Months ago I was delivering a day-long leadership program for HR managers. The program was part of a week-long conference at the company’s headquarters. One hundred attendees were split among five classrooms.
Participants were excited about what they were learning and were very engaged. They clearly felt the program could help them not only with managing their own development but with coaching their internal clients to manage their direct reports more effectively.
In the midst of the afternoon’s main activity (structured rehearsals – we never call them role plays!), the senior vice president of HR popped in to my classroom to observe. He came in with a grumpy demeanor and a frown on his face, and leaned against the wall with his arms crossed.
Participants’ reactions were immediate and interesting. They all glanced up at their SVP’s entrance. They all noticed his posture and mood – and looked away. A few looked at their role play partners and rolled their eyes. Participants went on with the activity, but the volume in the room was much subdued after his entrance.
What caused this SVP’s unhappy demeanor? It’s impossible to guess; it could have been one or more of a hundred different variables.
What is important to understand is that a leader’s mood and tone impacts their team’s (or department’s or company’s) players. Leaders do not have neutral impact. Their plans, decisions, actions, and moods are scrutinized by their team leaders and team members quite frequently and quite carefully.
Leaders’ actions and moods either improve player engagement and contribution or they erode it. There is no middle ground.
Am I saying that leaders cannot show displeasure? No, I’m not. I am saying that leaders have greater positive impact by expressing disappointment from a servant leadership place rather than a frustrated parent place!
Think about your best bosses, those leaders that created a safe, inspiring workplace where you were immensely productive and thoroughly engaged. It is extremely likely that your best boss’ moods were positive and consistent; those moods didn’t fluctuate wildly.
Our best bosses validated our efforts and accomplishments promptly – and they redirected our efforts when we missed the mark. They expressed their disappointment firmly and kindly, asking us to shift our actions. They did not discount our value as people while doing so.
All of us experience disappointment and frustrations. When we take our frustrations out on our colleagues, family, or friends, we create dissonance and distrust, not respect and dignity.
I coach leaders to “put on a happy face,” to act positive and optimistic even when things are not going as planned. It requires effort to wear that happy face. It may require that leaders insulate their teams from the confusion going on outside their team.
Leaders need to be honest with how things are going – don’t say things are fine when they’re not. Do, however, present the realities from an optimistic viewpoint, not a depressive one.
Even if a bad mood arises, the most effective leaders set that mood aside, and present a kind, pleasant, and non-judging approach in every interaction.
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