagging the cc.
These are just a few common communication mistakes. If you want to improve communication, why not ask your team what’s driving them crazy?
“What communication mistakes could we do a better job of avoiding?” “What’s one thing we can do to improve our communication as a team?”
What are the biggest communication mistakes you’ve learned to avoid?
People are your number one asset, so how do you ensure your best people stay? In short: you love ’em! In this episode, we talk with Beverly Kaye, author of the #1 book ever written on talent retention. You’ll get simple, practical strategies that work to create a supportive workplace culture so you can fight burnout and keep the people you can least afford to lose.
It’s the time of year where many of us are talking about what we want to lose—a few pounds, some bad habits, a toxic relationship. Today, I’m sharing some ways (I’ve learned the hard way) about what you might gain—or regain—after one of the most challenging leadership years in a while. By investing in a few vital (and actually not really that difficult when you think about it) actions, you can gain more trust and connection with your team.
7 Surefire Ways to Gain (or Regain) Trust
Here’s a start which I know (sadly from personal experience) will work well. What would you add?
1. Admit a mistake.
Not just a small one. I’m going to assume you do that every day. Is there a decision you regret? A strategic move that took the team down a rabbit hole? Or perhaps you let your personal stress bleed into your work, and were harsher in that meeting than necessary.
It’s okay. We’ve all been there.
The truth is when you screw up, your team already knows. You will gain more trust and connection by admitting what you regret and helping the team to move past it.
2. Stop doing something stupid.
I’ve yet to work with a company where folks couldn’t list the “stupid” things they are still doing for stupid reasons.
Want to gain more trust from your team? Pick one of those things and figure out how to stop doing it.
I bet if I asked you to describe the leaders you most admire, or your favorite boss, we’d only be a few sentences in before you told me a story about them standing up for something that mattered.
You can be that person.
You know that thing you’re not saying because you’re too afraid? If it really matters, figure out a way to say it well.
4. Forgive a grudge.
I know. This is a hard one. But you know who you’ll gain the most credibility with if you can pull this off? You.
There’s huge value in knowing you’re the one that can take the high road and give someone a second chance.
5. Open a door.
The most credible leaders are ones who help people when they have nothing to gain. Building a reputation as a door-opener is a great way to catalyze credibility, not to mention karma.
6. Have a real conversation with your boss.
I was exchanging stories with an old boss the other day about times where we had found ourselves being the only ones having the tough conversations with our bosses. That audacity has served us both well over the years, and has helped me build the muscles I need to now be a successful consultant. If you want to be more influential with your team, work at being more influential with your boss. Gain credibility by being the one who will own the ugly and work to make it better.
And guess what? If you do it well, your boss will start proactively coming to you asking for advice.
7. Mend fences with your peers.
I get it, this is often the most challenging. After all, it’s not you, it’s them 😉 Maybe that’s true. But your team needs to know you can get things done up, down, AND sideways. If you want your team to trust that you have their best interests at heart, do what you can to put aside the politics and past frustrations and work to foster trust and collaboration with your peers.
What are your favorite ways to gain more trust with your team?
In this interview with David Burkus, author of the new book Leading From Anywhere, we talk about leading remote teams for the long haul and practical tools and approaches to take your remote leadership to the next level.
Advanced Skills for Leading Remote Teams
Connect your team to meaningful vision and purpose, “Ask, what are we fighting for?”
In some cases, they’ve gotten worse, but I’m going to blame that on a lot of different factors. But it, it hasn’t moved the needle.
And I think one of the questions is that there’s not that sense of clarity and there’s not that sense of where we’re really working toward something important, something that will make the world a better place.
And so I started cutting through all of that and asking teams or even individuals when it came to mission and purpose, I would go, you know, I don’t care if you know it, most companies write such a complicated mission statement that like, I wouldn’t be able to memorize it either.
But when I asked them the question,
“Hey, you know, when we think about our organization, what are we fighting for?”
What About Psychological Safety When Leading Remote Teams?
And when, when people invest trust in us, it releases that oxytocin, we’re more likely to respond with trustworthy behavior. And so if you’re a leader looking to actually build trust in a team, you need to think about it that way.
What are the things you can do to demonstrate that you actually already trust your people?
This is an interesting conversation by the way, in this world of work from anywhere.
So as a leader, I think it’s a little bit of letting go that you have to do…. One of the biggest things you can do is when you’re working early with a team and they’re looking to you to make a decision, make sure you’re demonstrating the rationale behind that decision. Not just because here’s what it is, but you want to be understood. You want people to understand how you’re thinking so that gradually you can actually delegate that decision once your team has a great idea of that kind they have learned from you, what you think and, and the wisdom that you have to give the rest of the team. You can let them make the decision.
