5 Ways Servant Leaders Stand Out From The Crowd

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are a scientist running a grand experiment on leadership. Your laboratory is an organization with hundreds of leaders at varying levels, and with technology, you can watch and listen to them 24-hours a day over an extend period of time. Sort of like the TV show Big Brother, except corporate style (and minus all the drama-filled antics). Essentially you get to observe the species Homo Sapiens Laederes in their native environment.

Your quest is to learn the behaviors that make servant leaders stand out from the crowd. In a noisy world where a few celebrity leaders grab the headlines, and everyone tries to copy-cat their way to becoming an overnight leadership success, servant leadership has withstood the test of time as a tried and true approach to effectively leading people and organizations. You would observe at least five key ways servant leaders are different from their counterparts.

Servant leaders…

  1. Listen more than they talk—A servant leader is much more interested in hearing the viewpoints of others than having their voice be the loudest in the room. Make no mistake, servant leaders clearly articulate their point of view and cast a vision for the organization, but they do so after they’ve spent plenty of time hearing from others, incorporating their ideas, and enlisting others in their cause. As Larry Spears observed in the book Servant Leadership in Action, listening is one of ten key characteristics of a servant leader. Listening involves paying attention to what is said and not said, identifying the will of the group, listening to the leader’s own inner voice, and coalescing that input into a clear plan of action.
  2. Say we more than meWhen servant leaders do talk, they focus the attention on their team by speaking in the collective we, rather than the personal me. Servant leaders know that leadership isn’t about them; it’s about others. Robert K. Greenleaf, the father of the modern servant leader movement, said the motive of a servant leader is to serve first, and out of that desire to serve rises a conscious decision to lead. Servant leaders are driven to improve the welfare, contribution, and autonomy of others, not to garner fame, attention, or status for themselves. Their focus is on we, not me.
  3. Flex their leadership style to meet the needs of their followers—Since servant leadership is about doing what’s best for others and helping them to realize their full potential, servant leaders adapt their leadership style to provide the right amount of direction and support their followers need. There is no one best leadership style. If someone is new to a task, the leader provides higher levels of direction to teach the how, what, where, when, and why. If the follower has a moderate level of competence but is unsure of himself, the servant leader uses a supportive style to build the follower’s confidence and help him problem solve. Servant leaders understand their followers have varying levels of competence and commitment on their tasks or goals so they adjust their leadership style to the situation.
  4. Look for opportunities to shine the light on others—As you observe leaders in this mythical experiment, you’d notice that servant leaders make an intentional effort to give people the chance to be in the spotlight and to praise them for their accomplishments. Servant leaders don’t care who gets the credit; they care about helping people and the organization succeed. Ken Blanchard likes to say that “people who feel good about themselves produce good results, and people who produce good results feel good about themselves.” It’s a virtuous process that servant leaders look to perpetuate.
  5. Treat failures as learning moments—Failure is inevitable; learning is optional (click to tweet). Servant leaders view failure as an invaluable teaching tool, and rather than punish or demean people for making a mistake, they turn it into a positive and make it a learning moment. This is possible because servant leaders have a high level of trust with their followers. When people are trusted, they aren’t afraid to take risks and try something new. They know that if they fail, their leader will partner with them to use the opportunity to grow, learn, and do better next time. My friend and fellow servant leader, Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, embodies this philosophy. He believes that creating a culture of learning has been one of the pillars of WD-40’s success, an organization with 93% employee engagement.

Although it would be cool to take part in this kind of mad scientist experiment, it really isn’t necessary. Research about the effectiveness of servant leadership is plentiful and the traits of a servant leader are common sense, albeit not common practice. If you look around and see people engaging in these five behaviors and others like them, chances are they’re servant leaders who are bringing out the best in their people and organizations.

Strong Winds Make Strong Trees – 3 Ways to Develop Resilient Team Members

My little tree growing strong without the help of a stake.

A few years ago, my father-in-law passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer. My wife decided that she wanted to plant a tree in our backyard as a way for us to remember the good memories of his life. Watching a young sapling grow into a healthy and strong tree evokes positive emotions and a sense of well-being. Focusing on the growth of new life is cathartic and healing for the soul.

