It’s What People Aren’t Saying That Leaders Most Need to Hear

We’ve seen many leaders win promotions simply because they excel at managing upwards. You know the type: They grab the plum projects for themselves, doling out the routine work to others. Since they want to demonstrate their effectiveness to their managers, they pressure team members to achieve performance targets at any cost. They spend little time trying to motivate, reward or recognize achievements, believing that career development is their employees’ job. With an unremitting focus on their own career growth, these leaders have a blind spot when it comes to discerning the aspirations and needs of their own team members, and often are blissfully unaware when they become disengaged.

Self-reflection is not their strong suit. If it were, these leaders might clue into the fact that they have fallen short of their employees’ expectations, especially the informal, implicit kind that don’t get talked about out loud. These expectations are often tough to meet without a lot of thoughtful work, like the ability to cultivate trust, create stability and connect the contributions of all to an overall strategy. These are the traits which, if absent, impel people to seek out other leaders. Ironically, those who believe they are the most inspirational leaders have never taken the time to discover what their employees want and need from them.

Joining me as co-author again this month is Karen Eber, Business Learning Leader of General Electric Energy Management. Here we use a hypothetical example, representing a composite of some of our actual clients, to show how unmet expectations can undermine trust, demotivate teams, and chip away at relationship equity. We provide some practical steps for self-aware leaders who know they can do much more to create the kind of environment where every team member can flourish.

Dismantling delusions of grandeur

Meet Juan, leader of an eight-person marketing team spanning multiple locations. Despite the fact that weekly team meetings are “mandatory,” people decline meeting requests with increasing frequency.  Only five people joined the last call, when Juan spent most of the time expounding about his projects, sharing stories about the people he met with, and boasting about the accolades he has been getting.  Most team members tune out early on, sitting in silence. In addition, nearly everyone is now routinely delivering work, and most have stopped even trying to make excuses.

When the employee engagement survey results came out last week, Juan’s manager Eve called to ask why his team’s results were suddenly so low. When Juan professed to have no idea (after first trying to blame the overall company work environment and then “a few negative naysayers”), Eve told Juan that she expected him to find out and to take the necessary steps to turn it around. “You are blessed with a talented team,” she told him, “and we expect you to do what it takes to persuade them that this is a great place to work. How you treat them has a huge influence on their decision to stay or go. I’ll check back with you in two weeks to discover what steps you’ve taken.”

Here are a few steps we would advise Juan to take so he can regain trust, re-engage and retain this team:

  • Be vulnerable: Let team members know that you are aware that people have become disengaged, and that you have an earnest desire to turn things around. Express concern about the low survey results, and let them know that you want to learn from them what you can improve, and how.  Set up a date and time as soon as possible to discuss what’s going on and brainstorm possible solutions. (If you believe that people won’t be as candid as you’d like, consider setting up an anonymous online conference area in advance of this team meeting, to give people a safe option to say what’s on their minds.)
  • Dedicate the needed time:  Hold this initial discussion as soon as most (if not all) team members can attend. Don’t be stingy with your time. Allocate at least 90 minutes for the initial discussion. Afterwards, set aside time to check in on your progress, either 1:1 or in team meetings. (If you have set up an online conference area, you can use that to invite feedback and discussions on a regular basis.)
  • Get outside help: Seek assistance from a trusted neutral facilitator or colleague who is not on your team.  This person can help in many ways, such as conducting private interviews or setting up online anonymous polling and sharing a summary of confidential results; preparing and/or facilitating an in-person or virtual workshop to discuss and address challenges openly; advising you how best to create a safe venue where people feel they can be open and honest; providing  an impartial  view and suggesting possible solutions, particularly during moments of tension; and allowing you to be fully present in the discussion, listening intently and contributing fully.
  • Focus the discussion: As a team, create a picture of the desired future state where every person can flourish. Ask people which leadership behaviors, attitudes and traits are most vital to achieve this shared vision. Ask how you are doing in this regard. Openly discuss challenges, including those not in your direct control, that you must successfully address to cultivate this ideal work environment. Let people know what you need from them in return to be the best leader you can be.
  • Ask the tough questions: Whether you or someone else is leading the discussion, ask people what you as a leader should continue doing, stop doing and should consider doing. Team members may suggest things that are difficult for you to do.  Discuss ways to strike a compromise so you can set realistic expectations and make sure that you can deliver what the team says it most needs. You might try posing the questions and leaving the meeting so members can discuss responses in confidence and then present a summary later on. (An anonymous online conference area may also be used to elicit candid responses, which can augment or sometimes replace the verbal conversation.)
  • Commit: Once you and your team have agreed how best to work together, it’s time to commit to shifting behaviors or taking certain actions and agreeing on related success metrics and how best to monitor. Decide how and when to report on progress you’ve made, and who’s responsible (assuming that other team members may be in a better position to track your progress than you!). Determine how often to revisit these commitments as a team, and how best to identify and address any new unspoken expectations.
  • Follow through: Never assume that lack of feedback means you’re doing just fine, especially when working with remote team members. Be vigilant about finding opportunities to solicit candid feedback. Use 1:1 sessions and team meetings to ask probing questions about how well you’re meeting the needs of team members and to identify additional needs that may emerge, especially under times of stress. You can also consider using an anonymous online conference area or a neutral facilitator to conduct periodic assessments. Ultimately, however, you want to create the kind of work environment where people feel comfortable speaking openly, even when the truth might be tough to take.

As leaders, we naturally manage up to create positive impressions.  We may even intentionally give thought to how we show up for our teams.  Every so often, we forget to check in on the unspoken expectations, which can be the very things that can delight or demotivate a team through one action.  While leaders must be careful to weigh the needs and wants of team members and not overreact to every whim, they need to be accountable for ensuring their teams have what they need to be successful. Team members need to feel heard, understood, engaged and supported.  By making such discussions a regular practice, leaders can create high-performing teams and become the leaders that everyone wants to follow.


If you believe that your team could use a reboot, have a look at our downloadable checklist to plan and run a “team check-in meeting

Selected LinkedIn posts from Karen: Dear me: A letter from my 22-year-old selfMr. Splashy Pants, and Who are you when no one is looking?

Past Communiqués by Nancy:
Leading vs. Managing Remote Teams
Prevent Thoughtless Habits from Squandering Your Team’s Time
You’d Be a Great Virtual Communicator if Only You Could Just Be Quiet

Seven Words That Define What Employees Want from Leadership by Glenn Llopis in Forbes

25 Famous Women on Being in Charge by Julia Ma in New York Magazine

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