And then you end up usually at a very similar decision, but through a sense of trust and a sense of camaraderie that wouldn’t have happened if you just snapped to that decision. Right? So little things you can do like that. I think that also means not engaging in a uniform standard of checking in with people. You know, you don’t need to do a 15 minute zoom call all Friday, stack the ball on Friday afternoon. And then again on Monday to say, what are you going to work on this week? Everybody manages their workflow a little bit differently, especially in this environment and the leaders who actually trust their people are the leaders who go through that feeling out process to find out how can I make sure that you have the autonomy to work? However you want. You don’t feel like I’m breathing down your neck, but you know, I’m here for you anytime you need help.
Yeah. It’s so interesting. About eight years ago, uh, I was involved in this experiment of having call center agents working from home and it was so fascinating. I mean, the dealing with it, dealing with the security, dealing with CPNI issues…
We talked about, Oh, should we put cameras in people’s offices so we can watch them like radically different conversation. And now I’m laughing because I watched, you know, our call center clients in one week back in March, move everybody home. They’re where they’re at right now. It’s amazing how, in a sense of urgency, how see how much simpler it got and guess what it’s working out. Great.
I remember a lot of rhetoric in April and May about what software systems should we use the monitor employees, fancy term for spying on them. And that’s, and I just remember thinking again, through this idea of trust and autonomy, mutual respect, psychological safety, that like, if you couldn’t, if you couldn’t send your call center employees home on a week’s notice and trust that they would do their job without being monitored, you screwed up a long time ago, right?
What you were writing was reminding me of the conversations I’m having literally every day, which is people are not finding that their employees are not working enough. They’re finding that their employees are working too much. I think, and this is, I think this is the next big problem we’re going to have is that more and more people are going to be burned out, stressed out and they can’t have the boundaries. And what I like is that you really did give some, we’re all about really practical advice on this, like really practical ways to do that. Can you share a few of those tips?
And so everything that we can do as leaders to help people avoid burnout is really about making those distinctions that’s the little things. Right? So that can be little things like teaching people to set business hours, not the normal nine to five, but to actually plan it out in your calendar, when are you going to be working? And when are you not so that, you know you’re off right now, or rituals, are you going to use that replace the commute? Right. So like for me I have two devices and when I leave this room, which is in the basement of our house, when I leave this room, I go upstairs to a charging station and I switched my phone for a tablet. The tablet has nothing work-related on it. It’s like my personal Facebook account and then Netflix and Kindle and, and that’s it.
Yeah. So this is a huge problem that predates the great work from home experiment, right? The idea that we care about work-life balance and you being off work, but we’re also sending you emails at 1130 at night, right. Um, and this is something that, that really needed to stop, um, kind of a long, long time ago. I think now the best thing you can do is be first, you’ve got to commit to disconnecting. If you say that our work hours are this, or you say that are times where we don’t expect email responses, this is actually the big one for a lot of leaders. If you say that 24 hours is a reasonable amount of time to wait for an email, then you have to wait 24 hours. Right. So it starts with you and it starts with drawing those up.
The irony, of course, is that leaders are the most burnout by this whole thing that we’ve been running through. So they’re the biggest incentive to be the ones drawing up those boundaries. And then when you have those boundaries be showy about those boundaries, right? You don’t need to apologize if someone sends you an email at 6:00 PM and you don’t reply till six 30. Right. You don’t have to say, Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just seeing this.
Of course, you’re just seeing this now, because you turned off that device at five o’clock. Right. Um, so I think those little things go a long way. I think the problem is, like you said, about challenges with it before. Well, one of the, one of the big problems is this is a senior leadership and it level issue, but it’s also a team issue. And so if you can’t get senior leadership to go, yeah, we probably should turn off the email servers at some point at night and turn them back on at 8:00 AM. Then you, as a leader, need to have that discussion with your team to go, okay, what are the standards we’re committing to inside of this team? And then hold, hold yourself accountable to them first and let other people, I don’t want to say fall in line, but follow your lead.
Okay. I want to shift gears to my favorite part of your book because this is, this is an area, this concept of in remote work environment, synchronous communication, asynchronous communication. And I’m going to share with you my favorite sentence from your book.
So you say asking employees to keep a group chat open is like demanding they attended all day meeting with no agenda where participants come in and out at random and speak only in sentence fragments, as you’re asking them to commit to the work that they’re doing right here, what could go wrong?
The problem is that a lot of us choose tools that were actually designed for asynchronous communication and then have expectations that it’s synchronous, whether that’s expecting an email reply in the next hour or feeling like you always have to be in that Slack channel because if you’re not, you might miss something. And that the tools are getting a little better than this like threaded discussions in Slack actually make it a totally different tool.
And when it was like, if it was like trying to do a business meeting and a Chucky cheese before that but, but the point is we can’t pick the right tool until we break out of that and have that conversation. What are the subjects of the issues and the types of communication we need to commit to as being asynchronous, project updates, requests for help, all of those sort of things can usually be asynchronous? And then what are the things and the subjects and the times that we want to have synchronous communication. Once we settle that, then we can think about what the tool for talking about those specific issues is, right? It’s usually not Slack, by the way, it’s usually a project management software. If you’ve committed to the idea that this is asynchronous communication.
