One day this week when I was working at home the upstairs phone began to ring. Since I was busy, I ignored the call, figuring the answering machine would pick it up. During the next hour, the phone rang at least three more times. Finally, the fourth time it rang, I ran upstairs to see who was calling so persistently. Although I didn’t reach the phone in time to answer it, I listened to the message and found it was from our credit union. I called them back to see what was so urgent.
The credit union informed me that someone had hacked into our credit card numbers and they were making grocery purchases in several of the surrounding towns where we live. Luckily, the third time they attempted to use our credit card to buy groceries, the credit union blocked their attempt. I was glad that we had fraud protection and that the credit union was monitoring our credit card transactions.
This entire situation caused me to reflect on how often we as leaders figuratively hear the phone ring, but then don’t answer the call. What important information are you missing by not hearing or understanding what’s happening around you? Here are some questions that you might ask yourself as you reflect on your current circumstances.
1. “Am I aware of what is going on?” Often leaders are insulated from what people are doing, what they are struggling with, and what they need to do to be more successful. Taking the time to talk to your people about what they are doing and how things are going not only demonstrates interest on your part, but will also give you the opportunity to be a source of support if needed.
2. “Do my people trust me?” Trust is developed over time by showing a personal interest in and concern for your people. Interest and concern leads to security and a sense of safety which evolves into trust. Whatever you say, back up your words with action; walk the talk. Take the blame when you are to blame. Apologize when appropriate. Take time to listen, but you must be present. Help people grow and develop their capabilities.
3. “Am I consistent in the way I behave?” When you are Dr. Jekyll one day and Mr. Hyde the next, you leave people frustrated and confused. It’s important to be consistent in the way you speak and deal with others. Sometimes I falter and let my circumstances get the best of me. When this happens, I am quick to apologize for my poor behavior and reassure everyone that my poor choice of behavior has nothing to do with them. Pay attention to how you are feeling and how people react or respond to you. You might even notice how often people ask for your help, or better yet, how often others ask if they can help you. If you’re an iceberg adrift in the sea of humanity, perhaps your lack of consistency is to blame.
4. “How authentic am I?” Being authentic in potentially difficult situations requires preparation. People will know when you aren’t being totally truthful or when you hold something back. Take some time to consider your situation and the conversations you need to hold. When you know you are going to be in a difficult situation, think of all the possible nasty or irritating issues or questions you might be asked and take the time to work through how you could genuinely and respectfully respond. Remember that people always want answers so give them what you can, but be authentic.
5. “How often do I express appreciation to my people?” Daily I hope. If you never sincerely thank people for the work they do and the value they add, they will end up thinking that you really don’t appreciate them. Observe the little things that people do that make a difference, and then specifically and genuinely thank them. They will be grateful that you noticed and will appreciate that you took the time to acknowledge their contribution.
6. “Am I respectful of others?” Everything you do and say should convey respect for others. It is important to be aware of your broadcast message and how you come across to others. One thing you might do is to pay attention to the respect that others convey to you. If others are being disrespectful, take a look at your behavior. People have a tendency to reflect back to you what you project to them. So, if they are disrespectful, work on yourself first and see if that makes a difference in your interaction with them. If it doesn’t change anything, continue to be respectful no matter what. Why? Respect usually begets respect. Over time, being more respectful will make a positive difference.
7. “What assumptions do I make about the people I work with?” It’s easy to make assumptions about people and situations in which we find ourselves. Unfortunately, these assumptions are usually negative. We need to slow down, examine, and challenge the accuracy of our thinking. We should seek data and facts to substantiate our thinking. Instead of always assuming we are right, ask others for their insights and perspectives. You might just be surprised how inaccurate your initial impressions were!
8. “Am I sensitive to the different communication styles of others?” We are uniquely different. Consequently, we don’t communicate in the same way. What might be appropriate with one person, might be offensive to another. Understanding individual style differences and matching individuals’ communication preferences will help you establish rapport, make connections, and converse with added clarity and understanding.
9. “Have I clearly stated my vision of the work everyone is doing?” Usually leaders make two mistakes regarding vision: in addition to not having a vision at all, leaders often fail to link what people do every day to the broader vision that the organization espouses. Failing to link behavior to the organization’s vision robs individuals of the understanding of how they add value and contribute to the overall success of the enterprise. Additionally, leaders rarely take the time to create a vision for their group or team that would help to inspire and motivate others to achieve the desired results. This results in people just doing what they’ve always done while questioning, “Who’s driving the bus?”, or, “Where are we headed anyway?” Taking the time to create a vision and articulating that vision will motivate people now while creating and preparing for the future.
10. “Am I approachable?” When we hear the phrase, “better safe than sorry,” we can understand that people will go out of their way to avoid their leaders, particularly if they believe they are about to be reprimanded, scolded, or criticized. Unfortunately, this phrase also indicates that the individual probably avoids communicating with their superior even when they should. Why are some leaders so unapproachable? Simple—the way in which they deal with people is a measure of their own approachability. People will approach those that interact with respect and dignity.
11. “Am I emotionally intelligent?” All of us need to understand that when people are in the throes of a negative or “hot” emotional reaction, they are not thinking clearly. Consequently, when either you or another person in a conversation becomes emotionally “amped” up and are angry at the present circumstances, rationality goes out the window. We need to recognize when we are beginning to become emotional and take steps to defuse our defensiveness and to understand what is driving the emotion. This takes practice and patience, but it is worth the effort.
12. “Do I provide and solicit feedback?” Almost everyone wants to know how they are doing, whether that be positive or negative. However, feedback should be a two-way street. If you ask someone if they want feedback, then you should finish by asking them if they could give you feedback. This practice is not as common as it should be. When people feel safe enough to provide you with tangible things that you then implement, it will build a spirit of contribution and mutual commitment to development and improvement.
13. “Do I really listen to what people have to share?” To listen more effectively, we need to slow down, notice our thinking, and then consciously shift the focus of our attention to the person we are listening to. If you can’t control the voice in your head, then you’d be better off to put off having the conversation until you can be fully present and give them your full attention. Listening is not something you can fake until it happens. People know when you’re not really there.
Taking the time to honestly answer these questions will give you a glimpse of how you’re doing as a leader. If you’re having trouble answering them, you might discuss them with a trusted friend or colleague who could provide you with honest feedback about how you are doing and what you might do differently. Remember to ask for examples or situations that will help you understand what you might need to change. Be patient with yourself and look for opportunities to develop your skills that will enhance your relationships and improve your results.
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