You’ve heard all the typical advice about leading and building a team. Do the adages you hear while climbing the career ladder still work in today’s modern workplace?
When you’re managing knowledge workers, utilizing technology, and leading in an always-on culture, the landscape is different. The needs are different. It stands to reason that the wisdom you need to lead successfully will be different as well.
Leaders come into their role having internalized advice and feedback they heard as they advanced their careers. These commonly overheard leadership adages come from a good place but may deserve a second look. Are you living these principles the way you intend, or do they need a detoxification?
“It’s the results that matter.”
As a leader, you may be trying to remind yourself to be flexible and use productivity as the most important measuring stick.
- Do your actions back up this philosophy? They don’t if you’re reactive when you get a directive from a senior leader or if you still demand team members work set hours (or, even worse, track their screen time).
- What do your team members hear? Instead of flexibility, they hear winning makes up for anything and that they may need to sacrifice their wellbeing on the altar of results.
- What should I do differently? Ask your team members how their value and productivity come through– the hours they work or the energy they put into those hours. Be explicit regarding expectations. If you mean results matter over everything else and at all costs, say that (and expect attrition to go up). If you mean you value employees based on productivity and commitment rather than on arbitrary data, say that. And live up to it.
“Work-life balance is important.”
As a leader, you repeat this phrase to remind your team you want them to relax away from work.
- Do your actions back up this philosophy? They don’t if you send multiple emails and texts when employees are away from the office, or if you heap praise on team members who stay late, respond to emails immediately, work on vacation, and pull all-nighters. Those actions reinforce the idea that work trumps everything else.
- What do your team members hear? If you talk work-life balance but don’t live up to it, all they hear is grandstanding. They hear you want them to overwork, but you want to get credit for telling them to relax.
- What should I do differently? Look at your team members’ workloads and talk with them about the work they’re putting on themselves versus what you’re asking of them. If they’re consistently working outside work hours, adjust expectations to encourage recovery. If they have a big life event (like a move, illness, or new child), encourage work-life imbalance where appropriate. As a leader, commit to managing work within work hours, instead of creating a culture where work conversations could happen at any time across any tech platform, and where team members can never truly disconnect.
“Our team is like family.”
As a leader, you may use this saying to encourage connection and teamwork. After all, Gallup found people who have a best friend at work like their jobs more.
- Do your actions back up this philosophy? They don’t if you show favoritism or leverage your personal relationships to ask for extra work or to guilt trip when team members set boundaries.
- What do your team members hear? Being part of a family (even a work family!) comes with obligation. The relationship can become emotionally taxing and affect their ability to feel safe expressing opinions and needs in the workplace.
- What could I do differently? There’s room for trust and care in the workplace while still maintaining professional boundaries. Prioritize employee wellbeing without encroaching on their personal bandwidth. Emphasize the importance of clarity and transparency in expectations, rather than creating a blurry, casual system of texting for last-minute projects or asking for favors outside the scope of their professional role.
“I have to be fair.”
As a leader, your intention may be to ensure sure everyone is treated equally. But are fair and equal the same?
- Do your actions back up this philosophy? Consider when you advocate for fairness. Is it when work responsibilities and pay are allocated? Or are you only contemplating fairness when a team member makes a request for something out of the norm?
- What do my team members hear? The fairness only goes one way – the way that benefits you.
They may perceive you as more than happy to be unfair when you load high performers down with extra work, but less willing to give them what they need to be successful or manage their wellbeing.
- What could I do differently? Strive for equity instead of fairness. If starting later works for one team member, while another is ready to go at 6 a.m., does it have a net positive or negative on overall productivity? It’s fair to make everyone work the same hours. It might be more equitable to set a team norm like “everyone needs to be available during a set of core hours” and allow them to manage their overall productivity. A principled leader recognizes the opportunity to personalize their team members’ work experience as a way to enhance productivity and satisfaction.
As leaders, some of these concepts are so entrenched in management culture that they sound normal, even admirable. But with most, there’s a right and a wrong way to handle them.
Choosing the wrong way, we create a culture that drains our people and doesn’t allow for rest, recovery, and their best work. What happens when we detoxify this advice, thoughtfully considering the impact of leadership decisions on our team members? That’s when we truly win their loyalty. We gain their trust and receive their best work we invest in their wellbeing and give them the capacity to be their best, most energized, most productive selves.