5 Mistakes Leaders Must Avoid

Fear Doesn’t Motivate Employees

5 Mistakes Leaders Must AvoidCarrot or stick? Few leaders today get anywhere with the stick.

In fact, most leaders know that command and control is dead and that fear doesn’t motivate employees. It’s quite the opposite that actually works in business today. That’s why, for the most part, we refrain from doing scary things. Only the worst “bully bosses” make it a practice to scream at employees, call them abusive names, or threaten to fire any of them the next time they make a mistake.

Even good leaders, though, unintentionally strike fear in the hearts of their workforce. More accurately, they strike it into their employees’ brains. And the consequences are more dire than you might realize.

From time to time we all say or do things that spark unconscious fears in our employees. The primitive ‘fight, flight or freeze’ part of the brain takes control. When that happens, when people are stuck in this so-called “critter” state, all they can focus on is their own survival.

In other words, everything that makes them good employees – their ability to innovate, to collaborate, to logically think through problems – goes out the window. All decision-making is distilled down to one question: What course of action will keep me safest?

That’s not what you want your people thinking about all day long. Obviously, you need your employees to be in control of their whole brain – especially the parts responsible for the emotional engagement and intelligent decision-making that lead to high performance. Today’s economy demands it. That’s why leaders need to get their teams unstuck and shift them into a “smart state” that allows them to regularly succeed.

In my business, I regularly see clients who master these techniques and quickly see their revenues and profits increase by up to 200% annually. It just goes to show how pervasive fear in the workplace actually is – and how crippling it can be. When companies can get their employees to move from acting in a fearful way to acting in a smart way, the business results are clear.

It’s what happened for Sharon MacDonald, CEO of a company called Interim Furnishings. MacDonald knew she had an employee motivation issue, and boiled it down to them not being empowered to make decisions because they feared repercussions from management. In fact, everything seemed micromanaged and slow in the business – and much of it was because management was too involved every step of the way.

“Now, I think bigger – we will double (or greater) our revenue this year as a result of my increased ability to create new strategies, expand my vision, see into my blind spots,” MacDonald says. “I began to realize that it was time to bring on a seasoned COO, scale up my team, and bring them new resources. We’ve created accountability structures and communication rhythms for my team so everyone is aligned and charging forward. We’re rapidly growing the company in a safe and sane way while preserving and increasing the fun of our culture.”

So how might other leaders inadvertently be holding back their teams and crippling their own corporate cultures? Here are five strategies that many leaders employ that are helping to tamp down business success and corporate innovation – as well as some strategies for how to avoid them.

You Give Them the Answers
If your team is simply following your orders, rather than coming up with their own strategies and taking their own risks, then you’re doing too much of the thinking – and talking. When we consistently tell people what to do instead of encouraging them to figure things out on their own, we develop a company full of order-takers instead of innovators. By training them to always ask if it’s OK to move forward on a project, leaders end up creating a workforce of employees who are perpetually frozen and become somewhat thoughtless.

On the other hand, when good managers engage them in solving problems themselves, they create a sense of safety, belonging and mattering – the three things studies show workers today actually value the most. And of course, we help them develop a sense of ownership that will serve them – and the company – well.

Start inquiring and see what happens. Ask, ‘How would you do it? What impact might your course of action have?’ After you do this a few times with someone, she’ll start expecting you to ask questions instead of give orders. She’ll start coming to you with ideas, seeking feedback and validation. And after a few of these sessions, she’ll come to you saying, ‘I have a plan, here it is, and speak now if you aren’t OK with it.’ Finally, she’ll stop coming to you altogether.

Aim for five inquiries for every order or command you make to employees. You’ll be amazed by what a powerful difference this makes in your employees and your company.

5 Mistakes Leaders Must Avoid

Your Meetings are Scary
Why might a meeting scare your employees? Because confusion and uncertainty create fear. Meetings that are rambling and unfocused send people into the fight-flight-freeze state that ends up paralyzing many organizations. On the other hand, short, high-energy meetings that have a clear agenda keep everyone focused and energized.

