Have you ever read a post by someone in an organisational leadership role praising their team members and acknowledging them as wonderful, talented people? Posts like this are becoming a regular feature across LinkedIn and other social media platforms. Behind the scenes, however, the workplace culture must be healthy for the staff to consider the leader’s comments genuine praise and for relationships between employees and leaders to be strengthened. If poor team culture exists, the impact of that praise can have the opposite effect. In this article, I explain why organisational leaders need to be wary of assuming how their employees feel about them and how to remedy this.
High-performing organisations rely on highly aligned teams with members who share their vision and are fully committed to doing the work required to fulfil team and organisational goals. However, when leaders seem oblivious to how their decisions, actions and words are being received by their team, or when they don't seem interested in how their staff feel about them, team culture starts to erode and employees begin to question their value to the organisation and its leaders. Furthermore, when leaders aren't performing as well as they think, their lack of awareness undermines their leadership and eats away at staff morale and job satisfaction.
In these types of scenarios, public recognition feels inauthentic or even manipulative. It’s as if the employees being praised are expected to fall into line out of gratitude for what feels like an inauthentic pat on the head. When this happens, the outcome is generally the opposite of what the leader dishing out the praise hopes to achieve. Trust levels fall, communication becomes constrained and unreliable, problems are concealed, complaints are not made to the people who can address them, and staff absences and turnover begin to increase. In my 44 years in the community sector, I have seen this happen in my own organisation and in others I have worked with or advised.
Statistics revealed in a recent global survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) of 3,200 workers in more than 40 countries highlight the importance of workplace culture in relation to an organisation’s results. The survey found that 69% of senior leaders credit much of their success during the pandemic to culture and 67% of survey respondents said culture is more important than strategy or operations.
Ineffective ways to deal with workplace issues
Before I describe what I’ve found to be an effective way to deal with workplace issues, let me share a few ways that don’t work based on my experience, either from witnessing them in action or practising them myself.
Turning a blind eye and pretending everything is okay.
Bringing in a cake for morning tea to attempt to ease the pain when the team is dealing with challenging issues.
A compliment and a pat on the shoulder for the individual who is feeling upset.
Delegating the challenging conversation to someone else while hiding in your office and speaking to a friend about how bad you feel.
Inauthentic listening – talking to a team member about a challenging workplace issue while thinking about how uncomfortable the conversation is and wondering how soon it will be over.
I was once on a counselling team where a number of practitioner members were dedicated to a particular model of counselling developed by the team manager’s brother. As the meetings progressed, these practitioners became openly critical of the approaches and models adopted by the other team members, diminishing or even ignoring their contributions to case discussions. It got to the point where the team members not using their preferred counselling model started feeling unvalued and concerned that they were being pushed out of the team. This is where effective leadership could have played a key role. An effective leader would have taken the time to authentically listen to the concerns of those team members and find a resolution that worked for the betterment of the team as a whole. That’s not what happened in this case. The team manager did nothing to stop the behaviour of the self-appointed elite and even reacted to objections as if they were criticisms of her management skills. Members of the out-group began looking for other employment, and the productivity and creativity of the team diminished significantly.
Authentic awareness – the key understanding how your team really feels about you
What can you do if you are an organisational leader who knows your remarks would sound hollow if you publicly complimented your team? Here is what I’ve seen work. Leaders need to develop authentic awareness, an ability to quickly become present to how they are behaving and to be genuinely willing to hear how they are affecting the people around them. In his latest book Human Being, Ashkan Tashvir writes: “Ontologically speaking, awareness is intentional consciousness. More specifically, it’s when you bring your intentional consciousness to certain matters rather than averting your gaze from (ignoring) them”. People who have a healthy relationship with awareness deeply understand their impact on others and the world around them. In my experience, developing authentic awareness is challenging for leaders to achieve independently. That’s because the ways we learn to deal with life become automatic, and often we barely know when we're mid-routine. Even when a leader does catch themselves not thinking about how they're impacting people, to notice isn't enough. A leader’s internal thoughts don't have any effect on an impacted team. They need to see and hear it from us directly.
One key practice can be to start asking for honest feedback at every available opportunity. When you receive it, share what you're hearing so people know you're listening and not hiding what you're hearing. Look into what you're hearing for areas you're resisting. Consider these as signposts to where you need to grow and develop, such as working on your relationship with anxiety, fear or vulnerability. Be honest with yourself. Have you been paying any attention to the impact you’ve been having on your people? Are you avoiding thinking about it because you don’t know what to do? As leaders, we can waste golden opportunities to build team culture by dealing ineffectively with the impacts of our actions, like delivering empty praise or turning a blind eye to problems. Being inauthentic and unaware of the impact of our actions leaves teams feeling undervalued and disengaged. We need to develop the authentic awareness to be genuinely present to our people and really hear how we’re affecting them. Then we must commit to using that information to grow and develop, just as we want our employees to do when we need to critique aspects of their work. Show your staff you really want to know and be rewarded over time with better workplace culture.