January 21, 2014

It’s the little things stupid

The difference between an inspiring leader and a leader that de-motivates people often boils down to the small gestures made on a daily basis – not the grand gesture made once a year.

stupidHere’s a short story with a big lesson:

Bob, the manager of a team, when coming into work every morning would spend the first five minutes of his day talking to Steve. The only reason Bob did this was because he and Steve were passionate football fans and they happened to support the same team. They also went out to lunch together at least once a week. Bob, of course, happily greeted everyone else in his team but did not spend the same amount of time chatting with them.

A few months later, there was an opportunity for a promotion within the team and Bob, after a rigorous selection process selected Steve for the promotion. Bob genuinely felt that Steve was the best person for the job.

Over the next few weeks Bob had several of his team members request a transfer out of his team. One of his team handed in her resignation. Bob was experienced enough to know that the loss of even one good team member represented a blow to the efficiency of his team, but to lose so many within a short space of time was nothing short of disastrous.

It didn’t take long for Bob to discover (to his utter shock and bewilderment) that the reason his team members wanted to leave was because they felt that he was not a fair and equitable manager. Word soon got out that he played favourites and lacked impartiality. Some of the women in his team even accused him of discriminating against them. Bob’s team members felt that no matter what they did or how hard they tried they would never get ahead while he was their boss because he was not a fair manager.

The sad and frightening thing about this story is that Bob was never an unfair manager who played favourites. In fact, he secretly prided himself on his impartiality. He went to great lengths to rate staff strictly on their merit. So when he found out that he had acquired a reputation for being unfair he was dumbfounded and very disheartened. What went wrong?

Bob failed to grasp the old adage that perception is reality. By spending more time with Steve than with other team members and then promoting him, Bob created the perception that Steve’s promotion was based purely on their friendship, not Steve’s ability.

When Bob finally worked out where he went wrong his first and lasting reaction was the realisation of the enormous importance of small and seemingly trivial gestures in the workplace. By chatting with Steve for five minutes in the morning (and not doing the same with the others) Bob inadvertently created the perception that Steve was one of his favourites. This was confirmed in the minds of his staff when he promoted Steve.

It is vitally important to understand that as a manager of people your actions are carefully scrutinised in the workplace. Like it or not the minute you begin treating some staff members differently than others you are venturing into very risky territory. Small things can make a difference. In Bob’s case it made a big difference.

Not all situations where managers are perceived to be unfair end up as badly as Bob’s. However, where staff feel they are being treated unfairly or with diminished levels of respect there is a significant chance that they will adopt an attitude of “it doesn’t really matter how hard I try, I’m never going to be treated fairly, so why should I bother working harder”.

The difference between an inspiring leader and a leader that de-motivates people often boils down to the small gestures made on a daily basis – not the grand gesture made once a year.

Here are some other small gestures that make a big difference. Ignore them at your peril:

1. Never say you’ll do something only to put it off or never do – even with the seemingly trivial. For example, if you tell one of your staff members that you will ring them the following day make sure you ring the following day. Not to do so (no matter how small a matter it is in your mind) signals to your staff member that they’re not important enough for you to keep your word. Would you tell your boss, or an important client, that you will ring them the following day and then you don’t?

2. Avoid constantly rescheduling meetings or being late for them. Do you keep on rescheduling meetings with more “important” people?

3. Be aware of your body language. Avoid showing deferential body language towards your boss and dismissive body language towards your staff. For example, many of us will tend to sit up properly in our chair if our boss walks into our work space but we tend not to do the same when a staff member does.

4. Take the time to prepare for your meetings with your staff. Chances are that you prepare for meetings with your boss. Why not with your staff?

5. Do you ever try to impress your boss or an important client? Why not apply the same principle with your staff? Write down three good ways you can impress your staff and then stick to them.

Remember: it’s the little gestures made on a daily basis that make a big difference to your staffs’ loyalty and levels of respect towards you.

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