The CEO in front of me (on Zoom) looked distraught and more than a little tired.
“I don’t know what else to do. I have told my team time and again that they are empowered. I need them to step up and take ownership of decisions. They have all the authority they need!”
I know this CEO. He has wonderful intentions and is doing all the “right things” on the surface. He is kind and open, smart and savvy ... and completely failing to see the problem that is sitting right in front of him.
He does not have an employee problem. While he is frustrated with the results he is currently seeing, his employees are energized, eager and exceptional in many ways. They are also encumbered, held back by lack of clarity and trust — in both directions.
This isn’t really the story of one CEO or one organization. I’ve seen this story time and again. No, the problem does not lie in the CEO himself or in his employees. The problem exists between them, in the relationship. In every other place in our lives, we understand there is work to be done to establish and maintain a relationship between two people. Between friends, spouses, partners, sports teams, musical groups, we make efforts to understand each other and work on the relationship. At work, we do this work on teams yet fail to recognize that some work is required between a leader and their teams.
What I typically see is a blame game. When I speak with the CEO, his sentiments are similar to the CEO in our story. When I speak with the employees, their fingers are pointing at the CEO. This blame game is not helping any of us. While this is a two-way relationship, the power dynamic does generally require the leader to take the first step toward breaking the cycle. Here are a few questions to ask yourself if you are a leader and you feel like your team is in a state of arrested development.
Are Your Values Resonating in Your Actions?
In the past decade, companies have come to understand that having a core set of company values and actually talking about them is paramount to creating the culture they desire. Where we go wrong is that often the team building exercises or the core values awards are only focused on the employees. It’s as if the leaders assume that they embody the values, and do not require accountability or self-reflection.
I call this “organizational gaslighting.” When you speak of values as being important, but (even unintentionally) behave in a completely opposite way, it can begin to make your employees feel like they are going a little crazy. For example, if “empowerment” is a value, but you insist on final approval for anything that is delivered or you reverse others’ decisions, you are going to have some frustrated and confused employees. (Side note: I’d also recommend reconsidering the use of the word “empowerment.” People inherently have power. It is not something you can bestow upon them or take away. You are unleashing their existing power when you give them freedom to do their best work. Alas, I digress.) If “transparency” is a value, but you fail to share context around the decisions you make, you are going to have some frustrated and confused employees. Values must apply to everyone, and the leader should model the behaviors they hope to see. Keep in mind, too, what we have learned in recent years about how impact outweighs intention every time.
Related Article: Are Your Culture-Building Initiatives Actually Hurting Your Culture?
What Is Your Trust Modus Operandi (MO)?
Brene Brown talks about the concept of a marble jar. Like a grade school teacher placing marbles into a jar for good behavior or removing them when the class misbehaves, we have marble jars of our own. It is important that we understand how these marble jars operate, and how the marble jars of those around us operate.
For some people, the marble jar always starts out empty; trust must be earned. As their colleagues behave in a way that garners trust, the proverbial marbles are added to the jar. For others, the marble jar starts out completely full; trust is a given. When their colleagues or employees behave in such a way that breaks their trust, marbles are removed — sometimes several at a time. Unless we are regularly self-reflecting, we may not even realize which trust MO we operate under — and we certainly don’t know how our colleagues or employees earn or lose trust unless we ask.
Related Article: You'll Want to Read This Article About Trust at Work
Have You Communicated Your 'User Guide'?
The leaders of a company typically have an aura of mystery around them. Once someone becomes a VP or above, there is some magic that happens to make them seem unreachable or unseeable. You know how a TV show will blur or pixelate inappropriate parts? I imagine that blur or pixelation exists all around the leaders of the company. Sometimes it is a result of the employees’ prior experiences with executives, societal expectations, or even the leaders’ own behaviors.
If a leader wants to reduce the pixelation and humanize themselves, they can do so by communicating their “User Guide.” This can take many formats (written document, office hours, etc. — maybe some combination of all). The important thing here is the humanization of you as a person and the clear communication of expectations and preferences.
One VP I know literally wrote up a google doc, detailing their communication preferences, their philosophy on time off, and what works best when trying to pitch something to them. What is important is trying to remove the mystery and put people at ease to approach you. It may sound egocentric, but it creates clarity and reduces the pixelation. This same VP encouraged their direct team to do the same and share their user guides with him and with their own teams. Depending on the size of the company or the teams, this could also take the form of a working agreement or social contract.
Related Article: To Know Yourself as a Leader, Share Yourself
Have You Asked These Same Questions of Your Employees?
Here is the hard(est) part. There is one of you, and many of them. But remember what I said earlier, that the problem is bi-directional and what we are working on is the relationship. That means that somehow, someway, you need to understand the alignment of values and actions, their trust MO, and their user guide. Depending on the size of the organization, it may be possible to do that individually. This is where scale becomes a problem for organizations, and there is no simple answer.
Back to our CEO ....
Trust is a key component in relationships, and relationships require intention to create and maintain, even between leaders and teams. A team that doesn’t trust their leader will not accept decision making power or take risks. This results in the leader being unable to understand why their team is in a state of arrested development. A CEO (or any leader) that does not trust their teams will not allow them to make decisions or take risks. This results in teams that are slow, stagnant, and lacking innovation. An org that can’t take risks will run more slowly, more inefficiently, and be less competitive.
As leaders, it is our responsibility to take the first step toward creating trust and building relationships that will allow for the creativity and innovation we are seeking. Reducing pixelation through clear communication of preferences and expectations, combined with ensuring that our actions and words are aligned … this is the path to better relationships and higher performing teams.