Management by Coaching
I'm leading—Why aren't they following? Part 2
Emotions speak louder than words
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
Let me ask a powerful question: Why would anyone want to be led by you? Take a look at yourself from the perspective of your employees. If the roles were reversed, would you want to follow you? In Part 1 of this series (December 2010 issue of Rough Notes), we examined several good and bad leadership styles. Part 2 focuses on the leader's attitudes, emotions and other nonverbal cues.
We live in a time when the label "leader" must be earned. Leaders aren't self-proclaimed or determined by a boss. They aren't defined by years of hard work or business ownership. Leaders are ultimately defined by the people who are being asked to follow. Do you have the leadership traits that it takes to make people want to follow you?
Research shows that leaders who resonate with their people consistently demonstrate the following five behaviors and abilities:
1. Show conviction. Leaders need to be thoroughly convinced that the direction they've set for the company is a viable one. Employees innately sense how deeply a leader believes in his or her own strategy. If the leader has doubts, so will the employees. Leaders who exude negative energy through body language or other subtle cues sabotage the success of the group and every individual involved. Leaders who demonstrate the strength of their convictions with positive emotion enable employees to stay on course.
The direction the leader sets must be clear and must point toward a goal that employees believe is worthwhile. It can be as basic as improving their work process or as noble as serving a higher cause.
In addition to being convinced about their direction, leaders need to be convincing. People must believe that what they are being asked to do can be achieved. Effective leaders anticipate objections in advance and nip them in the bud. They understand that employees will not make sacrifices—even if they are unhappy with the status quo—unless they are convinced that useful change is possible. Without credible communication and lots of it, the hearts and minds of the troops cannot be captured.
Even when bosses have conviction, they can be perceived as lacking it because of a self-sabotaging behavior I call "leader ADD." This behavior is rampant among entrepreneurs who often have a tendency to jump from one initiative to another. In their minds, it is all in pursuit of business improvement. Employees see it as a lack of focus and "stick-to-itiveness." If a boss isn't going to stay with an initiative, why should employees bother to engage?
2. Connect the dots. The most effective leaders have learned how to connect each employee's daily actions to the desired results. They build their message into their hour-by-hour activities. For example, in a monthly employee meeting, they use the Q&A as a way to help people see how their questions or concerns fit into the bigger picture. In a routine discussion about a business problem, they talk about the problem and how the proposed solutions fit or don't fit based on the company's direction. In individual employee performance appraisals, they talk about how the employee's behavior helps or undermines what the company is working to accomplish.
Leaders sabotage themselves when they overestimate employees' ability to see how their job fits into the big picture and underestimate the frequency with which they need to connect the dots for employees.
3. Have emotional intelligence. Research consistently shows that the most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way. They have a high degree of what has come to be known as "emotional intelligence." Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, identifies five "emotional competencies":
• To identify and name one's emotional states and to understand the link between emotions, thought and action
• To manage one's emotional states—to control emotions or to shift undesirable emotional states to more adequate ones
• To enter into emotional states associated with a drive to achieve and be successful
• To read, be sensitive to and influence other people's emotions
• To enter and sustain satisfactory interpersonal relationships
Without the skills that comprise emotional intelligence, a person can have a great mind and an endless supply of ideas but still won't be an excellent leader.
4. Create the right environment. The leader's mood and behavior drive the behavior of everyone else. Mood contagion is a neurological phenomenon. It turns out that the most effective leaders are those who set high standards and demand excellence but, through their personal behavior, set a relaxed tone within their organizations.
There is a set of neurons in the brain whose only function is to detect other people's smiles and laughter, prompting smiles and laughter in return. A boss who is distant and humorless will rarely engage those neurons in his team members, whereas a boss who laughs and sets an easygoing tone puts those neurons to work, triggering spontaneous laughter and knitting his team together in the process. A bonded group is one that performs well.
According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, top-performing leaders elicit laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, than do mid-performing leaders. Being in a good mood helps people process information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively.
Conversely, when people are under stress, surges in the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can impede their ability to think. At low levels, cortisol facilitates thinking and other mental functions, so well-timed pressure to perform and targeted critiques of employees have their place.
When a leader's demands become too great for an employee to handle, soaring cortisol levels and an added kick of adrenaline can paralyze the mind's critical abilities. Attention fixates on the threat from the boss rather than the work at hand; memory, planning and creativity go out the window. Employees fall back on old habits, no matter how unsuitable they are for addressing new challenges.
Consider two independent agencies operating in the same town. The respective agencies' principals—Jack and Jane—were extremely bright and skilled insurance professionals. They had very different personalities. Jane was intense, task focused, and impersonal. She was a relentless perfectionist with a combative tone that kept her staff continually on edge. Jack was equally demanding, but he was very approachable, even playful, in relating to employees, colleagues and clients.
Observers noted that people smiled and teased one another—and even spoke their minds—more in Jack's agency than in Jane's. The best producers and CSRs often ended up leaving Jane's agency. The outstanding employees gravitated to Jack's warmer working climate and were willing to give their all for this agency leader.
With the pressure companies are under these days, it's easy for leaders to self-sabotage by falling into the trap of being all business and forgetting how important the right atmosphere is in inspiring people to be their best.
5. Use the power of progress. In a recent survey, 600 managers were asked to rank the impact on employees' motivation and emotions of five workplace factors commonly considered significant: recognition for good work, incentives, interpersonal support, support for making progress and clear goals. Recognition (either public or private) was ranked number one.
Unfortunately, those managers are wrong.
Based on the results of a Harvard Business School multi-year study that tracked day-to-day activities, emotions and motivation levels of hundreds of knowledge workers in a wide range of settings, we now know what the top motivator of performance is. The answer is progress.
Workers were asked to keep detailed diaries. A close analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries, together with the writers' daily ratings of their motivation and emotions, showed that making progress in one's work—even incremental progress—is more frequently associated with positive emotions than any other workday event.
On the days when employees felt they were making the most headway in their jobs, or they received support that helped them overcome roadblocks, their emotions were the most positive and their drive to succeed was at its peak. On days when they felt like they were spinning their wheels or encountering obstacles that blocked meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivations were at their lowest.
It turns out that the key to motivating people is pretty simple and largely within a leader's control. Leaders have a powerful influence over the events that facilitate or undermine progress. They can provide goals, resources and encouragement and protect their people from irrelevant demands. They can proactively create both the perception and reality of progress.
Leaders can just as easily destroy the positive momentum that comes from progress by failing to pause and celebrate achievements. Leaders who quickly gloss over progress and move on to the next challenge fail to leverage the most positive tool they have for keeping their employees fully engaged and motivated.
Next time you find yourself wondering what it takes to get people to follow your lead, step back and take a long hard look at yourself. Are you leading in a way that will make people want to follow?
Kimberly Paterson is a Business and Certified Energy Leadership Coach. She is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com) where she works with insurance organizations to build the vision, strategy, customer insight and leadership skills to energize people and achieve outstanding results. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.