When you’re driving down the road and see those flashing blue lights in your rearview mirror, what’s the first thought that pops into your mind? If you’re like most people, you get an uneasy feeling in your stomach and think, “Uh-oh. What did I do?” The thought that the police officer might be pulling you over to tell you something simple, such as that your taillight is out, rarely crosses your mind. That’s because when a person of authority suddenly makes an appearance or asserts him/herself, it’s human nature for those around that person to have a fear response triggered and to jump to the worst case scenario, as in, “I did something wrong.”
If you’re a leader, chances are your staff feels that same status differential with you, and they translate it as fear. So when you casually ask a staff member, “Can you please come to my office for a moment?” Or when you’re in a meeting and defensively respond to an employee’s comments with, “But that’s not my understanding of things,” Or when you repeatedly interrupt your staff member as they are speaking, you’re triggering the fear response in the person, just as the flashing blue lights in the rearview mirror do.
While you might think that having people fear you to some degree is good, fear in a relationship actually has many negative effects. In fact, research shows that when people are operating in fear, it impairs their analytical thinking skills, decreases their creative insight and reduces their problem solving abilities—the exact things workplaces need to succeed in today’s marketplace. So even though you likely don’t walk around basking in your authority and you don’t consciously exert your power over people, your employees feel it in all the seemingly simple things you do each day.
If you want your staff to respect your authority rather than fear it, following are some suggestions for making sure every interaction with them is a positive one.
Headline Your Requests
Because your mind is likely jumping from one topic to the next, it’s easy to get trapped in the business of the day and not realize the unintended consequences of a simple question. For example, when you ask an employee, “Can you please come to my office for a moment?” you probably believe it’s nothing more than an innocuous request. But the employee you’re speaking to translates your words and rushed tone as, “Oh no! What did I do? Am I in trouble?”
To ensure this doesn’t happen, take a few seconds to headline your requests. For example, before saying the fear-inducing, “Can you come to my office for a moment,” give a little headline to add context to your request, as in, “Chris, I’d like to get your feedback on something. Can you come to my office for a moment?” Notice how those few words of clarification change the implied context of the request and ease any fears the employee may have.
Leaders are supposed to challenge their staff. That’s often what prompts new ideas and bold solutions. The key is to challenge people in a positive, motivating way rather than to squelch their creativity or have them fear your pushback. So instead of challenging people with defensive questions like, “Why did you do that?” or with intimidating “but” statements like, “Yes, but that’s not my understanding of the issue,” get in the habit of asking three open-ended questions before you advocate your point of view.
Asking open-ended questions (those that elicit something other than a “yes” or “no” reply), makes the person you’re speaking with feel valuable and that he or she has important insights. This alone helps to create an environment of collaboration, trust and respect, which naturally reduces any defensiveness.
The two most powerful types of open-ended questions to ask are “what” and “how” questions. For example, asking in a neutral tone, “What evidence do you have to support this conclusion?” “What process did you engage in?” and “How would you describe your philosophy on this?” prompts the employee to reflect on the situation and brings forth the most useful information. Additionally, by asking three questions rather than one or two, you’re showing more than a superficial interest in the other person’s perspective.
Set Ground Rules Before the Conversation
One of the most common ways leaders unknowingly assert their dominance over employees is by interrupting people when they speak. Since most employees want to please the boss, they allow the interruption to derail the conversation and they hold back on ideas.
Of course, leaders usually interrupt because others are going on too long and they just don’t have the patience. Dominance and fear are the furthest things from their mind. To alleviate this fear-inducing habit, set the ground rules for how you work best. If you want people to get to the point and only discuss the pertinent details, tell them. For example, you could say, “We only have an hour here. My request is that when you are reporting, be succinct. Start with what the conclusion is and then we can ask questions and look into details.” When you make requests for how you want the information, the need to interrupt decreases. Additionally, your employees will appreciate knowing your wishes and will eagerly accommodate them.
Be a Fearless Leader
Leaders have a tremendous impact on their employees’ lives—financially, emotionally and mentally. When you take the steps to make sure your impact is one that enhances the workplace rather than instills fear in it, you’ll create an organizational culture that breeds mutual respect, creativity and collaboration. That’s the hallmark of a true leader.