How leaders can avoid being the naked king
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Brian was a proud leader. He had driven his organization forward with growth and innovation and developed a team of high-performing individuals.
Yet as Brian exuberantly pushed toward greater investor returns and new opportunities, he simultaneously generated friction among his team. Unbeknownst to Brian, the team felt restrained, held back and at times disengaged.
Why didn't Brian know? Brian was a naked king.
As in Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Emperor's New Clothes," Brian shares a common circumstance as the king and his minions in the well-known fable. For those unfamiliar with the story, the emperor is tricked into wearing a magnificent new outfit that is invisible only if the wearer is stupid or incompetent. The confident emperor parades around town naked, but the townspeople are too afraid to tell him. Finally, a child speaks up and spills the beans.
Employees, even at the executive level, are like the townspeople, withholding information and feedback. Why does this happen?
Like the rest of us, leaders seek out positive and encouraging feedback, and often resist negative or contradictory information. Similarly, a leader's style in managing difficult situations is likely to mirror the rest of society and venture toward conflict avoidance (seen as negating or ignoring an issue) or confrontation (seen as bullying or intimidating behaviors).
Further complicating the situation, the power and influence of a leader combined with these common character traits become more pronounced and more challenging for others to overcome.
But does our leader know he/she is naked? Some, no doubt are aware. These leaders hope to keep others in the dark. They tend to be secretive and closed off, and their organizations are likely to have heavy turnover.
But most leaders, like Brian, are at best mildly aware. They are friendly and open, get along well with others and make an effort toward being available. They take their ability to be engaging, friendly and social with their staff as evidence that their leadership is strong and healthy.
The problem, however, is they do not invite feedback and criticism. If it's hard to give feedback to a friend, what happens when he/she is also your boss? Forget about it.
So what can the naked king do?
Given that the risks are too high for clear feedback to come through internal efforts, leaders who want to know what their team is thinking will need to consider getting outside help. Through quasi-360-degree evaluations conducted by a consultant or coach, a leader can learn of the concerns that exist in the organization and of his/her leadership style, while minimizing fear and resistance among the staff or executives who are providing the feedback.
But that's only step 1. Step 2 is to utilize that feedback and prove to your team it was worth their effort, and risk, to provide it. This will most likely entail executive coaching, as well as a degree of transparency regarding your knowledge or acceptance of the feedback and your efforts to remedy the situation.
Steps 3 through infinity will be to keep that conversation going. Encouraging others to give feedback in real time — not after the king has walked naked through the town.
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