Three Leadership Lessons I Learned the Hard Way


Are your perceptions as a manager causing your team to fall short?  Mine did, and recognizing that my own perceptions were hindering my ability to lead my team to success was one of the biggest wake up calls I’ve had as a leader.

We all have a set of perceptions that guide how we interpret and react to the world around us. In fact, a good friend of mine use to say “your perception is your reality” whenever I would consult with him about struggles I was having in aligning my team to hit goals.  As much as this drove me crazy, I learned that his message wasn’t to accept my perception as the reality. He was actually challenging me to seek to understand the perception of others so that I could use their reality to lead them where they wanted to go.

As managers, we might start off projecting our excitement onto our team instead of finding out what actually excites them. Or we assume that because we really want to hit a goal, they do too.  Another common assumption is thinking that our team’s agreement to a plan means commitment to seeing it through.  Suddenly, we feel shocked when the deadline hits and we fall short of our goal.  Why?  Because we were looking for all the wrong signs of engagement from our team. These perceptions then feed off of each other and cause us to behave in a way that actually disengages our employees. After experiencing this years ago, I learned three things:

1. Don’t make assumptions.

The moment we assume to know what our employees know, think, and feel is the moment we will begin to disengage them. Just because they show up or agree to do something does not mean they understand it, want to do it, or care about the results.

2. Learn to hear with more than just your ears.  

People are constantly trying to tell you things that they are afraid to say out loud.  Only listening to what they say will cause you to miss valuable information about your team, the way it functions, how your employees are motivated, and whether or not they are engaged. This goes beyond just verbal vs. nonverbal cues people send on a daily basis. We all know to watch for eye rolls and folded arms as a sign of a disengaged staff member, right?  As leaders we have to learn to interpret behavior as clues into the engagement level of our team.  Do they ask questions and seek clarification on goals, or do they just nod and agree? Are they bringing new ideas to the table or accepting the plan as presented?  Are they following direction or contributing ideas to shape the future of the business?

3. Ask questions and then ask some more.

In order to challenge our assumptions and correctly interpret the things we see and hear, we have to ask questions. The types of questions we ask will get us extremely different answers, so learning to pose questions that engage your team will go a long way in building commitment over compliance.  For example, asking your team “are you excited to work on this project” with get you a typical yes or no and will only show you whether they are agreeing to do the task at hand.  Try asking “what part of this project are you most excited to work on?” and you will get you much more insight into your staffs commitment to seeing the task through. Another suggestion is to question non-verbals before you interpret them.  “Linda, I noticed you were smiling when we started talking about the committee on retention.  Should I take that as a sign of you wanting to lead that group?”

The words of Swiss philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel sum it up well,  “all appears to change when we change”.  When we let our perceptions go, we are able to create the change we want to commit.  Stop making assumptions, truly engage with your team, and find out what will commit them to the common mission. Do not let your misconceptions get in the way of the successful team and outcomes that await you.

Leading Through Influence

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