When we purchased the tree from the nursery, it was staked to a large wooden pole to help it stand upright. That’s a common practice with young trees. Sometimes they need additional support along the trunk of the tree while they establish a strong network of roots. I had every intention of removing the stake after the tree became rooted where it was planted, but…life happened, I got busy with other priorities, and before I knew it, two years had passed by and I had forgotten to remove the stake. As I researched this topic, I learned that a tree needs to bend and sway in the wind for it to develop a strong trunk and root system. The wind forces the tree to entrench itself further into the earth to withstand the forces of nature. Leaving a tree staked too long can weaken it and prevent it from reaching its full potential. Strong winds make strong trees.

The same principle is true in our personal and professional lives. Experiencing the strong winds of life makes us strong and resilient…if we choose the path of growth. The strong winds can also break us and stunt our growth if we stake ourselves to people, places, or things that provide a false sense of support and stability.

In the workplace, leaders can unwittingly shield their team members from strong winds. We can engage in behaviors that appear to be helping or protecting our people, but are preventing them from becoming resilient and strong contributors. Here are three strategies we can pursue to develop resilience in our team members:

  1. Facilitate problem solving—Developing resilient team members includes teaching them how to solve their own problems. This can be one of the hardest challenges for leaders because most of us have risen to our positions by being great problem-solvers. However, that very strength can be a weakness when it comes to developing resilient team members. Resist the urge to rescue team members by providing them the answers to their problems. Instead, rely on asking questions to lead people through the process of solving their own problems. Ask them to define the problem in one sentence. Help them brainstorm options of addressing the problem. Ask them to list the pros and cons of their various courses of actions. Initially it takes an investment of time to help people develop their competence in solving problems, but it saves you time down the road from having to be the answer-man and it results in having stronger, more resilient team members.
  2. Let them make decisions—In order to do this successfully, a leader needs to diagnose the competence and commitment of the team member on the specific goal or task in question. The leader needs to know if the team member is a learner or doer. If the person is a learner, then the leader must take the lead in making decisions. It would be irresponsible to have a team member decide about something she doesn’t know. In that case, it’s the leader’s job to develop the team member’s competence so she can make her own decisions in the future. If the person is a doer, then the leader needs to let the team member make her own decision and experience the positive or negative consequences. Micro-managing, questioning decisions, or removing decision-making authority from a team member squashes her self-confidence and stunts her growth.
  3. Don’t overreact—A tree needs to sway in the wind to develop strength. For a human muscle to grow in strength, it needs to experience micro tears in the muscle fibers from stretching and contracting in opposition to a force. To become resilient, people need to fail. A leader’s job is to find purpose, growth, and learning in the failure. When a team member fails, the leader should not overreact, criticize, or blame the person for failing. The leader should facilitate learning by asking questions like What did you set out to do?, What actually happened?, What did you learn?, and What will you do differently next time?

Back to my tree…I removed the stake and have been closely monitoring the tree as it has weathered some recent stormy weather. I’ve noticed the width of the trunk expanding as the tree has learned to rely on its own strength rather than the help of the wooden stake. I had to trim some branches back, so the tree isn’t so top-heavy and to give the trunk and roots time to catch-up in their growth. I’m confident the tree is going to continue to thrive for years to come. 

Strong winds make strong trees. Let’s not deny our team members the opportunity to experience their own challenges and the growth it affords.

Think You’re Wise in Your Own Eyes? 4 Steps to Develop Leadership Humility

Leaders who are wise in their own eyes seem to be the ones who get the most attention in our world. They’re the outspoken, big personality, larger-than-life characters who always seem absolutely convinced of their own wisdom despite any evidence to the contrary. They capture the news headlines, private equity investors, and achieve personal wealth and fame. The only thing they don’t seem to possess is a healthy dose of humility.

Yet a number of research studies have shown that humble leaders are more effective at bringing people together, marshaling resources toward a common goal, and accomplishing organizational objectives. One study showed that firms led by a CEO who scored high in humility developed management teams that were more likely to collaborate and make joint decisions, share information openly, and possess a shared vision. And of course in the classic book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins’ discovered that those organizations who moved from average to superior performance shared a common factor of being led by Level 5 leaders, people who possessed a powerful mixture of humility and indomitable will.

