Bob Sutton has found that leaders have a big problem on their hands. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review he stated the following:
People who gain authority over others tend to become more self-centered and less mindful of what others need, do and say.
He cites an experiment where a group of three students were given a project and one of the three was clearly put in a supervisory role. 30 minutes after the start of their work, a plate of 5 cookies was put in the room. The researchers figured no one would eat the 5th cookie, a clear broach of etiquette, but wondered what would be come of the 4th cookie. Well, you guessed it, the student in a position of power tended to take that 4th cookie and, to top it off, ate like pigs, chewing with their mouths open and spraying crumbs everywhere.
Those of us who have been trusted with leadership positions should take stock of our habits to make sure we are not slipping down that road to totalitarian brutishness - even slightly. Here are a few tips that will help us avoid the fate of the Obnoxious Boss.
1. Seek for and take action on feedback from a variety of folks in the organization. Look for creative ways to get input. Do so formally and informally. Be careful of asking too many times through the same channels and don’t let the sycophants rise to the surface. Find those people who are most critical and let them have their best shot. You don’t need to take every criticism at face value, but take the time to reflect on their complaints to determine if their might be some truth in there.
2. Take on the roles of your subordinates from time to time. It’s a great idea to ride the bus one day, serve food in the cafeteria, help a small group next to the Instructional Assistant and answer phones at the front desk. You will see the impact of some of your decisions in a new light.
3. Force yourself to listen for others ideas before inserting your own. Listening shows such a high level of respect. I once worked with a boss who seemed to start every sentence with “No, but”. It was quite discouraging. You won’t be able to implement every idea, but give them a fair hearing and serious consideration before throwing out your personal favorite.
4. Be prepared to apologize when you recognize your own churlish behavior. You will make mistakes of all kinds. Be quick to take all the blame that you deserve. If you failed publicly, apologize publicly. If you failed privately, apologize privately. Having done both of these on several occasions I can tell you that 1) It aint easy and 2) you will gain more respect in the aftermath if done genuinely.
5. Develop accountable relationships both within and without the organization. Find some colleagues who can serve as sounding boards for your ideas and processes. My wife is one of my favorite sources. She questions me quite freely and I rarely admit that she’s right :) but once I think about it, she usually hits it right on the head. (Fortunately, she doesn’t read this blog, so she won’t know that I admit this.)
6. Consciously send messages that you will listen to others and you are eager to serve them to improve their performance. Your words and actions will be scrutinized. Make sure that you highlight practices that have been generated by someone other than yourself. Don’t be shy about performing menial tasks that will ease the load of your staff. You will build energy and commitment to the cause when you are a model of servant leadership and mutual support.
7. Frequently recognize the contributions of others. You are not accomplishing anything of value on your own. Find out how each individual wants to be recognized and look for positive contributions to be placed in the spotlight. Some prefer a note in private, others prefer recognition of the group and not the individual. Some like tokens of appreciation, while others enjoy a note of thanks. Some would love it if you gave them time or attention. It’s also a great idea to praise others behind their backs. Be creative and genuine in your praise.
In district negotiations recently, the representative from one of the bargaining groups told a story of how he was dancing with his wife one night when he noticed that the dance floor was quite crowded and he kept bumping into this one guy. He got a little frustrated and told the guy to go dance on the other side of the floor. It just so happens that he is a rather large man with a booming voice and when he gave that “suggestion”, he looked around and the entire dance floor had cleared out and given him some room. He told that story to make the point that when the District makes demands employees will possibly take those demands beyond their intended impact because of the position of power that they hold. I think it’s a beautiful illustration of the trappings of power. Our actions and words will be scrutinized and we need to carefully send messages that we are there to serve the needs of our staffs to deliver quality education to every student. So, don’t be a pig and be sure to say please when you go for that second cookie.
The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.