Stuck between a boss and lack of leadership

Some tips on how to become the leader who turns employees into thriving team members

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I was recently mentoring a young professional who has been struggling with her relationship with an immediate manager. He discounts her suggestions and rigidly applies workplace rules to her but not to others. He will question where she spends her time and what she is doing. On the other hand, she is the person her colleagues turn to for work advice and network contacts and she receives strong positive feedback from strategic partners.

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I was recently mentoring a young professional who has been struggling with her relationship with an immediate manager. He discounts her suggestions and rigidly applies workplace rules to her but not to others. He will question where she spends her time and what she is doing. On the other hand, she is the person her colleagues turn to for work advice and network contacts and she receives strong positive feedback from strategic partners.

Part of the challenge has been wondering if she’s reading the situation correctly, whether it’s more her imagination rather than fact. She loves her job, yet her confidence is wavering. She is afraid she will lose her job.

This past week a teammate observed the manager’s behaviour during a regular team meeting, confirming the situation was not imagined. The challenge now is how to cope with the behaviour moving ahead.

It might surprise readers to know this workplace scenario is much more common than one might realize. In my view, this situation is all about a leader who doesn’t know how to lead. Such a sad situation because one day, this young woman will move on to another employer.

There is a good quote in a recent edition McKinsey Quarterly that seems to sum up this situation quite well. It says, “Senior executives routinely undermine creativity, productivity and commitment by damaging the inner work lives of their employees in four avoidable ways.” This comment couldn’t have been stated better. This is exactly what’s happening to this young woman, my mentee. Her inner world collapses every time she encounters her manager’s inappropriate behaviour.

According to the authors of the McKinsey Quarterly article, this leader may be falling into several traps. Trap No. 1 is saying one thing and doing another. In this case, words are hollow and the meaning of any change or goal will quickly dissipate. A second trap is abandoning a direction before evidence shows it is not working. A third trap is not providing the resource supports to ensure success. And the fourth trap refers to an overall goal that is so grandiose it neither makes sense and nor connects with employees.

On the other hand, the authors of the new book Rise Up: Leadership Habits for Turbulent Times really hit the nail on the head. In the view of these authors, successful leaders exhibit six specific habits or traits, none of which the young woman’s manager appears to be demonstrating. These are as follows:

Trust

Every relationship between a manager and team needs to be built on trust. If there is no trust, there will be no success. That’s because employees need trust in order to feel safe, to be fully engaged and to feel valued. Yet, trust doesn’t just happen, it has to be earned through caring interaction, leadership consistency, frequent communication and demonstrated competence.

Inquisitiveness

Successful managers believe their employees often have the answers to many workplace challenges. Inviting them to participate in exploring options and proposing solutions creates the dynamics that will result in increased employee engagement and team success. This type of leadership requires that a manager be a strong and deliberate listener who asks open-ended questions that lead to further discussion.

Humility

Leadership humility requires a manager to not take themselves too seriously and to accept that others often have good ideas as well. They are willing to set aside ego, admit when they have made a mistake and learn from them. They see their role as enabling others rather than controlling them. They live with the belief that the team is important to success.

Optimism

Successful managers expect things to turn out well because they are confident in their skill, their assessment of risks and alternatives, and in the capability of their team. They set a focused vision while at the same time confronting the challenges that might come their way.

Courage

Managers who display courage have a disciplined process to decision-making. They are clear in their purpose, they understand how their personal values fit with their vision and direction and when there is a conflict between values, they do not hesitate to speak up and address the issue even when the situation is difficult. A courageous manager encourages creativity, is willing to try new ways of doing things and is not afraid to seek out feedback from others.

Discipline

Managers must be disciplined with respect to what work needs to be done but also be able to hold employees accountable for both their actions and their results. At the same time, a manager must also apply discipline in their own self-care so their time, energy and general health is well balanced.

It is a rather a sad situation to learn an employee loves their job but is struggling with a personality and managerial style that stifles engagement and erodes trust. There is little two-way communication between the manager and the team but rather a “do as I tell you” approach accompanied by arrogance. As a result, there is no trust in the current environment, which leads my mentee to experience a lack of self-confidence while confronting an ongoing fear of job loss. Such a shame.

This is the type of manager who needs to stop, look in the mirror and sincerely evaluate their management style. It is another example of an individual who has acquired multiple academic qualifications and has gained the title of manager but appears to not ever have learned about leadership.

Leadership doesn’t just come naturally, it needs to be learned and developed. It requires significant self-examination to understand one’s strengths and identify areas that need improvement. It requires a plan for long-term development either through continuous leadership training or ongoing executive coaching.

I feel sad for this young woman but know she has the courage and strength to continue for the time being and is very conscientious in trying to find new ways to help strengthen the relationship with her manager. Yet, relationships are a two-way street and she cannot do it alone.

Source: How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work, Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer, McKinsley Quarterly, 2012, Rising Up, Ali Groveue and mike Watson, Rise Up: Leadersip Habits for Turbulent Times, Ali Grovue and Mike Watson, Ignite Management Services, 2022.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCPHR, B.Ed, M.Ed, CCP is a human resource professional, author, radio personality, speaker, executive coach and workshop leader. She can be reached at barb@bowesleadership.com.

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