So how can we develop humility in our leadership? I believe it’s a life-long journey, but we can start by:

  1. Considering others more important than our self…and treating them that way. Humble leaders make it a practice to put the needs of their teammates ahead of their own. They look for ways to serve others rather than being served. That doesn’t mean they let their team walk all over them. As Ken Blanchard likes to say, “Being humble doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself, it means thinking about yourself less.” Humble leaders facilitate the development of structures, systems, and processes that allow people to effectively use their skills to accomplish the organization’s goals.
  2. Viewing yourself as a steward. Unless you are the founder and owner of the company, you’ve been hired as a steward to manage and develop that which has been entrusted to you. Stewards understand that everything they have is on loan and can be taken away in an instant. Therefore, they view their leadership as a responsibility to care for, nurture, and grow the organization and the people who comprise it.
  3. Remembering all the help you received along the way. Humble leaders realize and appreciate the help they received along their journey. I think there are very few, if any, truly “self-made” individuals in the world. Anyone who has achieved a modicum of success has benefited from the help of someone else. Maybe it was a parent who paid your college tuition, a coach who inspired confidence, a teacher who opened the doorway to learning, or the manager who hired you for your first job. The point is, someone believed in you and gave you a chance. Humble leaders do the same for others.
  4. Believing in something bigger than yourself. The opening line in Rick Warren’s best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, summarizes the heart attitude of humble leaders: “It’s not about you.” At the center of the lives of humble leaders is a values system that drives their beliefs and actions. Whether it’s your religious faith, core values, or personal mission statement, it’s critical to have a philosophical or moral code that serves as the foundation for your leadership. In the absence of such a grounding framework, you will put yourself at the center of your leadership philosophy and that’s the root cause of becoming a leader who is wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26: 11-12 contains a warning for people who reject personal humility and think “they’re all that:” As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.”

My life experience has been that leaders who are wise in their own eyes eventually suffer a downfall. They may demonstrate signs of success over the short-term, but they can’t sustain lasting success over the long-term. Humble leaders, on the other hand, are the ones I’ve seen that leave teams and organizations in a better position than they found them and create a lasting impact that far out lives their personal contributions.

7 Ways to Tell If You’re a Boss or a Leader

“You’re not the boss of me!” That was the phrase my younger sister would frequently yell at me during our youth when I was being the domineering big brother. If you’ve had kids, been around kids, or were a kid (that qualifies all of us), then you’ve probably heard the phrase too. Whether it’s the older sibling who thinks she knows better, the playground bully establishing his dominance, or the teacher’s pet who somehow always gets her way, kids enjoy bossing others around.

Strangely enough, adults seem to like it too. We see it all the time in our workplaces where supervisors or managers create toxic environments because of their need to exert authority and control. The only one who wins in this type of culture is the boss. The people and the organization as a whole suffer.

So how do you know if you’re a boss or a leader? Here are seven simple ways to tell:

Bosses rely on the use of “hard” power / Leaders leverage the use of “soft” power — Bosses use hard power like their title, positional authority, or ability to give/withhold rewards as weapons to control the behavior of others. Leaders use soft power like their interpersonal skills, communication, values, and appeals to common interests as a way to enlist the support of others.

Bosses demand respect / Leaders earn respect — Bosses believe others should respect and follow them because of their position. They believe the title of boss demands instant respect. Leaders, on the other hand, know they have to earn the respect of others. They know their walk has to match their talk and their consistent behavior will garner respect from those they lead.

Bosses require compliance / Leaders invite collaboration — Bosses don’t really care what you think or feel, just as long as you do what you’re told, when you’re told, and how you’re told to do it. Leaders understand you have to manage the whole person; their heart, head, and hands. Leaders invite collaboration by soliciting input, listening to concerns, and incorporating team member feedback into decisions and plans.

Bosses focus only on results / Leaders focus on people and results — Bosses tend to have a win-lose mentality. Nothing else matters except the final score on the scoreboard. Leaders value results just as much as bosses, but they don’t sacrifice their people in order to achieve them. Leaders know people are the path to results and they treat them as valuable resources needed to accomplish the mission.

Bosses are concerned with looking good / Leaders are concerned with giving credit to others — You’ll often hear bosses use “I” or “me” language when describing their team’s accomplishments. They like the spotlight and aren’t afraid to take the credit for their team’s performance. Leaders are the opposite. You’ll hear them say “we” and “us” when referring to the team’s achievements. They deflect the spotlight and shine it on their team members instead.

Bosses push people / Leaders lead — It sounds rather simplistic but it’s true. Bosses stand behind the team, barking out instructions and pushing them to move forward. Bosses say “Do as I say.” Leaders are out front saying “follow me” as they work together with their team members to achieve the goal. Leaders say “Do as I do.”

