Why Your Best Leadership Tactics Aren’t Working…Yet

It’s my first day on the job and my new boss pulls me aside to give me the savvy-manager spiel we’ve all heard at one point or another.

“Since you’re new, you have a fresh perspective on things around here. If you see something that doesn’t make sense or that you think we should do different, just let us know! We’re always trying to make sure our processes and methods are the best they can be, so definitely speak up if you see an area for improvement.

How empowering! How meaningful! How empathetic! Thanks, boss!

*Flash forward to next staff meeting*

Everyone gathers in the conference room and the boss says we need to brainstorm some tagline ideas for a new project. My heart rate starts to climb like a treadmill when you hold down the speed-up button. As the new “communication kid,” words should be my specialty. And they are, typically.  

But I’m the new guy and my imposter syndrome is turned up to 11. I’m balancing two delicate identities here, my competency as a professional and my contribution as a team member. What I say in this meeting represents how I think, how I present my ideas, how I fit in with the group, how I manage feedback, my risk tolerance, and how comfortable I am being a total fraud in front of all these experts (in case you didn’t know what imposter syndrome is, that’s it).

Fortunately, while all of these thoughts are playing bumper cars in my head, one of our all-stars kicks off the brainstorming. What happened next stayed with me for the rest of my time in that job.

As our all-star lobs suggestion after suggestion into the gauntlet, our boss immediately swats them down with super helpful notes like, too long, too wordy, too vague, meh, no, meh.

Aside from breaking every rule about brainstorming, the cognitive dissonance filling my head is enough to completely drown out the rest of the meeting’s conversation.

Here’s the rub.

My new, empowering, mindful, empathetic boss just told me to speak my mind. The not new, totally qualified, very accomplished, proven all-star just spoke her mind and got publicly rejected by said boss multiple times. The words and the actions weren’t lining up, and it it created a chilling effect for the team over the long term.

So what’s the point

Clearly my new boss thought the savvy leadership advice about leveraging my fresh perspective was smart and helpful. What lacked was the cultural depth to support those seemingly smart and helpful claims.

“Culture” is the buzziest of buzzwords these days but can be hard to understand in any meaningful way. In short, culture is the collection of basic beliefs, assumptions, and values a group uses to communicate and behave. In the previous example, my boss talked about an open and collaborative environment, but this talk had not seeped to the level of basic, shared belief. My boss still wanted a significant level of control over every team function, thus quashing much of the team’s natural potential.

I’m sure you have more self-awareness than to violate the rules of Brainstorming 101, but every leader has their blind spots.

For example, you might have picked up a great leadership hack, tip, trick, or best practice from an article or conference on how to run more efficient meetings. But if you haven’t taken the time to try creating shared values around effective meeting habits, springing this new practice on your coworkers could be disorienting and just as harmful as the problem you’re trying to solve.

While continually improving our professional selves is never a bad thing, the way in which we apply those improvements can be just as important as the improvement, especially in areas of leadership and management.

How do we create cultural depth in our teams?

Author Daniel Coyle focuses on three areas to improve team culture in his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

First, team members have to feel safe.

At Pixar, the first day for new hire is important. But rather than managers talking out of both sides of their mouth like my boss, new hires are told that their input is essential, taken to an in-house movie theater, and then seated in the row specifically reserved for directors to critique one of the company’s latest project. What message does that send to new hires?

It says, we take your contribution so seriously that we are looking for your point of view from day one. The message is clear that everyone is a filmmaker now above all else, as evidenced by one data manager’s reaction, “It’s incredibly helpful. You feel changed.”

Next, be vulnerable.

Vulnerability sends the message that no one is perfect, nor expected to be. This provides teams with the freedom to share thoughts, successes, and failures without fear of rejection (which links back to safety as well). As one Navy SEAL commander says in the book, I screwed up are the most important words any leader can say.

Demonstrating vulnerability as a leader can also drastically reduces inherent self-consciousness for new members. If my boss took an approach of vulnerability rather than high control, my dialed-up insecurity and imposter syndrome would have decreased dramatically, thereby creating a more collaborative environment for the whole team.

Finally, Coyle suggests creating a strong sense of group purpose through shared stories.

While certainly true and incredibly important, this step is a little less self-explanatory. What I would recommend is to start by listening. A lot.

What kinds of things are your team members talking about? What words or phrases keep popping up? What do they tend to talk about that isn’t work related? The answers to these questions will help you discover the positive narratives that will bring the team closer to a unified identity and also the negative narratives that should be eliminated.

For example, some organizations use name labels and catchphrases to promote a sense of shared purpose. Employees at Mars Inc., manufacturer of popular candies like M&M’s and Snickers, call themselves Martians. Amazon, Amazonians. Disney calls everyone Cast Members. Zappos employees use the phrase create a little weirdness. Players on the Philadelphia 76’ers adopted the mantra trust the process in the midst of a rebuilding period.

Shared language is a uniquely powerful tool for deep cultures. While we often say that seeing is believing in order to create buy in, sometimes talking is believing, too.

As a leader, combining safety, vulnerability, and narrative demonstrates to your team that you’re not just interested in lip service. While my boss had good intentions with a first-day pep talk, the effect ultimately fell flat because the culture didn’t support the intent.

When you seek to enact a change in your leadership or a process, examine the soil of your culture first through these three areas. You might find a more important issue to uproot or implement before your tactic can flourish.