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Date of Issue: Wednesday, 26 June, 2019
Nigel Girling, Director of The National Centre for Strategic Leadership at Babington, has some tongue in cheek comments on five phrases used by the leader who has long ago been rendered obsolete, but hasn’t realised it yet…
1. What they say…. “I’m not here to be popular”
Usually a phrase used by the sort of leader that most people wish they didn’t have to work with. It’s generally said by someone who is either just about to do or say something autocratic and unnecessarily unkind, or who did so earlier and is seeking to make it seem like a good idea. Often mistaken for being ‘strong’ or ‘dynamic’ and the sort of ‘tough-talking’ manager who tells themselves it’s ok to behave like a horrible person because they are someone who is prepared to make the tough decisions. In fact, they are usually alienating their people, losing any trust they may have inadvertently built up and supressing performance to a minimal level. Nice work.
What they really mean… “I like wielding power, it helps me to deal with my gnawing sense of inadequacy and insecurity”
The more sophisticated contemporary leader has usually learned that they achieve far greater levels of performance and a more engaged and creative culture by being inclusive and decent, treating their people as… er… people. They gain the trust and commitment of their people by deserving it and by giving respect. They are, most decidedly, not ‘weak’ or ‘soft’ and may have extremely high expectations, but they convey this to their teams and colleagues as a shared commitment through enthusiasm and passion, by helping them to join together to achieve something worth caring about. For the avoidance of doubt, that is usually something that actually matters, not just enabling some investors to increase their bank balance at the expense of employees, customers and suppliers.
2. What they say…. “Leave your problems at home”
Usually said using a tone that implies that an employee is there to focus solely on their job and forget about everything else. After all, it’s not the company’s fault your marriage is falling apart and that you’re in danger of losing the house. Just get on with your work and keep your head down. It’s my job as a manager to make sure you’re productive and that we’re efficient. I can’t afford to let anything get in the way of that, can I? The company exists to make a profit. We’re not a flipping charity, after all.
What they really mean.…"That sounds all emotional and it’s nothing to do with me”
Whatever else an organisation exists to do, and clearly in a commercial organisation that includes trying to make an honest profit, it remains first and foremost a community. When leaders start to see any organisation as just a P&L and a Balance Sheet and the only measures of success as the profits and share price, then trouble will soon follow.
People have real lives that carry on existing 24/7. They have children, they have elderly parents, they have pressures and challenges. Oh, and by the way, it might in truth be the company’s fault – even the manager’s fault – that their marriage is falling apart, when one or both partners is working 60 hours a week to earn enough to pay the bills, one or both of them is always stressed and they still can’t keep up with the mortgage because the workforce haven’t had a proper pay-rise in 10 years. Quite handy this austerity thing isn’t it? And that Brexit. Gives the unscrupulous and profiteering so many good excuses to cut costs and keep the wage bill down. Doesn’t engage people’s goodwill, creativity and best efforts though, does it? The coming war for talent will see those organisations losing out to those with better and more enlightened cultures. And actual leaders.
3. What they say.... “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”
Usually the province of the manager who is far too busy (and important) to give time to their people. After all, you don’t keep a dog and bark yourself do you? “You should be solving your own problems, not running to me all the time. It’s just my way of developing you so that you can learn to be self-sufficient.
Anyway, you can usually work out the best answer for yourself and then it will build your self-esteem and confidence for the future. Now I come to think about it, in many ways I’m actually helping you more by not helping you with the problem.”
What they really mean….. “I can’t be bothered to help you, and anyway I have no idea what to do”
This is a more difficult one, because it could actually be the right thing to say…. But only if it really is an opportunity for the team or individual to learn and grow and they are ready to take that step. If it’s just the manager not wanting to engage with their people or a glib way of pushing the team’s problems back onto the staff – then it’s not good, or even acceptable, behaviour. If it’s also because of a complete lack of the skills and relevant understanding that would enable the manager to help the team to solve the problem, then that will be seen soon enough, and the people will act accordingly.
4. What they say…. “My door is always open…
This is a favourite of managers who want to look supportive, helpful and ready to roll-up their sleeves and muck in. Come in and talk to me, I’m always here to help you. I’m just a regular person - always willing to drop whatever I’m doing to talk to you and try to help. We have an open and supportive culture here. Didn’t you see the posters? We’ve even got beanbags and a funky social space where all our people can get together…
What they really mean…. ”I’m not going to help you or even speak to you very often, but now if you get stuck it’s your fault because I told you my door was open. Even though it usually wasn’t.”
Have you ever noticed how this is only ever said by someone whose door is very rarely open? Even if by some miracle they’re not in a meeting (what the hell do they have to talk about so often and for so long?!) then the look you’ll get or the muted sigh as they are forced to stop what they’re doing should be enough to send you scampering back to your pigpen or workstation. My door is always open is a secret code. Like, ‘just shout if you need any help’ or ‘I’ll drop by later and see how you’re getting on’, it is just a way of saying ‘you’re on your own now, so you’d better start swimming, that water’s pretty deep’.
5. What they say…. Do you have any questions?
It’s very important to give people the illusion – sorry, I meant to say opportunity – that they can raise any concerns that they have and that we’re always ready to listen. Managers who say this want people to feel that they had their chance to seek clarification and that their manager was totally ready to answer their questions…
What they really mean…. “So, who wants to look like the moron who didn’t understand what we were talking about?”
Or alternatively “Who wants to prolong the endless, screaming agony of this meeting by raising some pointless issue right at the end so that everyone who just wants to get home can seethe, glare and radiate hate at them?”
What most managers are saying here is “don’t ask me any questions. We’re doing this and I don’t give a rat’s posterior what you think about it. Think of it as like the bit that says ‘any other business’ at the end of a 5 hour meeting. It’s verbal punctuation. It, and I really mean this, is definitely not an opportunity for you to challenge what is being proposed. Do that and your card will be marked. For ever.”
Authentic, consistent, emotionally intelligent leaders create happy and resilient workplaces.