Bosses inspire fear / Leaders cultivate trust — Bosses manage through fear and coercion. If you don’t do what the boss requires then you know some form of punishment will ensue. Leaders inspire trust. They grant people appropriate levels of autonomy and authority and let them do their jobs. If mistakes happen, they treat them as learning moments and coach team members to higher performance. Leaders establish an environment of trust and safety.

If you found yourself identifying more with the characteristics of a boss instead of a leader, don’t lose heart because you can change. It will take time and intentional effort, but you can make the transition. Seek out leadership training opportunities, find a mentor, and learning from others are all ways to get started. Being bossed around as a kid wasn’t a pleasant experience and it’s even worse as an adult in the workplace. We need less bosses and more leaders.

4 Steps to Break Out of Your Leadership Prison Cell

I recently spent time at Alcatraz…as a tourist, of course. The old federal penitentiary hasn’t housed prisoners since 1963. As a history nerd it was fascinating to walk the same halls as some of the world’s most famous criminals like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Robert Stroud, the “birdman” of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz cell 1Some of the prison cell doors are open so you can walk inside and get a sense for what it must have felt like to be confined in such a small space. The cells are five feet wide, seven feet tall, and nine feet long. I could reach my arms out to the side and place my palms on the walls of the cell. The concrete walls hold the frigid chill of the San Francisco Bay and the steel doors are hard and unforgiving. It’s difficult to imagine what it must have felt like to be confined in such a small space for hours on end, day after day, year after year.

Prison cells aren’t just concrete rooms with steel doors; they can be rooms of our own making. (click to tweet) All of us, in various areas of our lives, have constructed cells that imprison us and constrain our ability to experience true freedom and joy.

In the realm of leadership, some of us are career criminals doing hard time and the only life we know is within the four walls of our prison cell. These leaders are guilty of crimes like wielding power as a weapon, hoarding information, sucking up to the hierarchy, micromanaging, breaking trust, playing politics, and over-reliance on command and control styles of leadership. Most of us leaders aren’t hardened criminals serving a life sentence, but we dabble in our share of petty theft that puts us behind bars from time to time.

There are ways you can escape from the prison of ineffective leadership practices, but it takes planning, patience, and perseverance. You didn’t build those walls overnight and it’s going to take time to tunnel your way out. Here are four steps to break out of your leadership prison cell:

Discover Your Leadership Purpose

Why do you lead? Answer that question and you’ve discovered your leadership purpose. Discovering your leadership purpose is an introspective process that takes time and effort, but the result is an internal clarity and drive that inspires and fuels your work as a leader.

The process for discovering your leadership purpose begins with reflecting on your own leadership role models. How did those people influence you? What about the way they led others inspired you? What did you learn from them and how do you display that in your own leadership style? Second, how does your leadership connect with your larger life purpose? Do you see your role as a leader integrated with your overall life purpose? Are you clear on your greatest strengths and how you can use them to positively impact the world around you? Third, what is the legacy you want to leave? How do you want to be remembered for the way you influenced those you lead?

As you wrestle with these tough questions, you’ll eventually gain insight into your leadership purpose. Writing a simple purpose statement will help crystallize your thoughts and provide a reminder of why you do what you do as a leader. Do an internet search for “writing a personal mission statement” and you’ll find dozens of excellent resources and templates. As an example, my purpose statement is To use my gifts and abilities to be a servant leader and a model of God’s grace and truth

Define Your Leadership Values

Leadership is an influence process. As a leader you are trying to influence others to believe in certain things and act in specific ways. How can you do that if you aren’t clear on your own values? What drives your own behaviors? You have to be clear on that before you can expect to influence others…at least in a positive way.

In the absence of clearly defined values, I believe people tend to default to the more base, self-centered values we all possess: self-preservation, survival, ego, power, position. As an example, my core values are trust, authenticity, and respect. I look to those values to guide my interactions with others. Just as river banks channel and direct the flow of rushing water, so values direct our behaviors. What is a river without banks? A large puddle. Our leadership effectiveness is diffused without values to guide its efforts.

Declare Your Leadership Brand

Your brand image is not only how people perceive you (your reputation), but also what differentiates you from everyone else in your company. When your colleagues and team members think of you, what is it that comes to their minds?