What would you add? What are some of your best-advanced strategies for leading remote teams?
When you think about leading a productive team, what’s the first question that comes to mind? How to get the right people on the team? What’s the perfect vision? Or maybe you have questions about training or infrastructure. Of course, these questions are all important, but they’re not the most important leadership question.
If you want to lead energized, motivated teams, the most important leadership question you can ask is about you. Specifically, a question about your motivations.
The question is: “Why do I want to lead?”
There are typically five reasons people choose to lead a team.
Purse / Pennies / Pesos / Pounds
Three Problematic Ps
Let’s take a look at the first three of these reasons people choose to lead a team:
Power—they want to tell people what to do.
Prestige or Pride—they feel better about themselves or enjoy the status from the title.
Purse—they take leadership roles for the money.
Leaders who turn into dreaded bad bosses often take on their leadership roles for one or more of these three reasons. Maybe they like having power and want the money that comes with it. Or perhaps their sense of well-being is wrapped up in the title.
This leads to a few problems. First, they won’t inspire your team or energize your team. They don’t care about that stuff for you.
And second, these motivations are motivation black-holes. Power is an illusion—you can’t actually make anyone do anything. It’s always their choice. The prestige fades or becomes self-defeating when you realize there’s always something more prominent. Likewise, someone will always have a nicer house or car (and the money rarely equals the headaches and responsibilities that come with real leadership).
Two Powerful Ps
Leaders accomplish results with and through people. As we say in Winning Well: it’s all about results and relationships. Those are the motivations in the final two Ps, People and Purpose.
People—serving and supporting your team or organization.
Purpose—achieving a specific mission.
The Most Important Leadership Question
To lead a productive, energetic, motivated team, start with your motivations. Be honest with yourself: Do you choose to lead in order to serve your team and accomplish meaningful results?
If you find that power, prestige, and the pull of the purse are your motivators, you will have trouble. People instinctively know when you don’t care about them or don’t care about the mission.
If it’s been a while since you’ve looked at your motivations, can you take some time to reflect on how people and purpose show up in your daily leadership?
The good news is that no matter why you started leading, it’s never too late to choose people and purpose. You can begin by filtering your decisions through two questions:
How will this serve the team?
How will this help us achieve results?
If the answer to either question is ever “It won’t”… then don’t it.
A Final Thought
We live in the real world and human beings (including us) care about money, roles, and status. People and Purpose don’t mean you eliminate your desire for the others—they just aren’t the main reasons you choose to lead.
As you prioritize people and purpose, you will find those motivations coming to mind more easily and influencing your decisions. You’ll also see your team’s productivity, energy, and motivation improve.
We’d love to hear from you: How do you keep people and purpose at the forefront of your leadership and decision-making?
Conflicting priorities are a fact of life. Growing businesses naturally have tensions and they only become problems when they’re not addressed. In this episode, you’ll get practical approaches to use when there’s a clash in priorities. These moments are a fantastic opportunity for you to lead and make a more strategic impact.
Lead like it’s the first time to give your team energy.
Early in my career, I learned a vital leadership lesson about how to give your team energy. I was working with an education nonprofit that supported children who lived in poverty.
During the summer, we would frequently take these students bowling, hiking, or swimming. It was new to them, an inexpensive way to build mentoring relationships, and fun. Or at least, it could be fun if we allowed it to be.
As an adult, the eleventh time you take kids bowling doesn’t have the same novelty. On a steamy Monday morning in late July, a senior leader, Sue, must have seen the malaise creeping into us. She looked each of us in the eye and said, “Never forget that it’s their first time. Honor that experience for them.”
As a leader, you’ve shown up to a team meeting, started a new project, helped a team member over an obstacle. The novelty can wear off.
You’ve been there. Done that. Have the tee-shirt. The scars. Maybe a little cynicism.
How can you recapture that spark and energy?
Find Your Rock Star
Recently I heard comedian Conan O’Brien interview Bruce Springsteen. The Boss, who is known for the incredible energy he and the E-Street Band bring to every performance, talked about his approach to performance. “I want to be on the frontier—on the edges of my own psychological, emotional spiritual frontier. I want to be working there until the day I die.”
That, Springsteen says, is the difference between a professional and a careerist.
As you move forward and live life, he says, your life blossoms and so you can never actually sing the same song twice. You’re always a new and different person.
The interview called to mind the first and only time I saw the band Kansas perform live. They were opening for the band Yes. This was decades after both bands’ heyday.
But you wouldn’t have known it.
Kansas has two or three songs most rock fans know. They’ve probably performed that catalog thousands of times in venues ranging from huge stadiums in the 1970s to tents at state fairs.
When I saw them, it was in a smaller theater where I was standing in the back. And …
They. Brought. It.
