Three Red Flags that Signal Your Leadership Interactions are Floundering

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Workplace Issues

You know those nagging little thoughts or feelings you have sometimes?  Let’s say one of your direct reports says something to you, but the vibe of the exchange makes you wonder if there really is something else going on.

This can be frustrating to say the least.  At its worst it can be a sign of a dynamic that is potentially destructive to the goals of the organization you serve, the working relationships you have with those you lead, and your success.

Here are some flags to look for, what they could mean, and how to begin to remedy the situation.

1 – The people around you are answering your questions with vague, non-committal language.

Are they just telling you what you want to hear?  Are they afraid you are going kill the messenger or overreact?  Or is it because they don’t care and don’t want the hassle of giving the “wrong” answer.

Either way, you have work to do.  You can tell people that you want to them to speak freely, but you have to prove it.  Create opportunities for them to feel safe in being up-front with you. Don’t start with the most “loaded” topic.

1a – You haven’t heard any bad news lately.

This is a subtle version of flag #1. It could be that the engine of your organization is running on all cylinders.  On the other hand, are they buffering you from challenges you really should know about?

I’m not suggesting looking for trouble, but if things seem to be going a little too well, check your own behavior (see point 1). It’s also helpful to ask a truly trusted peer or confidante to weigh in and help you strategize.

2 – It seems your direct reports come to you having scripted the discussion.

One obvious giveaway – the person in front of you is working from notes.  Less obvious – they seem stilted in their delivery.  This may mean:

  • They’re merely nervous.
  • They have no idea what to expect from you.
  • They know exactly what to expect from you.

Whatever the case is, when you see this, one option is to let it ride. While the two of you are talking, monitor the effect of your behavior and words.  When their nervousness has passed, ask if there is anything you can do to make this type of conversation easier next time.

3 – You’re the only one talking in staff meetings.

You’ve had the boss who likes to hear herself talk.  Or the one who isn’t responsive when their staff members do speak.  Or the one who is uncomfortable with silence and doesn’t wait long enough for people to respond. There are a myriad of explanations.

If you sincerely want more interaction, design it in.  Don’t overwhelm them with your newfound commitment to interaction, but pick at least one question or topic that you really want them engaged in and:

  • Go around the room for responses.  (See bonus tip below.)
  • Don’t let people get by with saying, “what she said.”
  • Ask follow-up questions to draw them out.

Bonus tip: As a leader of a meeting, if you ask a question and you get no response, ask people to take a minute to think about a response and jot it down.  Try this first with a question that requires a little thought.

Does any of this make you uncomfortable?  The more comfortable you are with learning about the impact of your interactions and with trying new things, the more comfortable others will be with you.  Your leadership interactions will be on the upswing.

What tactics do you use to keep your interactions as a leader open and free-flowing?

Image: Flickr Contributor Tuchodi / CC 2.0

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About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers: http://www.reimaginework.com/LCG/  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Lyn Boyer  |  15 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Mary, Thank you for some very interesting ideas. You have captured some of the most important flags for leaders. When leaders sail along with few complaints or things seem to be going exceptionally well, it is very difficult to see that is a sign of problems rather than an indication of superior leadership skills. I suppose most of us prefer the later. I would be interested in a discussion about how to avoid that assumption without looking for problems when none may exist.

Mary C Schaefer  |  16 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Hi Lyn. Thanks for your comments. Re: this comment specifically, what are your initial thoughts?

“I would be interested in a discussion about how to avoid that assumption without looking for problems when none may exist.”

Lyn Boyer  |  17 Feb 2013  | 

When I wrote the question, I was thinking about procedures that could be in place to avoid the flags but also to allow a leader to know problems exist. With the stresses of a leader’s life, avoiding the nagging feeling that something could be missing takes it toll. I like Chad’s suggestions below. They are helpful. I believe having other ongoing processes or groups in place to survey, analyze and assess conditions and potential problems may also be helpful. Being sure relationships are strong and people feel safe to discuss concerns will also avoid that nagging feeling. I am sure there are many other ideas.

Mary C Schaefer  |  17 Feb 2013  | 

Excellent ideas, Lyn. Thanks so much for adding them.

Chad Balthrop  |  16 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Hey Mary,

Thanks for the post. We’ve likely all seen the effects of floundering leadership, but missed the red flags that showed us we were headed there. Thanks for highlighting them.

I tell our staff that regular staff meetings are to:

1. Make decisions about things that must be decided together.
2. Ask and answer questions relevant to projects and personnel that affect a majority of the people in the meeting.
3. Communicate information that can’t be more efficiently communicated with everyone in any other way.

This helps keep these meetings concise, relevant and focused.

Thx, God bless,

Mary C Schaefer  |  16 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Love those meeting tips, Chad. If you haven’t already, you should share those widely. Many people would thank you :)

Karin Hurt  |  16 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Mary, a great list. Yes, I always get nervous when I haven’t heard any bad news in a while. I have also seen situations where leaders encourage their team to shelter those above from the truth. I call this diaper genie feedback.

Mary C Schaefer  |  16 Feb 2013  |  Reply

I don’t think I will ever forget the phrase, “diaper genie feedback,” Karin. Perfect! Thanks for commenting.

Mike Henry  |  17 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Great post Mary. Much appreciated. I especially like the red flag that you’re not hearing any bad news. Another version of #1 is that you never hear anything you disagree with. If people have freedom of movement, then I’m bound to hear things that I don’t necessarily want to hear. It isn’t just bad news, it’s any idea. Thanks again for the great post! Mike…

Mary C Schaefer  |  17 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Good point, Mike. I think we can just keep adding to this list.

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