Tom Peters, the guru of personal branding, says, “If you are going to be a brand, you’ve got to become relentlessly focused on what you do that adds value, what you’re proud of, and most important, what you can shamelessly take credit for.” Now, I’m not into shamelessly bragging about personal accomplishments, but I do think it’s important, and possible, to tactfully and appropriately share your successes.

Forget your job title. What is it about your performance as a leader that makes you memorable, distinct, or unique? What’s the “buzz” on you? Forget about your job description too. What accomplishments are you most proud of? How have you gone above, beyond, or outside the scope of your job description to add value to your organization? Those are the elements that make up your brand.

Deliver on Your Leadership Promise

If you’ve ever removed the cardboard sleeve on a Starbucks coffee cup, you may have noticed this statement printed on the side of the cup:

Our Barista Promise

Love your beverage or let us know. We’ll always make it right.

My experience with Starbucks is they live that promise. Whenever I’ve not been satisfied with my drink, they’ve always made it right.

Your leadership promise is the combination of your purpose, values, and brand. It’s who your people expect you to be as a leader and it’s how they expect you to behave. Whether you’ve articulated your leadership purpose, values, and brand to your people or not (which I strongly advocate you do), they have ascribed a leadership promise to you based on your past behavior. You are setting yourself up to break trust with your followers if their perception of your leadership promise doesn’t align with your own.

Escape from Alcatraz

It was simple for me to leave the island when my time was done on Alcatraz; I boarded the ferry and rode across the bay to San Francisco. It wasn’t nearly as easy for the prisoners who once called Alcatraz home. Likewise, it won’t be easy for you to escape your self-constructed prison cell of dysfunctional leadership practices, but it is doable with intentional focus and effort. Discovering your leadership purpose will direct your energies, clarifying your values will guide your activities, declaring your brand will let others know what you stand for, and delivering on your leadership promise will hold you accountable to being the leader you aspire to be and the leader your people need and deserve.

Confronting Poor Performance is a “Moment of Trust” – 5 Steps for Success

Addressing poor performance with an employee presents a leader with a “moment of trust” – an opportunity to either build or erode trust in the relationship. If you handle the situation with competence and care, the level of trust in your relationship can take a leap forward. Fumble the opportunity and you can expect to lose trust and confidence in your leadership.

Now, I’m the first to admit that having a discussion about an employee’s failing performance is probably the last thing I want to do as a leader. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for both parties involved. I mean, come on, no one likes to hear they aren’t doing a good job. But the way in which the feedback and coaching is delivered can make a huge difference. The key is to have a plan and process to follow. The following steps can help you capitalize on the moment of trust and get an employee’s performance back on track.

1. Prepare – Before you have the performance discussion, you need to make sure you’re prepared. Collect the facts or data that support your assessment of the employee’s low performance. Be sure to analyze the problem by asking yourself questions like:

        1. Was the goal clear?
        2. Was the right training, tools, and resources provided?
        3. Did I provide the right leadership style?
        4. Did the employee receive coaching and feedback along the way?
        5. Was the employee motivated and confident to achieve the goal?
        6. Did the employee have any personal problems that impacted performance?

2. Describe the problem – State the purpose and ground rules of the meeting. It could sound something like “Susan, I’d like to talk to you about the problem you’re having with the defect rate of your widgets. I’ll give you my take on the problem and then I’d like to hear your perspective.”

Be specific in describing the problem, using the data you’ve collected or the behaviors you’ve observed. Illustrate the gap in performance by explaining what the performance or behavior should be and state what you want to happen now. It could sound something like “In the last week your defect rate has been 18% instead of your normal 10% or less. As I look at all the variables of the situation, I realize you’ve had some new people working on the line, and in a few instances, you haven’t had the necessary replacement parts you’ve needed. Obviously we need to get your rate back under 10%.”

3. Explore and acknowledge their viewpoint – This step involves you soliciting the input of the employee to get their perspective on the cause of the performance problem. Despite the information you’ve collected, you may learn something new about what could be causing or contributing to the decline in performance. Depending on the employee’s attitude, you may need to be prepared for defensiveness or excuses about the performance gap. Keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand and solicit the employee’s ideas for solving the problem.

