How you show up can improve morale, and the bottom line, if you’re brave enough to get real.
According to Harvard Business Review, employees who feel a sense of connection and appreciation at work perform better. Those findings support what we see in our work every day. Managers have many opportunities to improve morale, and the bottom line, by showing up with greater vulnerability, but only if they are brave enough to do it.
Jake, a mid-level executive at an east coast financial institution, had been working earnestly towards a promotion for several years when he got passed over by a peer for a coveted SVP position. Compounding the sting of defeat, his boss Stephen didn’t take him aside to discuss the decision. Jake’s morale plummeted, and his performance began to slip.
Stephen knew he should have told Jake directly, but somehow never found the time. The truth was, he worried Jake would hold it against him. Without realizing it, his fear of not being liked and appearing harsh caused him to avoid delivering an unpleasant message. But his conflict avoidance didn’t make Jake’s disappointment subside. Instead, Jake festered with resentment and disengagement.
It wasn’t the first time Stephen’s self-protective anxieties prevented him from having uncomfortable, but important conversations that would have made a difference to his team. And he is far from alone.
Here are five things bosses fear to say that would help morale—and the bottom line:
- “I don’t know – what do you think?” When Bill, the CEO of a manufacturing company, needed to expand their core business, he put off talking to his team about it for months. He believed a CEO should know how to implement such a strategy, and admitting he didn’t would make him look stupid and incompetent. His embarrassment limited progress on the expansion, and ironically, his inaction made him look incompetent – a self-fulfilling prophecy. By not disclosing his uncertainty, he not only stymied his company’s growth, he didn’t model that it was acceptable for his team to come to him when they were stuck. Tip: Identify the areas where you think you should know, but are struggling. Notice how you worry others will judge you if you talk about it. Ask for help anyway.
- “I screwed up, I’m sorry.” People often don’t take responsibility for mistakes or failures because it’s too uncomfortable for the ego to admit. We see this clearly in others at work, home and in the public arena, but it’s more difficult to observe it in ourselves. In low trust environments, where we expect criticism from others, it becomes even more challenging. But recall the (rare) times you witnessed someone acknowledge they messed up. It’s a breath of fresh air. We trust these people more, and disrespect and judge them less. Counter intuitively, our fears of judgment are backwards: people judge us when we hide, not when we disclose. So, practice transparently and proactively acknowledging your errors in decisions and behaviors. Tip: Who needs to hear you say “I behaved poorly” or “I made a mistake”?
- “I see how much effort you’re giving – thank you.” A CEO at a hi-tech start up learned in her 360º feedback that she never praised her direct reports – and they didn’t like it. “If they’re doing a mediocre job, am I supposed to lie?” she asked. No (faking it causes another set of problems). But saying nothing or only providing negative feedback can be demoralizing. Acknowledging effort or intention, instead of quality of performance or outcomes, helps employees feel seen and valued—often making them more open to hearing feedback on their performance. Tip: Look for and acknowledge how hard people are trying before addressing needed improvements (see point 4).
- “I see you’re struggling. What’s going on?” Jake’s performance trailed off after being passed over, and Stephen began judging him as an under-achiever. He soon concluded that Jake didn’t have ‘what it took’ to get to the next level. This helped justify his conflict avoidance, since what was the point in telling Jake he’d reached his ceiling? Stephen had fallen into a common leadership trap of not expressing his observations and instead stewing on his judgments. Jake, meanwhile, felt unsupported by Stephen, and wasn’t going to him for help. Coaching finally allowed them to put their differences on the table. Jake understood better why he didn’t get the promotion. Stephen presented his concerns, most of which Jake knew he was struggling with. Re-establishing Stephen’s commitment to supporting Jake jump-started a performance improvement plan for Jake and his region. Tip: What is each of your reports struggling with? Express what you see (instead of your conclusions about their competency) and ask them what they think.
- “How are you really doing? Here’s what’s going on for me.” Most of us believe that being “professional” means never revealing weakness at work. But this isn’t reality and, as any shrewd businessperson knows, we ignore facts at our own peril. It isn’t sustainable to wear a mask all the time. Moreover, it limits workplace trust and collaboration. Cultivate “professional vulnerability”. Talk about your own struggles in work and life; it’ll help your team feel safe to let you know what’s preventing them from doing their very best work for you. Tip: What struggle can you share in your next one-on-one?
A reorganization in Jake’s company left Max, a director in a peer’s department, with a much smaller team. Remembering how he felt when he missed his promotion, Jake called Max and they spoke for 45 minutes. Max shared his pains and frustrations and later thanked him for the call. It helped him feel valued and re-inspired, despite the changes. A small investment for a more humane and engaged workplace.
If you thought that was good—there’s plenty more where that came from.
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