One of the most pervasive and vexing problems in organizations is that most leaders need a mirror to recognize the damage they are doing on a daily basis.
When leaders are blind to the trust withdrawals they make, there is little opportunity to create an environment of high trust. The problem is now more acute as people are running out of patience with all the stresses due to the pandemic.
I believe trust is the most critical element for any group, so this problem of leadership blindness holds back many organizations. Is there a way out of this conundrum? I think there is.
Leaders Need a Mirror
What we need is a kind of “mirror” for leaders so they can see their own contribution to the problems that they desperately want to solve. If such a mirror existed, how would we get a leader to use it daily?
Brilliant leaders have already found the ability to see their own contribution to lower trust, and they are able to change things themselves. Unfortunately, the world is not full of brilliant leaders, so the average ones, and especially the poor ones, need some assistance. Even brilliant leaders have blind spots and flaws.
We have ruled out the individual leader as the person who has the ability to see his or her contribution to a poor culture, so it must fall to some other person or force to do it. In the mind of most leaders, things would improve if only “they” (other people) would be more dedicated, smart, open, cooperative, cheerful, trustworthy, and a thousand other things.
If we asked a random person from the organization to step up and be a sounding board for the leader, it would not work. That person is part of the problem, in the leader’s opinion, so the information brought by the individual would fall on deaf and annoyed ears.
Use a Mirror Coach
A better approach would be to identify a “Mirror Coach.” This is an individual whom this leader really does trust. (There is always someone.) This person is the key to the leader beginning to see that she frequently is operating at cross purposes to her intent.
In most cases, leaders want higher productivity, greater teamwork, people showing initiative, good attitudes, a pleasant place to work, etc., but on a daily basis they do things that take the organization 180 degrees in the wrong direction, especially for people working remotely.
Once a leader begins to understand this paradox and is willing to ask, “What do I need to change in my own behaviors to have the kind of results I want from my team?” the door is open to better leadership.
There are four steps to create an effective Mirror Coach for leaders:
- Identify the right person
Identify an individual who has enough purchasing power with the leader to allow a series of frank conversations. The leader must not view this person as the source of the problem. It might be a kindred spirit within the organization to whom the leader has confided in the past.
It could be the leader’s own manager, if that person is not clueless also. It could be a coach or outside mentor who comes in to help clarify improvement opportunities. It really does not matter where this person comes from, as long as he or she has the ear and trust of the leader to discuss some uncomfortable topics without rejection. A trained coach is often the best solution here.
- Get the person to agree
The appointed individual needs to understand the peril of the assignment. There is already some rapport established with the leader, and the education process requires some frank discussions that are not comfortable. Change is difficult.
The Mirror Coach must honestly believe that he or she is there to provide a crucial service to help the leader grow. Sure, there are going to be some tense moments, but if a stronger and more healthy organization is the result, the Mirror Coach can visualize the role as vital to the future of the organization as to the leader. It is an ultimate challenge.
- Getting the leader ready to listen
This step is the hardest part of the process. The leader has believed for a long time that the problems reside with “them,” not “me,” so focusing energy on “how I can change my own behaviors” will feel misdirected. It is an act of faith to take the first step.
One way to enable helpful dialog is to have the leader verbalize how things could be better for the organization. Bring in a coach who can work with the senior team (not just the boss) in a series of “lunch and learn” sessions. This strategy works in a hybrid situation. Eventually, the coach will earn the trust of the leader and gain the purchasing power to have some constructive, albeit difficult, conversations.
Once a leader is willing to get help in the form of a Mirror Coach, something magical happens. The stark realization of the unsuccessful nature of what has transpired up to now is a good place to start. Also, the leader may have associates or mentors outside the organization who can advocate that a different approach is worth a shot.
- Reinforcing the leader for making behavior changes
By taking some baby steps to modify behaviors, the leader will be showing a different side, and the people in the organization usually will react very positively to it. They have been living in a kind of tyranny for so long, any movement in a positive direction produces endorphins of positive energy that will be obvious to the leader. Continual reinforcement of the small behavioral changes will persuade the leader to keep the momentum going.
After some initial cautious steps, the changes will come more easily. The process becomes self-sustaining rather quickly. There is one caution during this transformation.
The behavioral changes needed to sustain a culture of higher trust likely are not the natural style for the leader, at least in the beginning. There will be some relapses and false steps along the way. The general population and the Mirror Coach must not lose faith when the leader hits a speed bump. It is important to put any missteps into the perspective of what was already gained in order to recapture forward momentum.
Progress in the leader’s ability to see the trust problems as rooted in his or her own behaviors defuses the culture of blame. The leader no longer sees workers as the primary source of problems. While this may be unsettling at first, it is really liberating for the organization because significant progress toward higher trust is apparent every day, and productivity will skyrocket.
Having a Mirror Coach helps the leader shift focus from blame to one of behavior modification. This change creates more objectivity because the emphasis is on understanding cause and effect rather than witch hunting. The new habits will allow more heart-based communications to occur in contrast to the prior one-way directional communications. The leader will learn to relax and have more fun at work while getting much more accomplished.
Everyone in the organization stands to benefit from a better environment, so everyone needs to be a part of the solution. With care and patience, the entire team can create a culture where behaviors support the values and vision, so it becomes a win, win, win. The organization wins due to better performance, the workers win due to fewer conflicts, and finally, the leader wins because he or she reaches the challenging goals more quickly and with less turmoil.
Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations.