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Why leaders fail to understand

I’ve long suspected that I wasn’t alone in the experience of having someone tell me they understood a challenge I was facing when I was certain they, in fact, had NO understanding of that challenge. This HBR post that counsels mentors to stop saying, “I understand” gets to the heart of some behaviors that mentors and leaders may demonstrate that aren’t actually helpful to those in their care. I do want to peel this back a little bit further, thinking about why a mentor or leader would engage in the placating behaviors that the authors describe.

  • They’re scared of feelings– We’re not supposed to have feelings at work, right? Wrong. We’re human, and we are always going to have feelings; being emotionally intelligent requires us to acknowledge, understand, and manage those feelings. Feelings can be Big and Scary; No Hard Feelings is both an excellent Avett Brothers song, and the title of a book from last year that guides us to manage feelings effectively in the workplace. For more on the book (and a sample of the great cartoons it contains), this NPR Lifekit podcast is helpful.
  • They are avoidant of conflict/ dissent- For those who haven’t already learned this lesson, conflict done well can be healthy, and it makes teams stronger. Yes, you read that correctly. Absence of conflict means that new ideas aren’t even being heard or considered, and that’s not helpful for growth and innovation. Much like feelings, conflict seems scary to some, yet fostering respectful, goal-directed dissent within a team is a hallmark of many of the best leaders I’ve worked with. Disagreement does not equate with disrespect.
  • They’re “fake listening”- We’ve all been guilty of this one, be it at work or at home. Sometimes we’re simply distracted. Other times it’s because we’re pretty certain we already know what the speaker is going to say. Deep listening from a place of curiosity, meaning listening to understand, is critical. Making time to do this well is important for fostering trust. And leaders, if you think that those you’re leading can’t tell when you’re fake listening, you have a surprise coming your way.
  • They simply don’t care– Admittedly, this is the least charitable interpretation of placating behaviors, which is why I placed it last. We want to believe that leaders and mentors are invested in the growth and development of their charges and in the improvement of their teams. And yet…we’ve all seen those times when their behavior indicates they’re just not invested. These are leaders/ mentors to be avoided, in case you had any doubt. I recognize that a boss or mentor isn’t in the business of being a best friend and that leaders often have to make unpopular choices. Those things are entirely different than a sheer absence of empathy.

Advice? So show up, be curious, and listen to truly understand. And most importantly, recognize that the team members bringing challenges forward are typically doing it with the goal of making things better for everyone.