4. Summarize the problem and causes – Identify points of disagreement that may exist, but try to emphasize the areas of agreement between you and the employee. When you’ve summarized the problem and main causes, ask if the two of you have enough agreement to move to problem solving. It could sound something like “Susan, we both agree that we need to get your defect rate to 10% or below and that you’ve had a few obstacles in your way like new people on the line and occasionally missing replacement parts. Where we see things differently is that I believe you don’t always have your paperwork, parts, and tools organized in advance the way you used to. While we don’t see the problem exactly the same, are we close enough to work on a solution?”

5. Problem solve for the solution – Once you’ve completed step four, you can then problem solve for specific solutions to close the performance gap. Depending on the employee’s level of competence and commitment on the goal or task, you may need to use more or less direction or support to help guide the problem solving process. The outcome of the problem solving process should be specific goals, actions, or strategies that you and/or the employee will put in place to address the performance problem. Set a schedule for checking in on the employee’s progress and be sure to thank them and express a desire for the performance to improve.

A moment of trust is a precious occurrence that you don’t want to waste. Using this five step process can help you address an employee’s poor performance with candor and care that will leave the employee knowing that you respect their dignity, value their contributions, and have their best interests at heart. That can’t help but build trust in the relationship.

3 Reasons Why Leaders Should Pause and Take Notice

I have to admit, it’s easy for me not to notice. I get focused on my own goals and priorities and everything else around me seems to fade from view. That focused attention is a good thing when I need to meet a deadline or accomplish an important task, but when it comes to leading people, it’s a deadly mistake. I can get so wrapped up in my own agenda that I neglect to notice the needs of my team members.

I know I’m not alone here. Many people fall into the same trap because they think that’s what leaders are supposed to do. Make decisions, be in lots of meetings, and wear our busyness like a badge of courage. Let me be the first to break the news to you—that’s not how you should lead. Great leaders make time for their people because they know a leader’s best ability is availability. (click to tweet)

You may not think being a good “noticer” is important but I’d argue otherwise. I think it’s one of the top priorities for leaders because it makes you other-focused rather than self-focused.

Being a good noticer builds morale. Being valued, understood, and appreciated is a basic human need, but unfortunately, too many leaders forget their people are actually human. They view people as utilitarian resources performing a specific job function and treat them as interchangeable parts. But taking time to notice people lifts their spirits. A well-timed praising, note of thanks, or even just a personal conversation can turn around a person’s day.

Noticing people also builds trust. It shows your people that you care about them as individuals and not just as workers showing up to do a job. Everyone has a story and good leaders take the time to learn the stories of their team members. I’m not talking about hugging everyone and singing Kumbaya, but simply building relationships. Asking about their kids, getting their input on new ideas, or eating lunch in the break room with your team members every once in a while. With the trust of your team you can reach new heights, but without it you’re dead in the water.

Finally, noticing others keeps your leadership on course because you’re in tune with the needs of your team. The higher up leaders move in the organization the easier it is to get disconnected from the realities of life on the front line. Being a good noticer means you have to stay engaged with your team. It means you are familiar with the good, the bad, and the ugly of what your team has to deal with daily. That allows you to make leadership decisions based on what’s really going on versus what you think is going on.

So I challenge you to make a commitment this week. Take 5 minutes each day to pause, consider your team, and notice what’s going on around you. If you see a person doing a good job, tell him/her so. If you see someone struggling, ask if they need help. If one of your team members seems downcast, ask if they’d like to talk. It’s not that hard; it just takes a little time and effort.

Feel free to leave a comment this week to let me know what you noticed.

3 Reasons to Apologize Even if You’ve Done Nothing Wrong

“I’m not going to apologize because I didn’t do anything wrong!”

I remember my kids uttering that phrase a number of times when they were young, and I’ve also heard it from adults in the workplace more times than I care to remember. No one likes to be wrongly accused and most people certainly don’t want to apologize for something they didn’t do. The thought of apologizing when we’ve done nothing wrong, or even worse, when we’re actually in the right, causes our blood to boil. We become indignant, defensive, or lash out at others, none of which does anything to improve the situation.

