It is tough for most leaders to internalize the idea that as a leader, the buck stops with you. We tend to shy away from the great responsibility on our shoulders as leaders. The part of the job that entails telling people what to do and making most of the important decisions sits more easily on us.
The hard part of the job to accept and step into is the part where everything that happens with the team is on you. If employees don’t perform the way you wanted them to, that’s your leadership mistake and with luck, the source of great learning for you. It’s so tempting, though, to push away that learning. We don’t want to look in the mirror, but all the lessons are there.
Instead we say “The employees goofed up. They missed their goals. Geez Louise, what do I have to do to get some decent employees around here?” You don’t have to do anything extraordinary to get great employees. You only have to stay in your human form and avoid becoming a pod person version of yourself.
It takes courage and intestinal fortitude to lead people well, because to do it you have to find the courage to tell the truth a lot more often than the standard management playbook requires.
In the western management tradition, there is no need for managers to tell the truth about sticky topics like workload, goals, visibility into the future, conflict, pressure, jealousy, or any of the other human topics that are guaranteed to crop up in any workplace, since the place is populated by humans.
Managers often convince themselves, singly and collectively, that being the manager means not having to talk about sticky topics.
It is tempting to blame our employees when things break down, but that is a complete abdication of the manager’s role. If you can’t hire employees who can get the job done, then what are you here for? You have no place to hide.
There is no one to blame. At any level of management, you took the job knowing that the role put you in charge and on the hot seat for every success and failure on the team — no exceptions.
Of course, your manager didn’t approve the first budget you submitted. That doesn’t absolve you from total responsibility for your team’s results. Why not? You kept the job once your budget was sliced, that’s why!
Yes, your colleagues in other departments sometimes fell through and didn’t deliver what they promised. Oh, well! You are still responsible for your department’s results, or your whole company’s results if you are the CEO. Things go south sometimes, and leaders have to deal.
That responsibility feels like a burden, but it is actually an opportunity to say “I’m responsible, I know it, and I won’t blame anyone else for my difficulties and obstacles. I’m going to learn from every one of them — that’s the grand prize!” If you blame people for your stumbles, you won’t see your own part in the incident.
You won’t see your central role as the star and director of your movie. You’d stay stuck in “It Wasn’t My Fault” Land forever and never get the beautiful “Aha!” that comes when you say “Oh, wait — I could have handled that differently.”
Every manager knows how hard it is to navigate when you’ve got team members and their demands, quirks and energy waves on one side of you and even more demanding senior leaders on the other side. You do your best to keep everybody happy, and that’s a lot to take on. Any management job is a pressure cooker.
When you can turn the crystal just far enough to see that your best bet as a leader is to level with your team mates and tell them the truth about everything, you win right away. You build trust, and trust is what will power your team to success.
Telling the truth to your team members is necessary but not sufficient if you want to be a true leader. The other piece of the puzzle is telling the truth to the higher-up managers you report to. Your employees found the strength to tell you the truth, and now you have to find the strength to tell your leaders the truth as well.
That’s your duty to your team as a leader, but it’s also your duty to your leaders, your customers and your shareholders. It’s a duty to yourself most of all. Why should you muzzle yourself out of fear? Your employer hired you because you are smart. If you have a message to deliver, open your mouth and say it!
People will react however they will. The only way you will grow muscles is by using them. Your vocal cords are muscles! Every time I found my voice and used it to speak my truth about sticky topics at work, good things happened. Sometimes I created an energy wave that wasn’t pleasant at first. So will you.
That’s okay. The whole world doesn’t have to like what you say. Your job is to find the people who resonate at your frequency, not to placate and appease people who don’t.
Liz Ryan is the CEO and founder of Human Workplace.
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