To this day it’s one of the most energetic performances I’ve ever seen. The same few songs. “Dust in the Wind”—sang with the passion and perspective of people who have lived and seen life. “Carry on My Wayward Son”—filled with conviction, wisdom, and hope. “Point of Know Return”—carried the passion, challenge of adventure, and even an invitation to leadership.
They gave everything they had, and I’ll never forget it.
What must it be like performing those same few songs over and over across decades?
It was a challenge to me to show up for what matters most with all the energy and passion I can bring. To find what is new and fresh and meaningful.
Give Your Team Energy
Today, where can you give your team energy by showing up like it’s the first time?
Reconnect to your why. What’s the deepest meaning and purpose behind your work? Refresh yourself and your team in the “Why?” behind every “What?”
Focus on who you serve. You and your team exist to do something for someone. Who are they? How do you help them? Ask your clients, customers, or constituents to share a few words with your team about how the work they do matters.
Practice your craft. This is my takeaway from Bruce Springsteen’s conversation: You’re a different person. You are (hopefully) a better leader. The activity might be rote, routine, and even boring, but you’re not. You’re a different person. How does this new you bring their best self to the task and team?
Look through the eyes of a new team member. This was Sue’s challenge to us as adult mentors. It’s their first time going bowling. Find that magic. You’ve solved this problem fifty-five times, but your newest person is just learning and the magic of expanding their capacity is waiting for your leadership.
Life will always include some level of the mundane and routine. As a leader, you can give your team energy to meet these challenges.
I’d love to hear from you. What’s your best suggestion to meet the routine or boring aspects of work and energize your team?
It’s a new year- but not much has changed. How do you keep your team energized and motivated as the schlog continues? Today I share 4 ways to keep your team motivated as the challenge of the pandemic continues.
I was snowshoeing with a friend the other day, and she told me how worried she was about her team. They were all Slacking one another and talking about how great it was for 2020 to be behind them, and looking for a fresh start in the new year. But the challenge is, the turn of a calendar is not going to change much and she is concerned for their mental health. And of course, she wants to help keep her team energized and focused.
4 Ways to Keep Your Team Energized and Motivated During Difficult Times
Acknowledge the reality of the scene.
Break down big goals into smaller projects to keep a sense of momentum.
Keep your team focused on what they can control—and limit the number of people you include in the broader contingency planning.
Invite people to talk about their personal goals … just a few of my thoughts.
What would you add? How are you keeping your team energized and focused in the new year?
If you want to be a better leader, get curious about what you might still be able to learn.
We recently had a very senior leader join a live-online leadership training he had hired us to do with his team. Not in a “watch from the sidelines” kind of way as sometimes happens. He was all in.
He actively participated in the breakout conversations and completed his action learning assignments and reported them in the learning lab.
In addition to providing this training for his team, he was curious about what he could do to be a better leader.
In debriefing his experience after the final session, he shared.
This was interesting for me to slow down and really think about HOW I’m leading. I spend so much time on strategic issues, it was helpful to try some new approaches and tools. Ha, I can’t help but think that it might be helpful for my boss to take this class too 😉
4 Approaches to Help You Become an (Even Better) Leader
Once you get to “expert” level, it’s easy to put all your leadership development energy into your team. After all, it’s your job to grow leaders. You want to invest in your team as others have invested in you.
Perfect. There’s no better way to get your team focused on being better leaders than to show that you too are working to be a better leader. Experts are continual students.
Here are a few approaches that can help.
1. Slow down and revisit the fundamentals.
I (Karin) am a decent skier. Most of the time, I can get down the expert slopes without doing too much harm to myself or others.
But the trouble is, my form isn’t always the most efficient, or graceful. AND, I’ve been skiing pretty much the same way for the last decade.
This past week, over Christmas break, I did something I haven’t done in a really long time. In the mornings I watched some really basic Youtube videos which included some skiing drills. And then, I spent part of each day skiing the easy stuff and really paying attention to my form—before I headed back to the blacks.
Shocker—I got better.
What if you took a moment to really think about how you’re approaching the foundational leadership activities that come naturally for you and consider your technique? Look around. Read a new book. Notice what your peers are doing that might be worth a try.
2. Become a Leader Teacher.
One of the best ways to continue to refine your leadership skills is to teach leadership. In many of our long-term leadership programs, we incorporate a “leader as teacher” approach. In addition to more senior leaders participating in the program along with their teams, we prepare them to be “leader teachers” to reinforce the concepts and discuss application in-between sessions in small challenger groups.
There’s no better way to master a new skill than to teach it. And when leaders know they will be facilitating conversations about a new approach, they’re much more likely to try it themselves first so they can speak from first-hand experience.
You can do this on your own too.
Talk with your team about some strategic areas they’re focused on to become better leaders this year. Perhaps it’s getting better at leading virtual meetings. Or building a more robust virtual communication strategy. Stretch yourself to learn some new approaches, teach them to your direct reports, and then schedule some time to debrief how it went and what everyone learned.
You think you know who needs this … my boss, or my peer, or my spouse, and you run off and immediately share it with them.
