3 Ways Ego-Driven Leadership Ruins Teams

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Eight years before I found myself in HR, teaching others about leadership development, I was stuck in a tricky situation with my manager. He was a director, but in the company I worked for, that was as good as having “chief” in front of your title. And he loved it.

We could tell by the way he carried himself. The people he chose to talk to. What he said in meetings and how he participated (read: didn’t participate) in team functions.

He was an ego-driven leader. He relished having the highest title in the building, used his power to push his own agenda, and judged every one he worked with by their job title.

I left that job after a year under his leadership, and in the following months, many of my colleagues did too. Because ego-driven leaders ruin teams.

They lead from intimidation and fear. Ego-driven leaders care most about the power that comes from their position or title. They crave being right and they love the spotlight. They prefer to give orders (which means they get to speak up the most in meetings) instead of promoting collaboration (which means they might not speak at all in a meeting, and then how will anyone know they’re in charge?) and taking a backseat to the team. Eventually the team stops sharing ideas because they don’t feel safe enough to share or have been conditioned to think that their ideas just aren’t good enough.

They stall growth and development. Great teams develop their people, but ego-driven leaders don’t think about development of others because they have an “I” perspective. They primarily only think about themselves, which means they approach conversations with a What do I need? What do I want? mindset instead of a How can I help you? What do you need more of/less of from me to be successful? mindset. When a leader isn’t focused on the team and its growth, employees eventually get frustrated because they realize their career path has stalled, take charge of their own development, and then leave.

They don’t speak up for the right things. These leaders care more about themselves than the success of the team or company and make decisions to further their personal agenda. They bring bias to talent programs like succession planning and performance reviews and they choose the wrong high potential employees because they of how they feel personally about each employee on the team. Rarely do they give shoutouts because speaking up to give recognition means they aren’t the one being noticed.

Ego-driven leaders manage simultaneously from a place of power and fear. They’re detrimental to team effectiveness and undermine the company mission that unites employees behind a common goal. And what’s worse, they create more ego-driven leaders because the people they promote emulate their behavior, thinking that’s the only way to get ahead and be noticed. Yikes.

Avoiding the Quiet Trap of Appreciation Depletion

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Thanks to Business Management Daily for featuring me in the below article. Original transcript can be found here: https://www.businessmanagementdaily.com/51991/avoiding-the-quiet-trap-of-appreciation-depletion. 

When we watch a puppy push its head forward eagerly at the promise of being scratched by a caring hand, guess what? We're watching ourselves. Walking around in a $400 suit doesn't make us want that gentle head scratch any less.

"Most teams out there are experiencing 'appreciation depletion,'" said Tess Ausman, speaker and CEO of CLT Leads, to a webinar audience recently. "The reason it happens is that we all get so caught up in our routine that we run on auto-pilot. When that occurs, we de-prioritize recognizing and appreciating others.

"Here's how I see it manifested every day with teams: Forgetting to say 'thank you.' Not sending informal shout-outs. Not writing grateful emails or notes. We forget to do these things because we figure  employees already know we appreciate them.

"Let me show you the effect of appreciation depletion," Ausman continued.

"In the beginning, your employee internalizes a lack of appreciation as basically … nothing. It doesn't really matter to them. 'Oh, it's okay that he didn't recognize that I stayed up late to work on this project, or answer emails on my vacation. Hey, he's got a lot on his plate. We're not here to win awards, we're here to get things done.'

"But then, little by little, it starts to eat at them. That neutrality is not a sustainable feeling. It leads to denial: 'I really wish she would say thank you once a while … and that kind of bothers me.' As they think these words, they don't believe it's going to go on forever, or that the oversights are truly getting under their skin.

"The longer this denial is allowed to fester, the greater chance of the employee falling into the dreaded valley of despair. This is where the dark thoughts enter their minds, and start to get shared with their co-workers and loved ones at home. 'I don't matter … my work doesn't matter … the boss doesn't care about what I do.'

