Can you feel it? Employees are incredibly tuned in to their leaders. They watch closely trying to read their manager’s mood, level of satisfaction with the company, response to how the last meeting went, etc. With partial information they quickly fill in the blanks and interpret behavior in very creative ways: “Did you see his eyebrow this morning? That’s the way it gets when somebody is in for it – pass it on.” The less direct information they get, the more vigilant and creative they become to make up for it. Nature hates a vacuum.
Employees watch closely looking for any inconsistencies in their boss’s behavior because it demonstrates the real policies and expectations. Actions speak louder than words and leadership behavior becomes “behavioral policy.” Never mind what’s written in our SOPs or employee manuals, leadership actions articulate the way things really work and will either be emulated or criticized by employees.
Leaders are also scrutinized for consistent application of workplace standards among employees. Fairness is a universal issue in organizations. I think this is because people give up certain freedoms when they are at work; for example, they are required to start working at a specific time whether they like it or not, they must follow procedures even if they think there are better ways to do things.
This loss of freedom in the workplace is generally acceptable to employees as long as it is required of all to the same degree – unless there is a good reason for the difference. Even then, production staff can complain about sales getting to come in with a flexible start time when theirs is locked in. If we are inconsistent in applying expectations in our area, employees will notice and accusations of unfairness are sure to follow. This careful scrutiny can be uncomfortable for leaders. Rather than fear it, get frustrated with it, or ignore it, let’s see what we can learn from it and how to minimize it.
Communicate. Fill in the information vacuum yourself before your employees do so with assumptions and interpretations. Provide as much direct information as you can and help them understand the context of decisions, new directions, shifts in priorities, etc.
Observe your behavior. Become increasingly aware of yourself throughout the day. Ask the following question, “Am I consistent in living as well as applying to others the standards that most support my organization?” If the answer is “yes,” well done modeling those critical behaviors! If not, focus on changing one errant behavior at a time. Go narrow and deep rather than wide and shallow. The change will be more evident. Your consistency will increase employees’ sense of safety and their willingness to invest their energies more fully in the desired behaviors.
Ask for feedback. Ask employees for input as to how you could better support them and their success. Don’t justify or explain in response to their feedback. Just say thanks and let them know what changes are within your ability to make. Then follow up -being accountable for the changes you agreed to make will let them know you are taking their requests seriously.
By John Benson