The Leadership Caffeine™ series is intended to make you think and act.
In difficult situations, reality tinged with optimism and backed by encouragement serves as a more effective motivator than a saccharine-sweet message of false praise and manufactured positivity.
The fact is, we’re not always fine. Strategies don’t always work. Mistakes happen. Competitors confound our best attempts and deals delay or derail. Stuff happens, and your attempt to reinforce a false reality will confuse people who expect and need honesty and transparency from you.
I see this dissonant messaging in action when I’m called upon to work with struggling firms or teams. The leader…often the CEO, is concerned about demoralizing the group and instead of shooting straight, obfuscates the reality of the situation with an overdose of praise and ginned up optimism. Unfortunately, this approach generates confusion (people are adept at sensing reality) and fails to do the one thing most critical to navigating the problems…draw people into the good and hard work of finding the solutions.
The Positive Side of Shooting Straight:
I observed a manufacturer navigate a complex quality problem by shooting straight with employees and customers as soon as the problem surfaced, and then making heroic efforts to remedy the problems. This was a potential lawsuit inducing, firm-killing issue and while navigating it was expensive and uncomfortable, the clear, transparent communication galvanized employees to act and actually strengthened the firm’s relationship with a number of key customers.
Another firm was failing to gain traction with a new strategy. The approach would push this firm into new arenas and the gravitational pull of the past resulted in half-measures and halfhearted enthusiasm for the new direction. The top management took this issue to the employee population by both explaining the strategic rationale and importantly, educating everyone on the declining number of opportunities in legacy markets. The presentation was supported by a company wide review of key financial indicators and trends and a lot of discussion on what it really meant to move to this new market. Armed with new knowledge and clear on the very real need to succeed, the firm’s employees pulled together and not only succeeded in the new market, they became more adept at managing costs and selectively pursuing profitable opportunities in legacy markets.
Both of these very real cases required senior leaders to get out in front of the message. Without broad employee awareness and support, there was no hope.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
While the need to remain positive in dire circumstances is understandable and indeed very human, keeping your employees in the dark will work against you. You’re not protecting them… you are keeping them from getting involved. Resist the urge to shield your employees from reality. Share the facts, offer your assessment and insure that everyone has the opportunity to ask questions and offer ideas. You want to get people in front of the real issues holding you back and give them a voice in finding and implementing solutions.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.