So often, from friends, colleagues and acquaintances, I hear about examples of leaders who think, misguidedly, that power comes from putting others down. What's wrong with being, respectful and, motivating? With treating others as you'd like to be treated yourself?
Quite recently, I felt compelled to share a quote on LinkedIn. I don't often feel an almost visceral reaction to quotes but this one really got me. Here it is:
Putting people down is a misguided approach to leadership. It's a rigid, old-fashioned way of "managing" people, and it certainly has nothing to do with "leadership" in my opinion.
To me, people who put others down are doing it because of something within themselves, not because of something lacking in the other person. Putting others down, being disrespectful, rude, ignoring people, yelling at them - it's tied to a belief that this approach will make people do what you want them to.
Yet in reality, this approach speaks more about one's professional and emotional development needs and evolution than anything else! It's a way to feel better about one's self, and it demonstrates a lack of confidence and a lack of awareness of their impact on others.
We all want the same thing as leaders - results!
Sure, this approach might get people to do what you want, but for how long, and with how much passion? Put yourself in their shoes- is this a motivating way to be managed that gets the best performance out of you? Isn't it true that you get way more with honey than you do with vinegar?
Considering that there's tons of research that says people leave leaders not companies, don't you think this kind of behavior might be one of the reasons why?
In these situations, nothing gets done in the long term and people tune you out or actively choose to focus on those work relationships that are respectful.
Getting results from others requires a number of leadership traits, strong communications skills being one of them. I'd also add empathy and the ability to listen to the list as well. These traits are what help to build trust and trust is never given. It's earned.
Is putting others down workplace bullying?
In extreme forms, this behavior could easily be labelled workplace bullying. It makes the recipient feel terrible, observers feel embarrassed, and it really doesn't result in any better outcomes. Certainly not long term ones.
Modern, non-caveman leadership is all about how to engage others, authenticity, how to inspire greatness and passion in the teams around you, and how to leverage these things for better business results.
It doesn't mean we all have to be soft on people and treat them with kid gloves. People want honest feedback about their performance. They deserve it too. But they really prefer, in my experience, to be treated like grown-ups and with respect.
We're are all grownups here. We should be able to handle constructive feedback in a mature manner - but only when it's given in an authentic effort to improve performance. We can still hold people accountable for their work and their behaviors without being "soft."
It's not difficult, it's basic common courtesy.
What can you do about it?
1. You could play them at their own game.
Hmmm, not sure this one works well. Not only are you stooping to their level, you've now become a contributing factor to the creation of a toxic workplace. Of course, in all of us there's probably that feeling of "See how much they like it now that I'm doing it to them", but this approach really only ends up reinforcing that this kind of behavior is okay.
2. You could play the opposite.
I always respond to terrible customer service in an overtly sugary way, usually dripping with sarcasm but it does work. Just before the Christmas break I told a cashier how sorry I was that it appeared she was having such a bad day and clearly customers were making it worse. Guess what? She shut up. It was clear she didn't know what to say, and I'd like to think it caused her to pause for just a moment and consider the impact she was having.
So what have you got to lose? Why not ask the 'offender' what exactly it is that has caused them to feel so badly about you? I know, easier said than done...but what if they can't answer you? What if makes them think about their behavior, just a little? And what if it shows them you can stand up to them?
There is a risk of this approach backfiring of course. You might get some (perhaps valid) reasons for their treatment of you, but you then have an opportunity for an open, candid (and respectful!) conversation about the underlying issue between the two of you.
I bet it will be an uncomfortable conversation for them as well because you've just pointed out their inappropriate behavior. That in itself might get them to start taking notice of how they speak to others more respectfully.
And what if you're one of the offenders?
Maybe you know it, maybe you're oblivious. Maybe you do know it and you don't care. I'm not sure which of these scenarios is worse, but I do know that if you get to the "don't care" place, it's probably time for you to find something else to do than lead others. If you don't, someone else may "help you" to do so.
If you're unsure you demonstrate this kind of behavior, look for signs around you to gain some clarity: seek feedback, examine reactions to your communication style in meetings and think about why you might have received these reactions.
If you tend to criticize harshly or snap at others, take the time to think about your reaction to understand the triggers. Deal with the root cause, not the symptoms. Is it them, or is it really you?
It's not easy to change these kinds of behaviors, but self-awareness is a great start.