Being compassionate and caring is a skill that comes naturally to many leaders. But what happens when employees or direct reports perceive a leader’s compassionate spirit to be a weakness? Or what if, in your boldness to achieve, you are perceived as one who is always demanding more with no apparent thought of others’ wellbeing? To lead people effectively requires a delicate balance between compassion and boldness where you earn the right to inspire them and tap into their most precious well of intellectual capital and ability. That’s known as trust, and it doesn’t come attached to a title or position. How does a leader ‘earn’ that right?
Compassion is not a weakness, it’s a gift. The boldness and drive to succeed may be an even greater gift. Combined, the two make excellent ingredients for productive environments and competitive advantage. But perception trumps all of our best intentions. To foster the best in behavior and performance does not happen by demanding that people do what we want them to. That’s perceived as oppressive and chokes out any desire to willingly contribute. Instead, when we consciously strive to get people to want to do what we want them to, environments shift from oppressive to collaborative. The perception then becomes that of a leader who genuinely cares about people and their ability to contribute. It’s in such an environment that we earn the right to demand each person’s best effort and active participation.
The sliding scale of leadership
What is your natural leadership style? In his excellent book “Primal Leadership” Daniel Goleman and his co-authors describe six primary leadership styles; four of which are usually positive and two mostly negative:
• HOW IT BUILDS RESONANCE: Moves people toward shared dreams
• IMPACT ON CLIMATE: Most strongly positive
• WHEN APPROPRIATE: When changes require a new vision, or when a clear direction is needed
• HOW IT BUILDS RESONANCE: Connects what a person wants with the organization’s goals
• IMPACT ON CLIMATE: Highly positive
• WHEN APPROPRIATE: To help an employee improve performance by building long-term capabilities
• HOW IT BUILDS RESONANCE: Creates harmony by connecting people to each other
• WHEN APPROPRIATE: To heal rifts in a team, motivate during stressful times, or strengthen connections
• HOW IT BUILDS RESONANCE: Values people’s input and gets commitment through participation
• WHEN APPROPRIATE: To build buy-in or consensus, or to get valuable input from employees
• HOW IT BUILDS RESONANCE: Meets challenging and exciting goals
• IMPACT ON CLIMATE: Because too frequently poorly executed, often highly negative
• WHEN APPROPRIATE: To get high-quality results from a motivated and competent team
• HOW IT BUILDS RESONANCE: Soothes fears by giving clear direction in an emergency
• IMPACT ON CLIMATE: Because so often misused, highly negative
• WHEN APPROPRIATE: In a crisis, to kick-start a turnaround, or with problem employees
Find yourself in there somewhere? Goleman goes on to say “Perhaps most important, leaders with the best results didn’t practice just one particular style. Rather, on any given day or week, they used many of the six distinct styles—seamlessly and in different measures—depending on the business situation.”
Translated; a blend of styles gets the best results and depends on a leader’s ability to choose the appropriate style fluidly and seamlessly. Knowing ourselves and understanding others is a skill that requires awareness and practice. Organizational strength is derived from our ability to give away power to capable people. We must learn to intuitively know when to shift from the compassionate side of the scale (coaching and democratic styles) to the bold/driven side of the scale (commanding and pace setting) in order to cultivate winning environments where success is expected and achieved, and people choose to be accountable for it.
To be clear, I’m not saying that we can or should try to get bad people to do good work. Some people just aren’t “good”, due to a lack of skills, character or positive attitude. When character or attitude problems persist, an invitation off the team is our only option. When competency is the issue (assuming solid character and attitude) remedial measures often produce great results. As Dave Logan and John King note in “Tribal Leadership”, “…give everyone a choice, and then work with the living; don’t try to raise the dead”.
Successful leaders learn to know the difference between compassion and boldness. A good first step could be to put aside your old people paradigms and re-think your people strategy as a collaboration strategy. People are the key to the productivity of any organization. And cultivating an environment where people willingly contribute and give their best requires a healthy balance of compassion and boldness. Boldness is the strength to say “No”, a skill that many leaders struggle with. It’s the ability to quickly confront poor performance or bad behavior, which both hamper productivity, with a compassionate rather than vindictive spirit. Achieving that balance is the turnoff to leadership success where organizations begin to flourish. As hard as that may be to accomplish, consider that no organization will grow beyond the leader’s ability to do so. Here are a couple of key turning points that you, the leader, can adopt immediately to leverage people, our most precious resource, to be ultra-productive and, in turn, create a company that is too:
Learn to say “No”
Most of us ‘compassionate’ leaders strive to be all things to all people. Saying “yes” is our way of validating people by not “offending” them and, of validating ourselves. Contrary to that deeply help misconception, when we say yes, to get ourselves off the hook and avoid difficult conversations, we are only enabling people to continue their underperforming ways at a great cost to themselves and the organization. It’s convenient and easy to say yes when we know we should be saying no. Counterintuitively, when combined with compassion, the skill of saying “no” at the right time to the people (good and not so good) who need to hear it can be one of your most effective leadership tools and one that reaps exponential rewards! Done well, it’s the impetus for excellence in behavior, performance, and long term profitability.
