Mistakes team leaders make: One size fits all

February 4, 2015 liane
Team members with different facial expressions holding puzzle pieces

In my previous post, I shared a big mistake that team leaders make by undervaluing recognition as a form of reward. You can read it here.  That got me thinking that in 20 years of consulting there are a few mistakes I’ve seen team leaders make way too often. Today, another one: treating people the way that works for you—but not for them.

To be fair, this is a hard one. First, it takes years to overcome the Golden Rule programming of “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  It’s a lovely sentiment that was intended to mean “be nice.” Sadly, its literal implementation means that you treat people the way you want to be treated, which often misses the mark for them.

Over time, I have learned a couple of the areas where I’m likely to make this mistake.  First, I like attention, so public recognition is good for me. It only took a few of my direct reports looking like they wanted to crawl inside their skin before I realized that the ticker tape parade wasn’t for everyone. Similarly, I love spontaneity. When things get too predictable, I lose my mojo. Who woulda’ guessed that many people crave this orderliness I despise. I’m getting better at that one now too.

Step 1: Figure out the things you do to (and for) your team out of a desire to be nice, supportive, constructive, etcetera. How do they land with the different members of your team? Where are there clues that your approach might not be a good fit?

Now, once you’ve stopped treating people the way you want to be treated, you’re half way there.  What?! Yup, it’s even harder than that.  Now you have to figure out the alternative: how should you start treating them?

The most obvious place to start is to treat them the way they treat others.  Those who are very direct and frank need frankness in return. Those who are very spontaneous (like me) want lots of flexibility and room to maneuver.  It all makes perfect sense…sadly, people don’t make perfect sense.

It turns out that there’s a good chunk of your team who behave one way and need to be treated differently. It’s usually a function of learned behavior. They came into the workplace with a set of expectations about the world formed as part of their personalities or childhood experiences. Those expectations are still with them, but they have layered on top a set of behaviors that have made them successful in the work world.  What you see are their learned behaviors, what you don’t see are the needs that lie under the surface.

Let me give you an example.

I had a direct report several years ago who was the nicest, sweetest, most caring person you could ever meet.  She was attentive to people’s feelings and always very nurturing and supportive of those around her.  At some point, she needed to get some tough feedback about her performance.  I tried, my boss tried, some of my peers tried—all to no avail.  Finally, I felt as though I needed to deliver the message more directly and more forcefully.  So I gathered my strength and sat her down for what felt like a very harsh conversation. But astonishingly, what felt like brutality to me was perfectly acceptable to her.  “Thanks she said, I’m really glad you shared that with me. No one’s every told me that before.”  Wow…this sweet, gentle person needed her feedback delivered with brute force. It was such a good lesson for me.

Step 2: For each of your team members, ask yourself: what does he/she need from me? Whom on my team is a what you see is what you get type and who is more complex? Reflect on interactions that haven’t gone well; what was the issue and how might you have handled it differently to better effect?  What could you ask the person that would help you understand them better?

I have seen team leaders come right out and say “this is how I like to operate, so you’re going to have to adapt.” Charming, I know.  But most team leaders want to do the best possible job for their team. If you’re in the latter category, take some time to think about your own defaults and how you could adapt your style to better meet the needs of your team members.

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