Mixed Signals


We value your input. Employees are our most important asset. Let us know how we can do a better job. We want you to think outside the box. Everyone’s opinion counts.…and so on. These are all phrases of leadership. Most leaders use one or more of these phrases at some point. Most leaders actually mean them. They sincerely value the underlying belief of each cliché. They really do want to understand your perspective on problems. They really do believe that the company will not survive without each person contributing. They really do understand people are afraid to give leaders feedback. The problem, though, is that followers are hyper-sensitive to the appearance of inconsistency between words and actions.

Your leader (or you!) has said, “We want you to think outside the box on solving this production problem.” The truth is that they mean it. This is a tough problem that keeps popping up quarter after quarter. The leader is frustrated and wants to challenge people to look at the issue in new ways to find new solutions.

“Start thinking outside the box, everyone!”

The team digs in. Hours, days, or weeks later they have produced an outside-of-the-box solution, which is presented to the leader, followed by days of silence. Then, the email everyone has been waiting for comes. It’s the message that (hopefully) says, “Run with your plan.”

Instead, the email reinstates the old strategy that has been failing again and again.

Just like the sign in the picture above, your team feels like you’re saying contradictory things.

Don’t enter here. Enter here.

Innovate. Do things the old way.

Tell me what you think. I don’t care what you think.

This demoralizes and demotivates people. It breaks down their trust in leadership.

In defense of leaders, I know that we don’t do this on purpose. What good would it be to confuse and demotivate people? Why would we purposely erode trust?

Also in defense of leaders, I know that there are facts and factors that cannot be shared with everyone.

In defense of followers, they deserve more. They deserve recognition that they did, in fact, do what you told them. They need to hear, “You did a great job thinking outside the box. What I learned is that I can trust you to work on complex problems and find creative solutions. I’ve been looking at implementation of this plan. Unfortunately, due to financial and operational factors that have come to light, we can’t do it. However, here is my plan for moving forward …”

They will still be frustrated that their hard work won’t see the light of day.

However, your recognition of their work and transparency into the leadership perspective will actually serve to further build trust.

Monitor what you tell your team (verbally, through actions, and via decisions). Watch for signals you send and recognize how they might be contradictory. Address it openly. They realize life is complicated. Just be honest about it.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by author.

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