The key is to understand the five types of communication: information-sharing, sharing of oneself, debating, requests and promises.

The typical meeting is heavy on the first three and light on the last two. Ideally, you should focus on only enough information-sharing in order to solicit requests from parties who need something and promises from parties who will fill that need. Good leaders need to tune up their communication and the result will be meetings that are efficient and effective. That keeps your team happy and clipping along to accountability and execution – when employees know exactly what’s expected of them because it is clearly established, then they’re more apt to hit their goals and exceed expectations.

You Give Feedback Without Rapport
Imagine for a moment that your employees are antelopes. Because you have authority over them, they quite naturally view you as a lion. It’s not that you’re purposely ruling with teeth and claws. It’s simply their critter brains at work, peering out and “coding” who is a friend and who is a foe. That means unless you can get employees to see you as “just another antelope,” you won’t be able to influence them – they’ll be too busy ensuring their own survival to accept your feedback.

On the contrary, good leaders need to get inside their employees’ heads and truly establish rapport. Here are three quick methods of conversation that can help managers create a trusting culture among their employees:

  1. “What if…”: When you use this preface to an idea/suggestion, you remove ego and reduce emotion. You’re curious – not forcing a position, but kind of scratching your head and pondering. This enables someone to brainstorm more easily with you.
  2. “I need your help.”: When a leader uses this phrase in conversation with an employee, they are enrolling the subordinate person and asking them to rise up and swap roles. This is an especially effective conversation tactic when you want a person to change their behavior or take on more responsibility.
  3. “Would it be helpful if…”: When someone is stuck in a fearful state and spinning or unable to move forward, offering up a solution will help them see a possible course of action or positive outcome.

You’re Too Focused on Problems
Organizations that are run by ineffective leaders tend to be much more focused on problems, rather than creating solutions. This is how the culture of fear is created and cultivated over time – and it’s something that good leaders need to work on constantly to ensure they avoid.

Leaders who see everything as a problem cause anxiety among their teams, which leads to a reaction, which leads to another problem. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. The solution is to switch your focus from problems to outcomes. Instead of asking ‘What’s wrong?’ and ‘Why is this happening?’ you should ask ‘What do we want?’ and ‘How will we create it?’

Being outcome focused feels very different. It’s empowering and energizing and fills employees – and managers, by the way – with confidence. So, how do you make the switch from being problem-focused to outcome-focused? First, shift your conversations with employees so that you’re not always trying to identify the “why” of a situation – as in, why did an order get delivered late – and instead you’re trying to identify “how” to achieve a desired outcome. This is working to both solve a problem and get employees involved in fixing it for the future.

If you do this in every conversation, and teach others to make the shift as well, you will transform your corporate culture because employees will suddenly be vested in actually helping to move the company forward, rather than always fearing that they’ll be caught in the midst of a problem.

You Frame “Change” the Wrong Way
Almost all leaders want – and, probably need – their companies to change at certain points. It’s the only way you can achieve growth in an economy that rewards innovation and creativity. Yet as we all know, people inherently resist change. In fact, according to Rodger Bailey’s groundbreaking work on Meta Programs in the workplace, 27% of Americans can tolerate change only if it is couched in a specific context. That context is called “Sameness with exception.”

What does this mean? Essentially, it means leaders need to present the “change” as merely an improvement to what we are already doing: The bad stuff is being removed, and good stuff is being added. This is by far the best way to package a change message, because it taps into employees’ innate need for sameness at some level. And don’t use the C-word. Say ‘growth’ instead. You’re leading them and the company toward growth – that’s the goal, so keep employees focused on that.

And, by the way, resistance to those changes isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the first step on the organizational path, but once you can clear the resistance hurdle – and it will go fairly quickly when you present change simply as a growth objective – you’re well on your way toward creating a positive culture. Because leaders that mandate change and present employees with all the answers before actually involving them in the process, foster a corporate culture that employees can’t thrive in. They’ll be held back and resistant – exactly the opposite of the engaged and motivated type of people that actually move companies forward today.

Christine Comaford is the author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together. For more information, visit www.christinecomaford.com.