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The Neon Sign Over Your Head Says ‘Boss’


As A Leader, People Will Tell You What They Think You Want To Hear.

By Steve Schumacher

Several years ago, I was asked by a friend of mine to sit in on a meeting he was leading and give him some feedback on how the meeting went. He was a good leader and had the respect of all of his employees, but he wanted an objective viewpoint on how his direct reports responded to him.

As the meeting progressed, I began to notice that nearly every idea that my friend brought up was met with responses like “That’s a great idea,” “I wish I had thought of that,” and “You always have the answers.”

I also noticed that the participants in the meeting would wait whenever my friend would ask a question. Sure enough, my friend would jump in with the answer to his own question when he did not get a response right away.

After the meeting, I told my friend that people in the meeting were complimenting him on his ideas, even when some of the ideas were not that good. I also told him that he really did not need to have a meeting that included other people because he was answering all of his own questions.

My feedback was shocking to him. He was taken aback when I told him that his employees were responding to him as the boss, and it was not anything personal. The fact that he, as the boss, holds all of the consequences for people caused them to respond in a way that ensured the consequences of their actions would be positive.

As a leader, you have a neon sign over your head that is blinking “Boss,” that people see very clearly, and you oftentimes do not. Here are a few things to keep in mind about that sign:

Employees do not want to look stupid. We all want to look good in the eyes of our bosses. When you ask an employee a question, they will want to come up with the best answer possible. They will watch your body language to pick up clues about the answer you are seeking. Try not to give those clues. Make them work on their own for the answer. That is where development and growth take place. Only give the answer, or other advice, if the employee absolutely cannot come up with it. Even if they come up with the wrong answer, praise them for the effort.

Ask a question, and then shut up. So many of us have a tendency to give employees answers to their problems and challenges. If you, as a leader, continually do that, you do not need employees. No matter how long it takes, wait for a response to your questions. Over time, employees will learn that they need to fill in the silence, because you are not going to.

Be aware of the shadow you cast. The culture of your organization is shaped by the leader’s likes, dislikes, preferences, leadership style and a lot of other factors. It is impossible for leaders to be objective about the shadow they cast over the organization. People will respond first to that shadow, regardless of what the leader’s expectations are. An objective viewpoint by an outside party can help you understand the impact of that shadow.

Ask another question. If you feel like your employees are telling you things they think you want to hear, ask another question. Sometimes, asking another question will get employees to open up and share their true feelings about a subject. Their first response does not mean they are lying, it just means they want to please you.

Summarize conversations with clarification. After you have conversations with employees, especially ones regarding expectations, take a few extra minutes to clarify. Ask the employee if your summary matches what they heard. If you do this well, and you are on track, employees will confirm it. If your summary is different than what they heard, they will clarify what they heard. I see too many leaders leaving conversations with one expectation and employees with another.

In summary, leaders need to understand that people will go along to get along from time to time. It is vital that you take that into account when working with your employees. Asking good questions and waiting for responses will help.