However, there is a time and place for apologizing even if you’re not guilty. It’s important to remember that apologizing is not an admission of guilt; it’s an admission of responsibility. (Click to tweet) You are taking responsibility for improving and moving past the situation at hand. Here are three good reasons to apologize even if you’ve done nothing wrong:

  1. Choosing relationship over being right—When difficulties arise in a relationship, it’s a natural human instinct to want to assign blame. If the other person is in the wrong, then we can gloat in the satisfaction of being right. It’s easy to dive into the deep end of the pool of self-righteousness. It takes emotional maturity to prioritize the health of the relationship over the ego-feeding need to be right. Apologizing for the pain and difficulty of the current situation, even if you didn’t cause it, shows you place a higher value on the other person than you do on the need to be right.
  2. Lose the battle to win the war—You need to have a long-range perspective when it comes to relationships. There are going to be lots of battles (e.g., differences of opinion, conflict, etc.) in our relationships at home and work, and we’d die of exhaustion if we fought tooth and nail to prove ourselves right in every instance. Sometimes it’s better to lose the battle and apologize even when you’re right, for the sake of winning the bigger war (e.g., maintaining peace, completing the project, etc.).
  3. Take one for the team—As the leader, there are times you need to take one for the team. You may not personally have been at fault, but if your team has dropped the ball, you should take the blame on their behalf. Weak leaders will often throw their team under the bus when they’ve made a mistake. The leader will absolve him/herself of any responsibility and blame it on the team acting carelessly. The best leaders, however, apologize for the mistakes their team make and accept whatever blame comes their way.

It’s no fun to apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong. Every fiber of our being compels us to scream that we didn’t do it, and to blame someone or something else. Responding with righteous indignation often escalates the tension and does little to resolve the situation. If you value the relationship more than being right, are willing to lose a small battle for the sake of winning the larger war, or need to take one for you team, it’s OK to apologize—even if you’ve done nothing wrong.

9 Warning Signs of a Failing Employee

Danger Thin Ice“I’m sorry, we need to let you go.”

Oomph! Those words feel like a punch to the gut of the employee on the receiving end, and for the leader delivering the bad news, those words create anxiety and many sleepless nights leading up to that difficult conversation.

No leader likes to see an employee fail on the job. From the moment we start the recruitment process, through interviewing, hiring, and training, our goal is to set up our employees for success. It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and expense to bring new people into the organization and ramp them up to full productivity, so it’s in everyone’s vested interest to see an employee succeed. Yet we all know there are situations that, for whatever reason, an employee struggles on the job and there isn’t much hope of turning it around.

I recently met with a group of HR professionals and line managers to debrief employee termination situations. As we reviewed the cases at hand, the following nine signs emerged as warning signals, that had they been heeded early on in the employee’s career, a termination decision could have been made much earlier in the process that would have saved everyone a lot of heartache and the company a lot of money. Any one of these signs is alarming in and of itself, but when you combine all of them together…KABOOM! You’ve got an employee meltdown waiting to happen.

Nine Warning Signs of a Failing Employee

1. Things don’t improve with a change of scenery – Maybe it’s the relationship with the boss, certain peers, or the nature of the work has changed and the employee is struggling to perform at her best. Whatever the reason, moving the employee to another role or department can get her back on track. I’ve done it myself and have seen it work. But if you’ve given someone another chance by giving them a change of scenery and it’s still not working out, you should be concerned. The scenery probably isn’t the problem.

2. You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around the employee – We all have personality quirks and some people are more difficult to work with than others, but when an employee becomes cancerous to the morale and productivity of the team and everyone feels like they have to walk on eggshells around the person for fear of incurring their wrath, you’ve got a serious problem. Don’t underestimate the destructive power of a toxic, unpredictable employee.

3. Emotional instability – Part of being a mature adult is being able to manage your emotions and it’s critically important in a professional workplace. If you have an employee that demonstrates severe emotional mood swings on the job and in their relationships with others, you need to pursue the proper legal and ethical guidelines in dealing with the employee and getting them the support they need. Don’t ignore the behavior by chalking it up to the heat of the moment, the stress of the job, or excusing it by saying “Oh, that’s just Joe being Joe.”

4. Trouble fitting into the company culture – Perhaps one of the earliest signs that you have a failing employee is noticing she is having significant trouble adapting to the culture of the organization. There is a natural transition time for any new employee, but if you’re constantly hearing the employee make negative comments about how the company operates and criticizing leadership, or not developing solid relationships with others and becoming part of the team, warning alarms should be going off in your head.

5. Blames others, makes excuses, and challenges authority – You know the incredibly loud sound of air raid sirens used in civil defense situations? That’s the sound you should be hearing if you have an employee with a track record of blaming others and making excuses for her poor performance. Failing employees will often challenge authority by trying to lay the blame at the boss’ feet by saying things like “You should have done this…” or “You didn’t address that problem…” or whatever the case may be. If you have an employee who always seems to be involved in drama, ask yourself “What (or more appropriately ‘who’) is the common denominator in these situations?”