Of course, when you do that, you miss the opportunity to become a better leader yourself.
There’s no better way to get your team to notice a new approach than to first model it yourself. As you take the journey, then you can invite others to join you.
4. Involve your team in your development.
The start of the year is the perfect time to work on leadership development plans … not just for your team, but for yourself as well.
Start with a courageous question. “This year, one focus I have is working to become a better leader for you and the rest of the team. What’s one specific area you think I can work on that would have the biggest impact?”
Of course, when your team sees you investing time and energy to become a better leader, they’re more likely to make it a priority for themselves as well.
What would you add? What has worked for you to take your leadership to the next level?
And if you’re looking for an advanced leadership book to read with your team this year, check out Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovator’s Problem Solvers and Customer Advocates (and download the FREE Executive Strategy Guide) to facilitate a “leaders as teachers” conversation with your team.
In this Asking For a Friend LIVE interview with Dr. Nate Regier of Next Element, Karin and Nate talk about how to build a more compassionate workplace and share practical approaches for balancing accountability and compassion.
How Do I Build a More Compassionate Workplace (Transcript Excerpts)
“I just want to say right out, compassion is a leadership strategy. It is the way we do our work. It’s not something we do on the side. I coach a lot of leaders and one of the most common struggles they have is they have over-indexed to kindness and they’ve dropped the ball on accountability. Compassion includes both. If you’re compassionate without accountability, you can’t get anything done, but accountability without compassion gets you alienated, so the two have to co-exist in everything that we do to really be a viable business strategy.”
– Dr. Nate Regier
What is a Compassionate Workplace?
Definitely. Let’s talk about compassion. When you say “Creating a compassionate organization,” or “Compassion in the workplace,” what do we mean by “compassion”?
Yeah, it’s traditionally been a very soft word, I think. When I hear “compassion,” at least when I was growing up, I thought of these famous people like Mother Teresa or Gandhi that were just doing all these incredible selfless acts of service for everyone out there. My parents were missionaries, I grew up overseas in Africa, and so I saw a lot of service and I thought, “Well, that’s compassion, is you go just help people.” But really, compassion as a culture, if you look at the root of the word, the Latin root of “compassion” means “with struggle, with suffer,” so compassion means to struggle with people. That’s the best definition of work culture that I’ve ever thought of is we are struggling together towards some common goal, something amazing.
Oh, I love that. I noticed in your book you were talking about struggling together as opposed to conflict struggling against. Can you tell me a little more about that?
What Does it Mean to Struggle Together?
Yeah. Well, like you, we work with a lot of organizations and companies and leaders where conflict has created lots of casualties, or it seems to create casualties, which is why I named my book the opposite, but conflict isn’t inherently a bad thing. Conflict is simply the gap between what we want and what we’re experiencing at any point in time and there’s a lot of energy in that gap, to be sure, but the real question is: How do we spend that energy? Misusing the energy of conflict leads to drama, but when we leverage that energy, it can be a very transformational source of energy for us. I really believe that compassion is the actual mechanism to turn conflict energy into something creative.
Oh, very nice. Would you say that compassion is the same thing as empathy?
What’s the Difference Between Compassion and Empathy?
No, it’s not. Many people think that compassion is empathy in action: “My heart goes out to you. I feel your pain. I feel your suffering. I want to go alleviate that suffering.” That’s what compassion, we’ve come to think of it as, but that’s actually not the case. Research on empathy shows that empathy actually triggers the pain centers of the brain and over time, a lot of empathy leads to burnout, like healthcare providers, people that are on the front lines. Compassion, though, the practice of actively being involved with somebody towards a common goal, actually triggers the dopamine and reward centers of the brain and it’s energizing and fulfilling. Empathy is actually one of nine strategies we teach to practice compassion, but it’s not compassion.
Hmm. Oh, very nice. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in our work with our clients and the conversations that we’ve been having. We’re hearing a lot of people almost over-indexed on what they would say is empathy or compassion and now I’m hearing, “Okay, and we need to keep the business going.” I mean, has the pendulum gone too far or are you hearing that? How do you do both, showing up incredibly compassionate, and run a successful business?
I just want to say right out, compassion is a leadership strategy. It is the way we do our work. It’s not something we do on the side. I coach a lot of leaders and one of the most common struggles they have is they have over-indexed to kindness and they’ve dropped the ball on accountability. Compassion includes both. If you’re compassionate without accountability, you can’t get anything done, but accountability without compassion gets you alienated, so the two have to co-exist in everything that we do to really be a viable business strategy.
What is Compassionate Accountability?
Okay, terrific. I’m going to ask you about that in a minute because that’s some of the favorite parts of your work. I just love this compassionate accountability. But before I do that, I want to, just in case you’re just joining us, I’m here with Nate Regier from Next Element. We’re talking about some of the compassion in the workplace, particularly from his book, Conflict Without Casualties. Nate, I’ve got to tell you, compassionate accountability, when you talk about what that looks like, and you even in your book give a really good example of a peer coaching conversation that happened. I’d love to unpack that a little bit for us.