"'Nor do I understand anymore,' the employee thinks, 'how my work is connected to the success of the company. The only thing my manager cares about is me showing up on time.'

"Giving feedback takes the employee out of this valley and gets them up to an exploration mindset, in which they see the light at the end of the tunnel and actively seek ways to feel content at work again; they've gotten that energy back. Finally, it leads them to a real commitment to us. But without continuous feedback, they'll slide right back down into the valley.

"But wait … you might think I'm just talking about praise. Not true. Let's look at the difference between praise and positive feedback.

"Positive feedback: 'Hey Tess, when you showed up to the meeting early with a copy of the agenda for everybody, and a very clear set of next steps, we were not only impressed, it allowed us to make three critical decisions that will impact our go-live date. Thank you for always being so focused on preparedness and details.'

"Praise: 'Hey Tess, great job on yesterday's meeting!'

"And Tess thinks, 'Why? Because I had a nice shirt on? Because I spoke clearly?'

"Praise will briefly get someone out of the valley of despair, no question. But it won't always keep them from sliding back into it. Share specific behavior, and connect it to impact."

"Give this feedback verbally, by all means, but you get more bang for the buck if you write it down. Then the person reads it … and reads it again … and again. How many of you save great emails or handwritten cards you get? I have a folder of them.

"Someone who works for you should have one too."

The One Simple Talent Solution You're Probably Overlooking

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I once had a manager who would leave notes on my desk that said "see me." They were terrifying. Was I in trouble? Did something go wrong? Was she in a bad mood?

We would go weeks without talking, so the notes were always a surprise. 

Ding, ding. Weeks without talking. 

Because she didn't proactively schedule check-ins, we were rarely on the same page. Yes, it was flattering that she trusted me to go forth and do my job, but our lack of meetings meant we lacked a personal connection, which meant we weren't on the same page about my work output or how I was doing personally.

In between a packed calendar of meetings, conference calls and emails, fire fighting and to do lists, many leaders forget (or don't prioritize) their people. 

And prioritizing people is a simple talent solution that will help with succession planning, calibration meetings, recruitment, promotion cycles, and all the other talent development stuff that seems daunting and time consuming and low priority. Because when people are put first, you find out how they feel. You connect on a personal level. You get to know them, which makes calibration conversations more truthful, goal setting easier, and leadership development more impactful.

Think of all the things that can be found out when people are put first, instead of all the work and all the results: 

Results first: Come to work, put your head down, get all the things done, and do them right the first time. I'll check in with an email when there's a problem or if I need something. People first: What's on your plate this week? What are you worried about? How can I help? What can I do to help you feel successful this week?

Results first: Put everything you're doing on this team spreadsheet. Update it weekly. Speak up in the weekly team meeting to report on your metrics, both good and bad, and listen to me tell you all what should be done next. People first: Take a look at this cool project Lewis is working on. Did you hear about Kim's big win last week? Let's put our heads together and figure out a solution to this process that's bugging all of us. 

Results first: What happened? Why did you do this wrong? I can't believe this happened. Fix it. People first: Let's talk through what went wrong. What do you think should be done? How can we work together to fix it? Who should be looped in?

Think of all the things that are felt when people are put first. I am valued. My success matters. Who I am matters. 

Putting people first is a special ingredient in the world of talent planning. You can go through the motions of talent programs - participate in succession planning, sign your people up for the mentor program, invest in that day-long training - and on paper those programs will look great. But on the inside (of your team and company) employees will know it's a show.

Which means they'll eventually leave you, either physically (for another job) or mentally (by being disengaged). And then you'll need an even bigger talent solution.

The Major Thing Successful Leaders Do Differently

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Have you ever worked for someone who should have had caution tape wrapped around them so everyone would know they were a predator? The attacks were subtle. Would it be today's "casual" desk drive by or tomorrow's passive aggressive email? 

You never knew when it would happen so your guard was always up. That means you second guessed their intentions and toed the line between wanting to trust them but knowing you couldn't. You worked in fear, scared to make a wrong move because you never knew when they would pounce.

It's because that manager valued results over people.

