Runners (and postal carriers) will relate to this story.
Recently I went out for a morning run. After a quick warmup I headed out. I love running in my neighborhood because many of the streets have decent sidewalks, lots of trees, and friendly people.
About half way through my route I was interrupted by something that looked like this:
arrrrggghhh, arrrrghhhhh, aaarrrrghghhghgh, arrrrggggggggg!
It came out of nowhere and tried to barrel through the fence on my right. I seriously think he wanted to eat me.
Thankfully the owners had a sturdy fence. My heart was pounding. I was momentarily scared. I was definitely surprised. And I was a little annoyed.
But I wasn’t going to let a stupid dog dictate my running patterns, so I took the same route for several more weeks.
The snowball effect
Each time I ran by I found myself getting more and more agitated. The initial startle was short-lived and laughable, but then it became ridiculous.
I tried “shhhhh-ing” the beast right in its face. After three or four encounters I even tried barking back ferociously. Of course nothing really worked and I probably looked like an insane person, but it was fun.
What does all this have to do with leadership?
I used to have a boss that walked by our desks randomly and asked, “what are you working on?” He had a way of asking that made you feel like you were doing something wrong, even if you weren’t. He was like a prison guard policing the joint.
At first it was startling. Then it became annoying, stressful, and ultimately a distraction.
He was doing the right thing by checking in on his people, but he did it in a way that made the hair on the back of our necks stand up. As time went on we began to dread every time he approached us. Sometimes he would wander over with an innocent question but our guard was already up.
What are you not hearing or seeing?
As leaders, we need to be aware of how our behavior and language impacts our team. Is it possible that you are building up bad will with your team? Could you be setting yourself up to be avoided, or for a blowup?
Think about when you approach them with something new. How do they receive it? How about when you check in on them? What does their body language tell you? Is anyone avoiding you already?
Check your snowball
Each interaction with our teams either draws us closer together or drives us further apart. It can build up into feelings of trust, loyalty, teamwork and love. And it can just as easily grow into distrust, skepticism, fear and hatred.
My feelings toward that dog escalated over time. It started as a small, surprising scare. Then I began to anticipate it. My shoulders got more tense each time I ran by. Eventually, because I have a bit of a mouth, I barked back. A different type of person may have elected to avoid running that way entirely.
As leaders, this same thing can happen with our teams.
Make deposits not withdrawals
It’s up to us to pay attention to the cumulative impact we’re having. Each interaction with a person on our team is an opportunity to progress or regress.
Instead of micromanaging or being overbearing, let’s check in on our teams with an attitude of helpfulness. Instead of chastising and criticizing, let’s be sincere, courageous and humble. How can we help them do their jobs better so they can succeed (so we can succeed)?
Good relationships are the product of tiny positive deposits. Bad relationships are the result of tiny negative withdrawals, accumulated over time.
Great leaders consciously choose which to make.
So which will you choose?