Sure, sure. Well, like I said, we’ve noticed that we can’t over-index on either end of this pendulum, that we have to find the balance. I think in the balance where conflict, or sorry, where compassion and accountability intersect is most obvious and needed when there’s conflict. Let’s say that I have a situation where maybe a peer of mine is not meeting a work expectation and I’ve got an issue with it. I care about that. I’m ultimately responsible for it. Maybe a client relationship is at stake and I want to talk to them about that, so this difficult conversation to balance compassionate accountability has to start at a place that we call “openness.”
How do we reinforce that we are two equally valuable human beings? Nobody’s going to get hurt in this conflict, but we’re going to talk about the tough stuff, so I might start by saying, “I’m feeling really anxious about what’s going on here.” Then I got to get clear about what is it. Explain the situation without blaming anybody: “Here’s what I saw,” or “Here’s what’s going on, here’s what I found out.” Then the accountability part is what we call “persistence.” Every compassionate conversation has to include talking about “Why does this matter?’ What’s most important? What’s at stake here? Why would we even go to the effort to have conflict with each other?
I might finish by saying “At the end of the day, what’s really important for me is that we uphold our promises to our customer.” Then I would check back in with the person and say, “How are you feeling about this?” We bookend the conversation with safety, vulnerability, openness, and in the middle, we talk about here’s what’s happening, here’s why it’s important. That should be a daily conversation between leaders and their people.
How do I Hold a Poor Performer Accountable?
Yeah. We always say if you are letting someone be a poor performer, that is not kind, right?
You are not serving them when you let people get away with things. How do you think about this now in this context where people say, “I get it, but I know what’s going on for people at home. I know what they’re dealing with. I understand. They got a parent in a nursing home, but their performance is suffering so much right now”? How would you coach in a situation where performance has definitely continued to degrade, but you also know that there is context and the context is not likely going away for folks for a while?
Yeah. Oh, such a good question. Just yesterday, I had this call. I spent an hour with an executive around this very situation. There’s plenty of circumstances that would invite us to have empathy, to realize that, “Yeah, there’s a lot going on in this person’s life.” I think it helps. We really need to distinguish the difference between caring about someone and having attention to results and that both of those can coexist. Of course, we’re going to give people breaks now and then. Everybody deserves a day off, everybody deserves to be able to just check out because something’s going on.
What is the Most Important Job of a Leader?
But over the long haul, leaders really only have three jobs. Job number one is to create a safe place where you really know what’s going on and people can talk to you. Job number two is to be a resource without solving the problem because your job is to build capability in others, not be the problem-solver. Then job number three is to always be crystal clear about the expectations, the goals, and the boundaries. When you do those three things and don’t cross the line, people can step up even during adversity because they know you care about them and they know that you’re a resource for them and they know what’s expected.
What About Workplace Drama?
Nate, I’m curious: Sometimes I hear people say, “I’m worried that if I am too compassionate, I will bring on the drama.” I know you are an expert in workplace drama, that was your first book, so I’d love just to shift gears a little bit and talk about that.
Well, I really appreciate that question. Michelle and Luisa have commented on this already here about how do we draw that fine line. Again, that conversation that I just showed an example of, that hits three very important points along what we call the “compassion cycle.” All are necessary and you can’t have one without the other. One of the ways that we can contribute to drama or cross that line is if we only do one without the others, like if we are always just reinforcing the non-negotiables, always talking about the rules, always bringing the hammer down, that’s going to lead to the kind of drama that we call “persecuting,” where we’re just attacking, blaming all the time, trying to use fear and intimidation to get what we want.
On the other hand, though, maybe we’re just always nice. We’re always like, “I care about you. I’m sure things are going to get better. I’m going to give you a break this time,” and we’re so kind that we become what’s called the “victim” in drama, that we’re actually compromising our own boundaries and the standards of our company and our teams just to be nice. That, again, doesn’t help anybody, but it’s another kind of drama.
Or we might cross the line and start giving what I call “nonconsensual helping,” which is another fancy word for giving advice that nobody asked for. Nobody asked you for help. Be a resource, but don’t rescue them.
How Do You Help Leaders Who Lack Compassion?
Yeah. Oh, that’s fantastic. Michelle is asking, “Do you have any advice on how to work with leaders who don’t seem to practice holding space for compassion?” I had a leader we were working with one time. He says, “I’m just missing that gene.” Yeah, so how do you coach someone like that?
Yep, yep. Thank you. We’re very explicit about how do you coach for compassionate accountability. It starts with, “I have to be the model. I have to be the one practicing compassionate accountability in every interaction.” When I do that, my behavior is providing people bridges to join me in what we call the “compassion cycle” and save face while they’re doing it. It’s like when I practice those kinds of conversations, between the lines, what I’m saying is “Here are the rules of the game. Here’s how it’s going to be when we interact. I’m going to treat you as valuable, I’m going to treat you as capable, and I’m going to treat you as responsible, and I’m not going to vary from those things.” What we find is, as I continue to have these conversations, people will eventually join me and start participating in this new game with new rules. I don’t have to teach them about it. I don’t even have to tell them what I’m doing, I just have to be compassionate, and that gives them another way to play the game and another way to engage with me.
