Have you ever been hurt by the dismissive tone in your boss’ voice? Or taken aback by specific words a leader used to address a situation? In this Conversations at Work session, we discussed how leaders influence their workplaces with the words they choose to use and the related behaviors that come from those choices.
The words leaders use, and the tone of their voice, make us feel a certain way. Leadership voices also add or detract from culture, relationships, and employee wellbeing. This is a very relevant topic as we’ve seen how leaders can bring together (or divide) communities through witnessing this whole pandemic unfold.
We were joined by Tara Cree, Founder of Cree Leadership Consulting, and Laurie Bennett, Founding Partner of Within People, who shed light on this particular issue with their wealth of insights and experiences.
Together, we explored three aspects of how leadership voices impact us:
Impact on the individual level
How does the language of a good versus bad boss make us feel? In a 1:1 setting, most of us have had to bear with direct, imperative orders or criticism that come across as harsh and critical. This often manifests in employees feeling shut down and unmotivated, surfacing a lack of trust and tension in the relationship.
On the other hand, a great boss serves as a mentor who’s inclusive, open, and makes sure everyone has a voice. Creating an environment where employees can feel heard and acknowledged has a lot to do with how you approach conversations on the individual level.
We learned about distinguishing between intent and impact, and how sometimes it takes open analysis to resolve misunderstandings. When managing difficult dynamics, it’s advised that listeners assume positive intent and try to comprehend different communication styles. Just because a leader prefers to be more straight-forward and comes across as direct, doesn’t mean that they’re intentionally trying to make you feel bad.
Taking time for a two-way discussion about communication is often all you need to align both parties. Plus it demonstrates a psychologically safe environment for employees to speak and act.
As Brené Brown says, “Who you are is how you lead”. Self-awareness is key to realizing the impact you’re making on others, and asking about preferences can ensure you’re contributing and putting in effort towards a harmonious relationship.
Influence on workplace culture
All over the world, leaders are having to change the way they show up to handle constant change. As opposed to a task-driven and output-monitoring approach to traditional leadership, leaders are now having to shift the way they handle things. And they’re being scrutinized on a microscopic level.
There’s the all-knowing authority leader, and on the other hand, the authentic and open leader who admits that they’re also learning as we go. We all agreed that leaders can make or break experiences during a crisis; they can either make you want to keep going along or make employees feel completely demoralized and isolated.
The focus during these times is the delicate demonstration of empathy and honesty. Most crises are hard on our mental health, so connecting more on a personal level and allowing employees to express themselves authentically is so important. It isn’t just about results and being action-oriented anymore.
We observed that a lot of leaders who’re typically results-driven are still very much uncomfortable with the concept of vulnerability; they don’t know exactly how to help people feel more connected and supported, so making that shift of connection and relationships is quite challenging.
The good news is that all of these skills can be learned. Here are some tips from our audience and guests:
Leaders can take some time to reflect on their intention prior to engaging in conversations. They can commit to listening, understanding, and inviting people to be vulnerable and open, but mentally prepare for the uncomfortable details and hardships their employees might be facing.
Leaders should recognize that everything they say impacts an organization’s culture, whether it’s building it up or breaking it down. A true leader should be a cultural ambassador.
Encourage team leads or managers to ask questions that penetrate the surface, such as “How are you doing, really?”. This helps prompt beyond the typical responses like “I’m fine, how about yourself?” and steers the conversation to a deeper level of connection.
Managing online interactions
For many of us, our current situation means that leaders are handling all sorts of challenging communication online. I can’t help but empathize with the people leading all the difficult and emotional conversations that had to happen through Zoom, like the mass layoffs, salary reductions, and company announcements.
Zoom fatigue is a real thing. To capture attention now means having people stare at a screen for extended hours, so meetings are best being direct and shorter as employees are less patient. The challenge is being more intentional with including personal check-ins to engage and build connection.
How can leaders make use of our screen time wisely? We got these pointers from our guests:
Being proactive with conflict and transparency. Ask yourself, what kind of conversations must happen to elevate team relationships?
Create spaces online to intentionally connect, like virtual water cooler chats. Organize 1:1 chats with people so you can have a more intimate conversation.
Seek clarity and ask for feedback as we’re all learning together.
Observe things like body language (even if it’s from the chest up) and don’t be afraid to address difficult subjects in a transparent and safe manner. (If you need help on this front, you’ll want to join our next conversation on September 17!)
There’s a lot that’s different from what we’re used to, and many things to adjust to. But focusing on what’s the same can help you maintain a positive outlook—we’re still seeing each other’s faces and having real-time chats!
All in all, a good boss of today’s age embodies the values of empathy and understanding. A good way to start is to be more intentional and self-aware with purposeful communication.
Check out the full video recording here:
Thank you for your avid support of the Conversations at Work series so far! Register for the next one “Beyond Zoom: have online conversations with impact” on September 17.
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