6. Distorts or manipulates the truth – I’ve dealt with employees who were very skilled at manipulating or distorting the truth. In whatever difficult situation they were in, they would find a kernel of truth to justify and excuse their involvement to the point that I would feel compelled to side with them. I learned you have to be discerning and consistent in your approach to dealing with manipulative people and make sure you document your interactions so you have sufficient data to support your termination decision.

7. Unseen gaps in performance – One of the most challenging situations is when an employee seems to be performing well by outside appearances, but when you explore behind the scenes you discover there are gaps in her performance. Maybe it’s sloppy work, not following correct procedures, or even worse, being intentionally deceptive or unethical. Be careful, things may not always be as they seem.

8. A trail of broken relationships – Employees don’t have to be BFF’s with all of their coworkers, but they do need to respect others and be able to work together. A person may be a high-performer in the tasks of her job, but if she can’t get along with other people and has a history of damaging relationships with colleagues, eventually there will come a point where her contributions are outweighed by the damage and drama she creates.

9. Passive-aggressive behavior – You know those smiley-face emoticons at the end of slightly sarcastic and critical emails? A classic example of passive-aggressive behavior where the sender is trying to couch her criticism in feigned-humor. This is toxic and can be hard to manage because it manifests itself is so many ways that appear to be innocuous in and of themselves. Veiled jokes, procrastination, sullenness, resentment, and deliberate or repeated failure to follow-through on tasks are all signs of passive-aggressive behavior. Be careful…very careful.

The number one job for a leader is to help his or her employees succeed. Before an employee is terminated, a leader needs to be able to look in the mirror and honestly admit that everything possible has been done to help the employee succeed. These nine warning signs should serve as critical guideposts in helping any leader be alert to a failing employee.

Does Being a Naysayer Make You a More Powerful Leader?

photography of a person pointing on something

If you’ve ever wondered why so many negative and critical leaders seem to rise to power, recent research sheds a little light on the cause. It turns out that even though we say we want compassionate and empathetic leaders, we perceive naysayers as being more powerful than their non-critical colleagues.

In one of a series of studies, 518 participants were shown four pairs of statements made by former U.S. presidential candidates during nationally televised debates. They were not told the candidates’ names or when the debate took place. The pair of statements included one that was positive and supportive of America’s future, while the other was negative and critical. Participants were asked to rate how powerful each candidate appeared to be, how effective they thought the person would be in office, and whether or not they would vote for the person.

Compared to the presidential candidates who made positive statements, participants rated the negative candidates as more powerful, more likely to be effective in office, and likely to earn their vote. In additional studies across different contexts such as art reviews and opinions on social issues, participants consistently rated the naysayer as more powerful, albeit less likable, than their neutral or positive counterpart.

Why is this the case? Researcher Eileen Y. Chou theorizes the cause is human psychology. We perceive naysayers as being more independent, willing to speak their mind, and willing to “tell it like it is.” This fuels a perception of the naysayer being powerful enough to not be bound by normal constraints or resources. This perception of power was strongest among those who felt the most disadvantaged. The disadvantaged perceive the naysayer as being willing to speak truth to power and disrupt the status quo.

So, should you incorporate more negativity into your leadership style in order to become more powerful? Let’s see…how can I put this in a sensitive, thoughtful, diplomatic way?

NO!

There is certainly a time and place for candid realism in a leader’s communications. Leader’s who sugarcoat the truth and try to get their people to believe everything is rainbows and unicorns are perceived as out of touch, fake, and incompetent. Leaders have an obligation to “keep it real” with their followers, but also need to inspire people with hope for a better future. Constant negativity and criticism causes people to view the leader as a malcontent and they eventually remove their support.

The more fundamental issue for me beyond the role of being a naysayer is a leader’s relationship with power. Power accompanies leadership and it can be used in healthy and unhealthy ways. The greatest use of power is in service to others and there are noble and altruistic ways of developing and sustaining power that benefits others.

One only needs to listen to the political rhetoric these days to see the harmful effects of naysaying leadership. Constant criticism, negativity, and fault-finding appeals to the most base instincts of humanity. The most successful and enduring leaders call to the “better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln said, and unite people through a shared vision of a more promising tomorrow.