What If your Boss is the Jerk?
Hmm. What if it’s your boss? What if you’re working for a non-compassionate boss?
Well, here’s the other thing, and what a great time to reinforce this, we can’t control anybody except ourselves. All we can do is practice these principles ourselves. We coach a lot of leaders to lead up and lead their bosses with compassionate accountability and it works. I coached a lady who had felt like she was being underpaid for years and she felt intimidated by her boss like he wouldn’t appreciate it, didn’t care, and we coached her to use this formula that we use for compassionate accountability. She went and talked to him. He doubled her pay after that conversation.
She chose to conduct herself differently. You know what Einstein said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change,” and so it starts with us.
Yeah, I think that is so important. We teach people how to treat us, right, and how you’re showing up in every interaction.
How Do I Create a More Compassionate Culture?
You talk a lot about culture and how people rub off on one another and that also really can be a really negative thing. If you have someone who is very aggressive and not compassionate, then people see that and then they are acting in those same ways. What do you do from there? Because I know you do a lot of work about culture. How do you shift a culture?
Yeah. Thank you. That is a great question because ultimately culture, Seth Godin said it best. He said, “Culture is people …” What was it? People around you will do things like this, right?
People around you … It’s my favorite.
Yeah. I think David reminded me of that the other day. Another way to think of culture is that culture is the sum of every interaction between the people. That’s all it is. How do we start to deal with those interactions? We realize that compassion can feel really esoteric, ethereal, kind of like how do you actually get your hands on it? We need to make it operational, so the first thing we’ve done is identified what we call the “compassion mindset.” What are the three switches we have to turn on inside to be able to start practicing this stuff?
Then we teach the three skills of compassion: openness, resourcefulness, and persistence. Each one is critical component and each one has three strategies that are behavioral, they’re observable, and we know when to use them. Then we put it all together in what we call the “formula for compassionate conflict,” which is what we call “Open, Resourceful, Persistent, Open; ORPO.” We teach people how to do that. It’s what I role modeled earlier in the conversation with my peer. The mindset, the skillset, and then the formula. Once we have those things on board, anybody can learn them and anybody can apply them in any situation where there’s a potential conflict.
Wow, interesting. Let’s talk a little bit more about each one of those. Behaviorally, I’m all about practical. Behaviorally, what does openness look like if you were trying to teach me to be more open?
Yep. Openness, at its core, is about creating a safe emotional space or emotional transparency. This is not about just what I have in my head, it’s about showing you my heart. There are three strategies. One is disclosure, where we simply share how we’re feeling with people. Another one is validation, where we show people that their feelings matter and that we’ll hold them with respect. Then the third strategy is empathy, which I mentioned before, and that’s the strategy of saying “You’re not alone. We have felt the same thing, and so your feelings are not alone, they’re not out …” How often do people feel like “I’m the only one going through this” or …? The leader I talked to the other day said, “I don’t know who I can talk to because I don’t think anybody feels what I feel,” and so I can say, “Wow, I remember what that was like when I got promoted. I’m with you.” That’s openness. Three strategies. Very important in creating a place where people feel safe enough to talk about what matters most and I know that’s a big deal for you as well.
Yeah, absolutely. Okay, and then resourcefulness, because a lot of that is you talk a lot about not solving problems for people and that is actually disempowering.
I imagine resourcefulness has something to do with that?
Well, resourcefulness comes next. Openness is where we get out how we’re doing. Then we go to resourcefulness and then we say, “Okay, so how are we going to go about this? How are we going to understand what’s happening?” Resourcefulness truly is about problem-solving, but it’s about doing it in a way that increases capability, and so we’re exchanging information, we’re building on our strengths, we’re leveraging successes from the past or successes that other people have had that we can learn from, and so these are all strategies to build capability. Sometimes leaders ask me, “Well, how do I know if I’m being resourceful with my people?” and I ask them, “There’s just one question. This question is, ask the people you work with this one thing: After an interaction with me, do you feel more or less capable than you did before?”
Oh, that is such a good question.
If the answer is yes, you’re doing the right thing. If the answer is no, you’re probably rescuing them instead of being resourceful, so we teach very specific strategies on how to be curious, how to ask good questions, how to leverage people’s strengths, how to help your people become more capable and be a catalyst for growth rather than being the one that’s solving all the problems. That then leads us to the next one.
You were going to ask a question. What were you …?
No, just I love it so much, I want to make sure we stop there because that is such a powerful question. If every leader went out today and asked that question, “After a conversation with me, do you feel more or less capable?” because if there are bullying behaviors, if there is fear and intimidation, people are not going to feel more capable, they’re going to lose confidence. One of the most important things we do as leaders is to build confidence and build people’s belief that they are capable as well as building their capabilities, so I love that one so very much. Okay, let’s go to the third.
