As leaders, we often don’t realize (or choose to ignore) the effect that we have on people in our organizations. Our actions and inactions almost invariably have unintended consequences. Bernie Donkerbrook, writing in the Center for Creative Leadership’s July 2011 newsletter, makes this point:
Everything you do (or do not do) is observed, analyzed and discussed by your people. What you talk about, include on an agenda and get personally involved with - as well as what you choose to avoid or delegate — sends powerful messages. Your employees then draw conclusions and implications about "what it meant" — whether you meant it that way or not!
Everyting a leader does has an effect on others, often unintended. When I do assessments of organizational culture or employee engagement, I find that employee attitudes toward their organizations are heavily affected by the stories they tell themselves about top leaders. I hear comments such as,
- “He meets with Sally’s department a lot but rarely comes and talks to us; Sally must have the inside track for promotion.”
- “I sent Bill an email about the problem and he didn’t respond; I guess he doesn’t want to do anything about it.”
- “They haven’t filled the director’s position; my department must not be a high priority in this organization.”
According to Donkerbrook, three aspects of leader behavior affect the attitudes of employees: 1) what they say; 2) what they do; and 3) what they pay attention to. See his model.
Of course, managers can never fully know how every behavior is interpreted… or misinterpreted. However, we need to be sensitive to our actions and constantly be checking on their impact. I find this is to be especially true for email and text messages. Receivers of these messages are looking at what is written and what is missing and, like a Rorschach test, read into the statements whatever emotion and meaning they want to project onto those words. Leaders need to choose their e-words carefully and not assume that the reader is going to hear the emotion (joy, appreciation, frustration, anger, etc.) or absence of emotion that they are trying to convey.
Donkerbrook’s article reminds me of the Zulu concept of “Ubuntu”, which I learned in a workshop on diversity that I was evaluating. One meaning of this term is to acknowledge the existence and humanity of another person. If a manager doesn’t greet someone who is in proximity or doesn’t show caring and compassion for that employee or simply looks away, that employee will feel diminished by the communication. We all need to feel respected by our leaders. Leaders must find ways to show respect for everyone in the organization, from front-line hourly workers to top-level executives. Otherwise, employees will tell themselves stories about leaders that may or may not be true.