Every so often I hear a phrase so well-tuned that I say to myself, “I wish I had thought of that.” That happened a few months ago when I was talking with a leader to get his feedback on someone they previously managed.
The description of the former leader was this: they regularly “inspired his team to underperformance.”
I laughed out loud when he said that and asked him to elaborate on how that happened. The essence of his answer was that the predecessor leader didn’t set high enough expectations for his team and failed to even follow through on the low bar that he did set.
In close to 15 years of individual and group coaching, I’ve seen a lot of well-intentioned leaders who, by setting the bar too low, inspired their teams to underperformance. Either they are so nice that they fail to inspire action with low expectations. Or, they become hyper-focused on accountability and perceive everyone is taking it easy.
After facilitating countless 360 degree leadership assessments, team consulting and as a Judgment Index analyst, I’ve come to some conclusions about how leaders fail to fully leverage their teams.
Based on the patterns I’ve seen, here are three things to do if you want to stop inspiring your team to underperformance:
Connect, but inspire action. – My observation is that leadership behaviors typically fall into one of two broad categories – behaviors that drive results and behaviors that build relationships.
The best leaders, in my experience, exhibit roughly equal amounts of results-driven and relationship-building behaviors. There’s a difference between short-term nice vs. long-term nice. The short-term nice approach is to sugarcoat it for people and let them coast or drift along. The long-term nice move is to be straight up about what’s expected and coach them to get there so they grow as the organization grows.
Let Go of the Work – Another thing that leaders who inspire underperformance do is hold on to work they shouldn’t be holding on to. Some avoid overwhelming a team by holding on to work that they think is going to be too much for their team to handle. That’s almost always the wrong call. Instead of helping their team, they’re hurting them by becoming a bottleneck. The other thing that happens is by holding on to the work, they hold back their team’s development.
I’ve never heard someone say “My boss is giving us too much work.” On the other hand, I regularly see direct report comments along the lines of “My boss is holding on to things she should be giving to us and, by doing so, she’s holding us back.”
Share Perspective and Information – The best leaders inspire their team’s performance by connecting their work with the bigger goals of the organization. In doing so, they focus a lot more on the “Why” and the “What” of the work than the “How.” If you’re the leader of a team, you likely have access to information, people and conversations that your team doesn’t have. All of that shapes your perspective as a leader. That perspective is only valuable to the degree that you share that perspective with your team. I love it when I hear “My manager shares information and perspective with us that my peers on other teams don’t get from their bosses.” The people who make comments like that are on higher performing teams because they have the context and information they need to make smart decisions without having to constantly ask for permission or validation.
See anything here that could inspire and raise the performance of your team? What would you add to the list?