Yeah, persistence. Well, I do want to give a shoutout to Courageous Cultures because your book is packed full of what it means to create a curious place, and so anybody who’s working with us or working with our model and wants to develop resourcefulness, just go read your book because it is an incredible place, incredible, chock full of stuff. Okay, so now we understand …
No, wait, I’m going to interrupt you, first of all, to say thank you, but also because we have another question. Khaled is definitely-
… Oh, yes.
… He’s somebody I’d met at a Project Management Institute conference. He was in one of our sessions. Thank you for always being on Asking for a Friend. He’s asking a great question here: “Is resourcefulness equivalent to coaching or is it a different thing? And if so, how is that different?”
Great question. Resourcefulness is to coaching what empathy is to compassion. Resourcefulness is one of the skills that we would coach a leader in, but it is only one of three of the skills of compassion. We provide a coaching strategy with how does a mentor or a coach invite someone to continue to move around the compassion cycle from openness to resourcefulness to persistence back to open. There are key decisions a person needs to make at each juncture and we teach coaches how to recognize when it’s time for that decision and how to invite and facilitate that so that people continue to step up to higher levels of compassion and higher levels of accountability over time.
Okay, good. We actually have another question, so I’m going to just riff on these questions and then we’ll let you close with your final element here. In Conflict Without Casualties, you stated that there are only three roles, the persecutor, the victim, and the rescuer, and drama is all about negative attention behavior,” so you have someone who has read your book carefully here.
Wow. Great question.
How would you respond to this?
Yeah, I would say that drama is always about real issues, but the way we’re tackling those issues is we are seeking to feel justified about our negative behavior and we’re creating an adversarial relationship around the issue. The issue is real, but the way we’re handling that energy of conflict is destructive, distracting, and leads nowhere but away from our best-laid goals.
Hmm, so when you talk about reducing the drama, I think for me, in your book, it really kept coming back to, “Are we struggling together or are we struggling against?” It was really interesting because I was in the middle of some conflict as I was listening to your book and I was walking and I was thinking about, “Huh. How do we shift this to be struggling together? Because we all want the same thing.” At the end of the day, what the conflict I was involved in, we really did want the same thing, but the tension was there. It was weird.
Well, and that leads to the third skill of persistence, which is now we’ve understood the situation, we understand options, we have choices to make. Persistence is about saying, “Okay, let’s follow-through. What does really matter most? What is this about? Is this about quality? Is it about respect is about boundaries? Is it about a relationship that we both care deeply about? Let’s get clear about that so we can make some new commitments to each other about where we go from here.” That’s hard work.
Oh, that’s beautiful. I love that so much. Okay, do we have any last questions from our listeners on Asking for a Friend? I’ll do one last call for questions. As I’m doing that, Nate, what have we not talked about that you think is so important for people? I know, a lot, but that are so important for people, particularly right now?
I think we, I just want to reinforce, again, that compassion is a way of being with people that preserves dignity. It builds capability and it, in crystal clear ways, reinforces responsibility in every interaction, so there’s never a wrong place to practice compassion or a wrong time. Now, we’re going into the holidays. Karin, you and I are really lucky that we have families that we love and want to be around and get along. That’s a luxury that maybe some families don’t enjoy, or maybe some people are alone now during the holidays, or maybe they’re just getting a barrage of social media on Facebook because they posted something and everybody is hating on them, or maybe they’re really feeling the drain and distress of this extended pandemic, and so I think compassion can be practiced on ourselves where we each day try to reinforce, “How am I valuable? How am I capable and how am I responsible for me every day?” That way, we can be that anchor in the storm and keep that centered focus when everything seems to be going crazy around us.
Oh, wow. I want to make sure we get that. How am I valuable, how am I capable, and how am I responsible for me?
Responsible, mm-hmm (affirmative).
Wow. Just think about that, such an affirmation. If you really think about that, especially when you’re stressed and regrounding yourself in that, “Hey, I actually have a lot to contribute here.” I love that. We got a “super,” there. Great. Okay, well, tell us a little bit about where people can find more about you. I know you all want to connect with him on LinkedIn. What could you share?
Well, LinkedIn seems to be working really well these days for connecting, so you can find me on LinkedIn, our company’s website is next-element.com, and you can purchase my books anywhere books are sold. There’s Conflict Without Casualties, we’ve talked about today, and my newest book, Seeing People Through, is all about personality diversity and leadership and so both of those are great places, but if you just look up my name, I love to get connected. I’m just looking forward to hearing from you.
Join us on Future Asking For a Friend!
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And if you like interviews like this, you won’t want to miss our most popular Asking For a Friend LIVE interview of the year, on creating connection and celebration in remote teams—including getting better at remote small talk (with Debra Fine and Scott Friedman).