Leaders who come from the mindset of "as long as we're getting results does it matter how it's being accomplished?" treat their people like prey.

Leaders who come from the mindset of "if I put my people first the results will follow" are much more successful. Because the same qualities that it takes to put people first - humility, empathy, integrity - are the same ones that make results happen. Really. And here's what they look like. 

Successful leaders know that unwritten rules can destroy a team's culture. All teams have unwritten rules that govern how they treat each other. Here are two I see all the time: responding to emails in the middle of the night so everyone thinks they should be doing it too and using BCC in an email chain to passively call someone out. These unwritten rules (aka: it's expected that you work all the time and it's okay to throw each other under the bus) make employees feel like prey. Which means they aren't doing their best work because they don't feel trusted and valued. 

They also give feedback in manageable chunks. Successful leaders (vs. managers who see their team as another item on the to do list) give feedback (positive and constructive!) in the moment. They don't save it all for performance review time. They don't save it all for performance review time. They consistently share the great things that are happening and hold their people accountable for changing behaviors that aren't working. In a nice way. Because when they give constructive feedback, it's not tied to a bonus or year-end review score. It's coming from the heart.

And they say thank you. All the time.  And in different ways, like sending emails, bringing something special to a weekly team meeting (Oh yeah! They do this too!), leaving everyone's favorite snack on their desk, telling everyone to go home early on a Friday, and making personal development a priority.

Put people first and the results follow. Successful leaders know this works and stand out from the crowd because it's not the norm to see managers prioritizing their people and team culture above results and metrics and money. But it's the right thing to do. 

3 Easy Ways to Make Performance Reviews Less Painful

The dreaded performance review. A 20th century tool being used to measure 21st century skills. How can a conversation that happens 1-2 times a year measure creativity, innovation, risk-taking, or collaboration?

It can't.

But many of us are stuck with them because change is hard and feels scary and oh my gosh how will the company measure and reward people without performance reviews?

Most of us are going to be stuck with a formalized performance review process for the foreseeable future. But we don't have to use a 20th century approach to completing them.

  1. Old approach: Save up feedback and share it all during the review // New approach: Give feedback consistently in 1:1 meetings and use the review as a summary. I strongly believe that performance reviews should be 100% no surprises. Nothing new. Nada. Not a single constructive comment (or even positive feedback because managers should be telling their employees all the time what makes them awesome) that the employee hasn't heard before. One way to achieve this is to have regular 1:1 meetings throughout the review period. Most people feel uncomfortable giving constructive feedback. A 1:1 meeting can provide a platform for the manager to deliver feedback so that it feels less daunting. The alternative is that without this platform, most managers will save up all of their feedback and only give it at the performance review.
  2. Old approach: Write a novel using as many big words as possible // New approach: Solicit feedback from colleagues and incorporate it into the review. Ask the employee to choose 8-10 colleagues (from a variety of levels and departments). Then, send one email to that group (BCC everyone - this is one case where BCC is appropriate) asking two questions: What are this person's greatest strengths? What are their greatest areas of opportunity? Use this feedback (anonymously) in the review to create a more well-rounded and beneficial conversation. If you've been giving feedback regularly, the areas of opportunity that emerge won't be new information.
  3. Old approach: Schedule the review conversation in a conference room and don't talk about it until the meeting happens // New approach: Be open and transparent. Reviews are nerve-wracking. Know what's even worse? Having the meeting pop-up on your calendar and then pretending it isn't there because your manager isn't saying anything about it. Reviews aren't secret. Ask your employee when they want to have the conversation instead of scheduling it at the end of the day (who wouldn't read into that and immediately think the conversation is going to be bad?!). A few days before the conversation, tell them you're looking forward to talking about all of the great things they've done during the review period and are committed to the conversation feeling open and positive. Reassure them you're not going to surprise them with anything new.

If we have to continue to use performance reviews as a measurement of success, let's all agree to start calling them Performance Summaries. The phrase changes our mindset and approach to the process and makes it easier for everyone to endure.