Humor me for a second. Think back to leaders you worked for in the past. Which one stands out the most? Were they a good leader, or a bad one? Someone who inspired you, or who left you feeling indifferent or disengaged, or even drove you to quit?
A 2015 Gallup study of over 7,000 American adults found that one in two people reported leaving a job during their professional career “to get away from their manager and improve their overall life.” In Canada, a recent survey conducted by an independent research firm found that two out of five Canadians quit their jobs because of a bad boss. Whichever way you cut it, people are still leaving jobs because of bad bosses.
How do you become the kind of leader who makes people choose to stay and follow? I asked clients to describe qualities of a good leader: “They listen, making you feel heard and valuable, like you're contributing.” “It’s the way they communicate and ask questions.” “They build your confidence, help you recognize your strengths and encourage you to maximize them.” In essence, it is the leader who fulfills their promise — the Leadership Promise — to empower and support their followers to fulfill their potential.
It’s all about trust.
Good leaders understand that trust is the foundation of high performance, and at the core of their leadership role lies the responsibility to build trust — with and within their team. They understand three fundamental trust-building principles and apply them to every interaction.
1. Recognize that people are different, not difficult.
Advances in imaging technology (paywall) have uncovered how complex our brains are. Try 100 trillion constantly changing connections’ worth of differences in the way we store and encode information, experiences and learning. We’re talking no two brains see things the same way. Yet even though we know we’re all different at an intellectual level, most of us are still guilty of making the unconscious assumption the person we’re talking to sees things the same way we do. When we get an unexpected response, we use the mental models we created to interpret their behavior or attitude and decide they’re just difficult, argumentative or challenging.
Good leaders have an awareness that when someone irritates them, when there’s friction or tension, they’re probably hitting up against a different perspective. They are mindful of their reaction, and rather than dig their heels in, they pause and take a sidestep to see how things might look different from that angle.
Tip 1: Next time you are interacting with someone who can be “difficult,” pay attention to the moment your reaction is triggered — the moment when you feel irritation or frustration. Pause before speaking, and get curious about their perspective. Ask a question, and then listen and see what comes up. You might be surprised by what you find out.
2. Listen to understand, not respond.
Listening is one of the hardest things for us to do as human beings. Like a puppy on a stroll, our mind likes to wander, sniffing everything it comes across. Triggered by the stimuli, our nervous system gets busy processing, reconfiguring and reconnecting the trillions of connections. Because of these distractions, we miss out on good portions of what the other person is saying. Oblivious to this, we then interrupt them to share an insight, solution or thought that just popped up. Sound familiar?
Listening is an intentional act. It requires attention to notice when we start drifting and bring ourselves back to the task at hand. The good news? Although practice won’t make it perfect, it will make it easier. So will preparing.
Tip 2: Before your next meeting, give yourself a few minutes to think about what you will be listening for, and decide what you want to get out of the conversation. Ask yourself why it’s important. This process will help create space to clear your mind of the clutter that collects throughout a busy day and enable you to focus your attention on listening.
3. Bring curiosity.
Despite the fact that seeking new information and searching for new possibilities is a basic human impulse, for many of us, the fear of being perceived as incompetent or indecisive can get in the way of asking questions. Yet asking questions can shift everything — for the better.
Take, for instance, a situation I experienced with a leader I worked for. It was time for my performance review, and I’d fallen short on delivering a couple of targets. Once settled, my boss started asking me questions. Genuine questions, such as "Tell me about this project — what are you proud of?" I felt my energy shift as I started to share a few wins we’d had. He then said, "Help me understand where we fell short — what were some of the challenges?’ Note the "we," not "you." I heard it and felt reassured that he recognized this project involved others and I didn’t have complete control. After I related some of the problems we hadn’t predicted and how they impacted our results, he asked, "What could we have done differently?" There was the "we" again.
After discussing the issues that had been flagged, we brainstormed different strategies to tackle them. By the time I left my performance review, I was inspired to get going on these challenges. His curiosity made me feel good about the things that had gone well in the project and left me motivated me to tackle the challenges.
Bringing curiosity not only gets people to think more deeply and creatively (registration required); it helps build resiliency to bounce back from unexpected setbacks and handle external pressures. Plus, it gains respect and develops trust.
Tip 3: Take a page out of former BBC director-general Greg Dyke’s book and ask your followers this powerful question: “What is one thing I should do to make things better for you?” Then listen carefully.
Pick your tip, and try it out. Then watch how relationships unfold.