Your name is Ted and you have finally arrived! Years of hard work climbing the ladder have finally paid off in a leadership position. Easy street lies ahead as you build an empire on the backs of the underlings who are now yours to command. You aren’t allowed to call them your slaves, but you are clear that they are here to serve your great and intelligent plan. You dictate that plan to all, and quickly fire anybody who questions or disagrees. Ah yes, this feels like success!
Have you ever known a Ted? It seems like a joke, and this is certainly a hyperbolic example, but most of us have worked for somebody like him. A ‘leader’ who doesn’t listen, doesn’t pay attention to their employees, doesn’t understand the difficulty of what they ask others to do, or doesn’t care what it takes to make it happen. How fun is it, being one of the underlings for these bosses? Between trying to anticipate their crazy mood swings, walking on eggshells all the time, and not ever really understanding why you haven’t quit yet, these people are not a lot of fun to be around.
So what happened? How did Ted turn into this monster? You certainly can’t ask him, and the people in your department are mostly checked out, wanting to complain about Ted and talk about how much they wish they could be a stay-at-home hamster owner. Worse yet – you just got a promotion, and you want to make sure you never become like Ted!
It turns out that Ted fell into the significance trap.
It happens to a lot of us (yes I’ve found myself in the trap on occasion as well). Significance is one of the core personality needs of humans. We all need to feel significant, wanted, special, like we have meaning – this is totally natural. But most of us don’t get coached on how to live into that significance in a leadership role. Especially in the business world, most companies are so concerned with teaching their newly promoted folks the tasks of the new role, that they forget to talk about what leadership actually is and how to do it.
People get stuck in the significance trap and have a lot of trouble getting out. They find themselves in a now-underperforming department or team, surrounded by people who only give them ‘yes-boss’ feedback for fear of being disciplined. They end up feeling like they have to make all the decisions themselves, have to babysit the employees, and therefore have to micro-manage many aspects of the duties they are giving to other people. Can you imagine how frustrating this is for everybody involved?
So how do we avoid it? In my experience, there are three key ways that we can avoid falling into the significance trap. These can also be used to dig ourselves out of it if we are already there.
Take 20 minutes every day to ask yourself some important questions. Questions like:
“What is our current goal in my department/team/company?”
“What is my role as the leader?”
“How am I empowering my employees/team?”
“What would happen if I disappeared for a week?”
“What does my team know how to handle and what don’t they know?”
If you can create a little space between you and the craziness of the job every day then you can far better understand the dynamics that are swirling around you, anticipate problems before they arrive, and be responsive to the needs of the company, the team, and yourself. This is a great time to check in about how well you are taking care of yourself as well. Are you sleeping enough, are you incredibly overwhelmed, are you walking on eggshells with your bosses?
As a leader, the people you surround yourself with are paramount to success. If you can create a community where honest feedback is encouraged, employees feel safe, and where they feel significant as well then you will find your day to day life far easier to navigate.
The first step to connecting is to have ongoing conversations with your team. Get to know each member on a personal level. If your rockstar employee suddenly starts underperforming it might not be that he hates his job, but that his marriage is rocky right now and he isn’t sleeping at night. Find out what motivates each employee, what they enjoy at work, what they want to learn to do, and at least a little bit about who they are outside of the office. Are they interested in becoming leaders? Are they a wizard at something that you think the department needs? Identify some strengths and weaknesses here.Next – connect with the team. Let everybody know what the current drive is, take the time to explain why. Make sure everybody knows their role and the importance of that role (because they need to feel significant too). Make it okay for them to ask questions and offer suggestions. Team meetings don’t have to be a thing to dread throughout the week, they can be a place to create community and surety. Team cohesiveness comes from the leader. Your job is to make all of your employees into as big of superstars as they are willing to be.
As the leader, everybody pays attention to how you act. If you are late to work – they will know that it is okay to be late for work. If you do shoddy work, they will know that they can do shoddy work. Leadership means having to do it all to the same level (or better) than you want others to do it. Is your team struggling with communicating? Look in a mirror – how high are you setting the bar for communication? This takes incredible amounts of reflection, to be able to see yourself clearly so that you can be the leader that your department needs, and also practice. Don’t worry if you mess it up – but make sure that you own those mess ups with the team and let them see that you are working hard to rectify your short-comings. In short: be the leader that you wish you had working above you.
As with all things, there is no quick way to success. All of these steps will take time and energy from you, the leader. If you’ve been in the significance trap, don’t expect your employees to jump for joy when you go through these steps; expect them to eye you with suspicion (because – honestly – it looks like a trap to them). It is incredibly worth it though.
For just a moment, zoom out in your mind and think about working in a department that is highly effective, and feels like a team. A team where you don’t have to manage everybody else’s work, where people are concerned and caring about making the best work possible. Do you think you’ll save more time and energy in the long run by stepping out of that significance trap than you’ll spend reflecting, connecting, and modeling? What do you have to gain from trying?