It’s All About Definitions: a Leader’s Perspective

Image: It’s All About Definitions: a Leader’s Perspective

It is not uncommon for leaders to make judgements about team members. Often they express frustration because they say direct reports are not taking ‘initiative’ or are not ‘proactive’ or they are not ‘strategic’. The challenge is that every time a leader makes a judgement about a team member or the team as a whole, the leader needs to stop and ask themselves a simple question: “What does that word mean?”

Understanding your Own Definitions

To lead effectively, you have to understand yourself and how you evaluate others. So if you think that your team members are not ‘proactive’ enough, then you need to be able to clearly explain what the characteristic of ‘proactive’ means. Are you able to describe the behaviours and actions team members should demonstrate, so that you would assess them as being proactive? The challenge is that often we, as leaders, assume that team members should just know what those terms mean. However, the way one employee might demonstrate being ‘proactive’, given the workplace and his/her role, might be different than how another employee might define it, never mind how the leader would define it.

Breathing the Workplace Air is Not Enough

It’s a natural phenomenon – many organizations and leaders assume that every employee should just get it. However, breathing the air and feeling the pulse of an organization does not mean employees intuitively know how to respond and demonstrate the actions and behaviours that would make them successful in this particular organization. This is especially true as we have come to realise that different organizations have different cultures and different formal and tacit norms. Each time an employee moves to different organization, department and leader, s/he has to come to understand new norms and new definitions.

So what is a leader to do?

First: don’t assume. You can’t assume that everyone operates from the same playbook as you. Different employees might have different definitions of the same characteristic in general, or specifically, in what it means to demonstrate that characteristic in that role.

Second: analyse your own definitions. When you use value judgements – analyse what does that characteristic actually mean for you? Can you describe actions and behaviours that would be a successful demonstration of that characteristic?

Third: communicate. It’s important that you set the context first for your employees. As employees join, pick two or three characteristics that are important to you that they demonstrate. Explain what those characteristics are and give concrete behaviours and actions that are proof of demonstration within that job role.

Forth: confirm and recognize. As you see successful demonstration of those characteristics, give that feedback and thank your team members for learning your playbook.

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