I was recently working with a complex team of experts and their new leader. I’ll call her Kate. Kate brought impeccable experience, having served globally and in rich culturally diverse conditions for many years. She now was serving in an even greater senior capacity and directly impactful role. Kate had decided to invest a little more than half a day in a teaming program to help form the team, help them get to know one another, and help the team get to know her. Kate’s primary goal was to build trust, camaraderie, relationships and rapport through the creation of a strong foundation of healthy interaction. This team is responsible for the delivery of some life-changing, world-altering goals over the next 5 years and Kate wisely realized that investing in their formation was critical. With 18 people on the team, this was a large capital investment in terms of time for the people sitting in the room, but one that she was confident to make.
Through the course of the session, the team experienced a lot of cohesion work. Following that work, we moved into a “Meet the Manager” segment, which was delivered press style. The purpose was to accelerate the team’s understanding of Kate and her management preferences and to allow an opportunity for open dialogue. Kate was answering facilitated questions from me and from her own group, which had been solicited in advance.
One of the concerns raised by members of the team was that they really wanted to be involved in providing historical and experiential information and context to enhance and accelerate Kate’s on-boarding experience. Many members of the team had been serving for over five years in their role, bringing an on-the-ground perspective and direct experience of various leaders and collegial teams. They had rich information to offer.
As is often the case, Kate had been seeking input and experience of other leaders at her peer level and more senior levels and she had not been seeking the input of her own team members. In my experience, this is fairly common as new leaders seek the input of other peers, colleagues, and senior leaders as a pathway of starting something new. They hope to get into action, generate a bunch of data, and form recommendations that will enhance their credibility and show their results quickly. Unfortunately, this tactic often leaves their own team members feeling a bit deflated, certainly undervalued and under-appreciated and really not seen – almost invisible.
As this dialogue got underway, a courageous member of the team asked Kate to consider including and incorporating their input to her data gathering process relative to their strategic direction. In her gracious response she said, “absolutely, we will continue to…your input it very important…we will ask your input…I will seek your input…we want to be polite in gathering the input from you.”
Kate didn’t recognize the impact of that word polite, but it was felt in the room. Kate was leaking the truth. And the truth was she didn’t really want the input of the team – at least that’s the truth that was exhibited. Whether it’s true or whether it’s not true, the impact of that type of comment can be more demoralizing than one would imagine. Frequently, leaders are not fully aware of what they’re saying, but more importantly they’re not aware of their own truth. Unintentionally, Kate diminished the value of the day for some because their perception of her comment was not positive. Common thoughts were (and ARE in this type of situation) “you’re manipulating us”, “you’re condescending”, and “you’re not being truthful.” “You’re saying you value our opinions and clearly you don’t.” “You’re just doing it as a token and not valuing it and therefore we’re not valued.” Unfortunately, it’s not a large leap to then thinking; “and if I don’t believe this about you, then I’m probably not going to believe very much else about you. And therefore, I’m going to choose at this moment in time not to trust you, not to disclose too much, not to offer too much because first of all I don’t think you value it and second of all I don’t know what you’re going to do with it. “
Kate missed an opportunity with some members of the team, based on one little word. The point of this is not about monitoring your words and thinking too hard about what you’re saying because that causes it’s own ill effect. What it’s about is telling the truth. For Kate, it would have been better for her team, and it would have generated a better result to simply say something like, “at the level I’m playing, and with the level of goal and intensity that we have, politically or otherwise, I must get the input of the senior leaders on this team and politically I must follow their direction and their guidance. I’m certainly open to your input but I must be honest in telling you that I will have to follow the input of the senior leaders of the team. And that’s because this is my reality.“ So being vulnerable and telling the truth about her reality and why she may have needed to play it differently would have moved her and her team more quickly to her original goal of building trust and a strong foundation of healthy interaction. Truth and transparency always gives you the better result.
Truth in Leadership:
Many leaders that I work with day in and day out are very put off by this type of conversation. After all, we are talking about teams of highly intelligent, successful, and presumably mature individuals. From the leaders’ perspective, this is a ridiculous waste of time, childlike behavior, insecurity, selfish, etc., etc. That may be so; however, it is reality. Regardless of age, tenure, position, success level, hierarchy, gender…people are people and people are motivated or inspired by their own values and by being included and leveraged for their strengths. If you want a fully engaged and vitally functioning team, the “small” things cannot be ignored and the truth must be steadfast.