We all know the cliché: People don’t leave companies, they leave managers. But it doesn’t always mean they’re leaving because of their direct manager. Second- or third-level leaders have a significant impact when it comes to employee engagement, retention and attrition.
In my career, I experienced both sides. I left a job specifically due to my direct manager, and I took a job at a new company due to my second-level manager.
We have all seen instances when a person’s ability to positively influence an organization from any level is significant. A new leader comes in at a higher level and a previously underperforming organization begins to turn around. Or an organization struggling with employee engagement is rejuvenated by a new leader’s ideas, motivation and inspiration. We love real-life examples of leadership like that!
But there’s another side.
In my 20 years in human resources and in my coaching business, I have seen that skip-level leaders — two or three levels up — have a far-reaching negative impact that isn’t always taken seriously.
I’ve seen a leader reporting to the CEO who attempted to come across as light-hearted and sarcastic but who, during infrequent interactions with employees two levels below him, would deliver daggers through one-liners, leaving them feeling bullied and defeated as opposed to informed and inspired. Employees frequently left this company and cited his name as a reason for leaving.
I know of a third-level leader in a Fortune 50 company who for many years received complaints and feedback about his abusive, overly negative and punitive leadership style. But nothing was done, and he remained in that level of authority for 10 years.
Let me be clear: I do not believe leaders need only be positive, inspirational and “everything-is-rainbows-and-unicorns” in their everyday approach.
Great leaders are balanced. Great leaders hold people accountable while leaving people feeling respected, valued and appreciated.
Here’s the truth about leadership: We often think about it as a competency of a job, especially at higher levels in organizations. It’s also a soft skill. It is ambiguous and looks and feels different to different people.
Leadership is also personal because it’s a style thing. The way I lead and motivate others may look very different than the way you do.
So, leadership becomes a slippery slope. With a slippery slope, it becomes challenging to give feedback and direction. So, unfortunately, we say nothing.
In the two examples I shared above, these leaders’ issues are style issues. Their direct reports and others attempted to give feedback to them about being a bully, their people feeling beat-up after interactions with them and the broader organization feeling like they are negative and uninspiring. While the feedback is true, it’s personal because the descriptions reflect the leader’s character, and no one likes to hear they have character flaws.
The typical response to this type of feedback is that people need to develop thicker skin and stop being so sensitive — if they were performing better, the leader wouldn’t have to be so harsh with them. Some of these things may be true, so the feedback stops there. The leader continues on in the style that is most natural for them, and employees at any level of the organization continue to feel however they feel about interacting with that leader.
This exact scenario is happening every day in all organizations. It may be happening to you. You may be the employee in this situation or the leader.
Here are three truths to consider as you think about your own leadership style:
1. Employees at all levels of your organization assess your leadership capability quickly.
As a leader, part of your job is to assess people based on results and infrequent interactions. What you may not realize is that people are doing the same to you about your leadership capabilities.
For example, when you stroll the office and jump to a negative conclusion about someone’s work ethic because you saw them chatting with someone in a different department, then it is completely reasonable someone would jump to a negative conclusion about your character as a leader if you bully or harass someone in a meeting.
When you hear feedback about someone’s one time interacting with you, don’t dismiss it. Making a quick assessment of someone is something everyone does daily.
2. If you receive the same feedback over and over, stop ignoring it. It’s true.
In one of the examples of the leaders I shared, he would get the same feedback time and time again. Each time, he was shocked and bewildered because he did not see himself that way.
Whether you are receiving feedback for the first time or the 10th time, always assume it is the absolute truth. Don’t become defensive. Don’t deflect that someone needs thicker skin. Getting defensive and deflecting will never change the fact that someone experienced you in a way that prompted the feedback. It’s the truth.
3. Have people around you who will tell you the truth no matter what.
Leadership isn’t black and white. It’s a challenging topic for people to give feedback at all, so there’s a chance you may be missing out on the reality of how you are perceived as a leader. Giving feedback is hard, and if you’re viewed as a leader who bullies or harasses people, then it’s likely people are afraid you will target them based on the feedback.
Do what it takes to create an authentic sense of trust and safety that will allow the people around you to always tell you the truth about how you’re doing and how you’re perceived.
Leadership can be tricky, and while it would be an easier route to wash your hands of the responsibility of your true impact throughout all levels of your organization, you can’t. Your organization’s engagement and productivity depend on it.
By Lesha Reese
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