Q: My employee reviews indicate I’m seen as an impersonal, directive leader, and I worry about team morale. I’m trying to relate better to my employees, but am not sure how to approach change. — Nate, 54, vice president of operations
A: Grow as a leader in ways that are authentic for you, even if they feel awkward at first.
The last thing you want is to go from impersonal to phony. As you approach your path for change, base it on a vision of leadership that rings true for you.
This vision needs to come from inside. However, you can develop it by reflecting on other models of leadership you’ve admired in the past.
You could think how a former boss or colleague approached leadership, or think of someone from a movie, a book or a historical person. Notice the characteristics you particularly value, and then focus on those that feel plausible for you.
Also align this with the behaviors that are creating the most friction.
You may not have received feedback that is detailed enough to act on, as reviews can be somewhat superficial. Seek additional information from your boss, or talk to trusted peers to help go deeper into your less desirable behaviors
Be sure not to argue back. Remember, candid feedback is a gift and you don’t want to shut down anyone who will share hard truths.
Evaluate your motivation: Why do you want to change? You say it’s about team morale, but why does that matter to you? Is it about their human experience or is it driven by the bottom line?
If you want to relate, to exhibit empathy, you need to honestly value their experiences and quality of life. Otherwise, your efforts are simply manipulative.
Now list specific behaviors that you can take on to address these perceptions. While you can’t work on too many at once, it’s good to have a backlog of your next development opportunities.
For example, you may decide the “directive” portion of your image needs most attention. Giving up control is hard, as is losing the rush from being the problem solver.
The good news is that learning to mentor and develop team members gives a deep satisfaction, even though it can feel like things slow down a bit.
When you switch from telling people what to do to asking for their solutions, people may be skeptical and not respond readily.
You can forestall this by being transparent about what you are doing. Opening up and telling them that you are trying to change and the reasons behind it shows openness and vulnerability, truly a valuable step.
Add in a little day-to-day friendliness.
Get coffee in the office kitchen and ask people about their weekend. Pay some compliments on aspects of their work. Go around and say good morning, remembering to include remote workers.
Just taking small amounts of time sends a message that the people on your team matter.
This isn’t easy. Give serious thought to working with a coach who can help you see the best options and develop momentum.
And who knows? You may like the new leader you have become, and the company will benefit, too.