Previously published on Forbes
Last week at the Seattle airport, I watched a businessman moving very fast through the crowd. Without noticing it, he knocked over another traveler’s bag with his own as it careened behind him. It seemed rude, but he didn’t even know he had done it.
We don’t intentionally do dumb stuff. But as a leader, you may be leaving a mess behind you that you aren’t even aware of. Without knowing it, you may be creating more work for others.
One of the keys to leadership is to pay attention to your impact. We call it “productive interaction”—engaging with others in ways that inspires action and commitment. We think of it as being intentional in every interaction you have with people so that they are left more inspired and ready to take action than they were before you interacted with them.
A few years ago, I heard a story that illustrates this beautifully: Queen Victoria had two great prime ministers, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Someone once observed that when you had dinner with Gladstone, you came away thinking he was the wittiest, most intelligent, most charming person you had ever met. When you dined with Disraeli, on the other hand, you were sure you were the wittiest, most intelligent, most charming person ever.
Do the members of your team feel more intelligent, witty and charming after they have interacted with you, say after a team meeting or one-on-one? Where are you placing your attention? How you engage with people matters very much. How you do your role as the boss often makes or breaks a person’s decision to stay in their job.
In his article, 7 Habits of Exceptionally Productive Leaders, Peter Economy writes:
Numerous studies point to the fact that the most important relationship for employees is the one they have with their immediate manager or supervisor. In a Gallup survey of more than 4 million workers, the No. 1 reason people left their jobs was because they didn't feel appreciated. Because of the important role they play in the lives of their employees—both on and off the job—it is critical for leaders to foster productive interactions with their people rather than negative ones.
For leaders who are not paying attention to the wake they leave behind them, employees and customers have many ways to express their dissatisfaction about the quality of an interaction via various media platforms. Think GlassDoor.
So, what are some simple ways to begin to engage more productively?
1. Ask people what they see you doing that works and doesn’t work.
The first step is to discover how others see you, typically through a 360-degree leadership assessment. This helps you understand perceptions about the persona you present to others—the attitudes and behaviors your demeanor sets in motion.
Once you have this snapshot of people’s perceptions, you can get to work on increasing your awareness and improving your response. For example, if you get feedback about being hurried and distracted in meetings and one-on-ones, you may need to practice patience, slow down, and listen more intently. You may need to learn to focus and not get distracted by the many other tasks that await. You can measure the progress you are making by asking for feedback again in a year or so. This tells you where you have made strides and what work remains to be done.
2. Get better at having the hard conversations.
Don’t let conflict fester. It won’t go away by itself, so address it quickly and confidently, even if you don’t feel ready. Pick up the phone, walk down the hall to that person’s office, have the conversation that matters. We train leaders in a four-step process that is called Clean Communication. There are many books out there about how to have crucial conversations, so I won’t go into depth here, but the bottom line is this: Get better at having the hard conversations in a way that doesn’t create collateral damage. You don’t want to make things worse. That means you may have to learn new ways of talking when the stakes are high.
3. Own up to your missteps—and don’t repeat them.
If you did something that doesn’t work, say so. This is not rocket science. Say you’re sorry. But after you’ve said you are sorry, do something about it. Work hard to not do that thing again. Otherwise, your apology is meaningless.
Here’s a story of a manager who learned to engage more productively with her employees. Karen, a vice president in a financial services company, was having problems because her direct reports had stopped talking directly to her. She was brilliant and well-educated, strategic and results-oriented. She knew how to make things happen and get results.
The problem was that Karen’s many achievements and supreme confidence made her arrogant. She was impatient, dismissive and judgmental. She would rap her pen on the table and say things like, “You’ve missed the point!” As a result, she was losing good people.
To improve her leadership and stop the high turnover, she sought feedback and coaching. She worked hard. She incorporated the feedback from her coach and her employees and peers into her style and worked on having more productive interactions.
Three years later, Karen’s team loves working with her. She is now viewed as a strong listener who is patient, approachable and non-judgmental. With the skills to engage more productively, she has developed an exceptional ability to move things forward under pressure.
Multiply Karen’s story by dozens or hundreds of leaders at a single company, and you can get a sense of the profound impact of this way of relating to others.
People will come to work for a leader they love. They will stay and work hard for a leader who can galvanize the team to achieve big things. This is the kind of leader you want to be.