The direction of your company is set by you, the leader, alone. No one else can do it. How are you doing? Is your company giving you the results you really want? The results you get are dependent upon how effectively you course correct people to focus on their most productive activities. A firm (but compassionate) “No” should be nothing other than the caring directive of a committed business owner or leader, who knows how to reach people and motivate them without drama or condemnation. The implicit message here is one of inspiring leadership. Command and control leaders struggle with the commodities side of this equation (people as a means to an end). Overly compassionate leaders struggle with the personal side (fear of rejection). That’s exactly why the healthy middle ground is a learned skill. But “No” sounds so definitive! That’s a cultural misconception too. We’re used to taking a “No” as an ultimatum rather than a healthy course correction primarily because leaders don’t have the skill to deliver it correctly.
Think of a time when you knew you needed to deliver a “No” but instead side stepped it; no doubt an instance involving misbehavior or poor performance. What should the “No” have sounded like? Bob Wall writes in “Coaching for Emotional Intelligence – The Secret to Developing the Star Potential in Your Employees”:
MANY MANAGERS AVOID OR DELAY COACHING (read leadership) because they don’t know what to say when addressing someone’s performance, especially when the performance is in need of correction. Awkward or overly harsh coaching results in a predictably defensive response by the person on the receiving end. Or the individual may accept the correction but if the coaching has been perceived as a personal attack, the relationship between the manager and the associate has been damaged.”
Leveraging Wall’s simple four-step framework for dealing effectively with conflict (saying “No”) could be the turning point for your leadership future:
1. Opening Statement “I want to talk to you about (the category of performance).”
2. Observation “I’ve observed (describe the performance or behavior).”
3. Impact “The impact is (describe the impact on the job being done).”
4. Request “From now on, I’d like you to (describe how to improve performance/behavior).”
Try it this week! It works even better for praising people who are hitting the mark. The only thing that changes here is that step 4 becomes something like “Keep up the great work!” Please don’t overlook delivering the praises and doing so in front of co-workers and/or customers. The value here is exponential! And get the book too – an invaluable resource for leaders in any kind of business or non-profit environment!
Abuse of Power
Abuse of power is often just command and control leadership without compassion. In Primal Leadership, Goleman refers to this leadership style as “Do it because I say so“. He notes that “…such leaders demand immediate compliance with orders, but don’t bother explaining the reasons behind them. And rather than delegate authority, they seek tight control of any situation and monitor it studiously. Not surprisingly, of all the leadership styles, the commanding approach is least effective in most situations“.
The fallout from command and control leadership used without compassion is massive. Without strong relationships built on compassion, people check out and take their invaluable intellectual capital with them. Remember, command and control leaders tend to struggle on the commodities side of the leadership equation while overly compassionate leaders struggle with the personal side. A commodity mentality tends to not only ignore the fact that we are all emotional human beings, but also to short-circuit relationships and attempt to control people in order to get the desired outcomes.
In a business there must be high levels of trust to engage your key people in a way that taps into their intellectual capital and fosters teamwork and productivity (the things you really want). Command and control leadership achieves the exact opposite. It’s imperative to understand that in business relationships, no one can be served when there is a lack of trust. With the absence of trust, consumers become wary and suspicious and business owners become cynical and frustrated. Employees are no different. Leaders must learn to serve employees just like customers. After all, customers include everyone who needs to be satisfied in order for us to succeed – right? That requires solid, authentic relationships, otherwise known as trust!
Do you treat your employees like customers? Are your people wary and less than willing to contribute and give their best? Are you frustrated that you can’t or aren’t getting the results you want. Is everyone losing when you desperately want and need a win? Winning in business really is a function of how the leader leverages the skill, talent and knowledge of other people! The leader’s job is to acquire the skill to say “No” in a compassionate and productive way, while also learning the art of building relationships in order to leverage the largely untapped resources of our people. In a business setting, that combination produces synergy and collaboration. And in today’s world, those are what set the winners apart from the average. And it always shows up on the bottom line. Worth the effort – right?