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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

This Is Why Your Efforts to Be a Better Boss Are Backfiring

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As an executive coach, I constantly have clients coming to me for techniques to help them build stronger relationships at work. Some want to know how they can better motivate their employees, while others are focused on improving their communication or influence.

But when I’m giving tips, I’m always quick to point out that simply applying a technique isn’t enough to achieve what they want. Often, what’s even more important is how—and why—they do it.

Not sure what I’m talking about? Here’s a pretty common example: I once worked with someone I’ll call Karen (not her actual name) who had the reputation of only being concerned about making money. She pressured her team heavily about the revenue they were generating, worked them around the clock, griped whenever they asked for time off, and didn’t show any interest in them as people.

As you might expect, this approach was pretty demotivating, and her department always had high turnover. She was always having to retrain people and explain her constantly-changing workforce to clients.

Karen realized she needed to do something about this. So, she read an article about how to show people that you’re interested in them and started to put the tips into practice.

On Monday mornings, instead of going straight to her office, she walked around asking people about their weekends. She bought her team food to recognize special occasions. She spent time at the beginning of staff meetings asking people to share something about themselves.

According to what she’d read, Karen was doing all the right things. Did this result in her staff being more motivated? Sadly, not at all. Because although her behavior had changed, it was painfully obvious that her heart wasn’t really in it.

For instance, when her employees would talk about themselves (after she’d asked them to), she often looked distracted and impatient. However, her interest level would quickly perk up when they got on the topic she really wanted to talk about—business. Because her attempts to show she cared weren’t sincere, others could see right through her. And, for some people, this actually made them perceive her even more negatively, because they felt like she was trying to manipulate them.

I’ve found that a lot of well-meaning people jump right into changing their behaviors with the goal of changing others’ perceptions of them. It’s not even malicious—we can just become so accustomed to looking for the most efficient solution to our problems that we treat our self-improvement in the same way. However, when you do this, you miss out on opportunities for deeper, longer-lasting growth and success.

The bottom line is, if you’re looking to get people to like and respect you, you have to put in the work. The key is to ensure that your motivations, beliefs, and internal state are all aligned with the behaviors you’re hoping to exhibit.

How do you do that? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

1. Examine Your Motivations

Anytime you’re hoping to change a behavior at work, be brutally honest with yourself. Are you hoping to change so that you’ll be seen as a better person (or leader or co-worker), or so that you can actually be a better person? If you’re just hoping to change perceptions, realize that you’ll likely be a lot less successful in your efforts.

2. Challenge Your Defensive Thoughts

It’s possible you might be going through the motions rather than making meaningful changes because you’re not fully convinced it’s a real issue. Maybe you got tough feedback and your first instinct was to dismiss it, get defensive, or dwell on how it was delivered rather than actually listen and apply it. Or, maybe you realize that your team is reacting negatively to your management style but you blame them rather than take responsibility.

To avoid this, strive to separate the content of the feedback from your emotional reaction to it. That might mean taking time to process negative feedback and then following up, or asking helpful questions to get more context and a better understanding of what’s going wrong.

Once you’re able to consider criticism more objectively, you might recognize the need to alter some of your habits based on the impact that you’re having on others. This will boost your motivation to change for the right reasons.

3. Get an Accountability Partner

Sometimes, despite the best intentions, your efforts fall short. Like Karen, you could have blind spots about how you’re actually coming across to others.

To guard against this, ask a colleague to act as your accountability partner. Give them permission to hold you to your goals so you don’t get off track, and ask them to give you frank feedback (both positive and corrective) so you can accurately gauge how you’re doing.

The truth is, there’s no quick fix for these kinds of issues. So, be patient with yourself and commit to putting in the work to truly improve (not just to fool people into thinking you have). With consistency, not only will you get there, but you’ll also feel a sense of pride for persisting!

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