Want more engaged employees? Stop being such an optimist…
A decade of research shows why a sunny outlook may not be the best way to lead your employees.
Decades ago, when I was just beginning my journey as a management consultant, I had the good fortune to work with Liz Wiseman, who at the time was the Director of Learning and Development for Oracle. Since then she has gone on to found The Wiseman Group and author several best-selling books including the newly released 2nd edition of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.
One of the findings of Liz’s years of research is that just because a leader possesses a trait in abundance doesn’t mean that it’s contagious and that others around them pick it up in a positive way.
Are you the iconic optimistic leader?
One example Wiseman cites is the iconic optimistic leader. You know them — the positive can-do people who see possibilities and paths forward everywhere. These cheerful C-suite executives recognize the capability in others and themselves at every turn. Even when they take on something hard, they bring a can-do attitude in abundance.
“It’s like wearing one of those rubber wristbands, only it says, ‘I can do hard things,'” jokes Wiseman. “This observation comes not only from my years of research, but also from looking in the mirror,” says Wiseman.
A self-described “raging optimist,” Wiseman struggles with her own positivity. “I don’t have a lack of optimism; instead I struggle with too much,” explains Wiseman. She goes on to explain that her personal awareness about this dynamic came to her by surprise and with a sting. Here’s the story she tells…
“I’m working with a colleague on writing an article on a pretty tough piece of research and analysis for a prestigious academic journal. Towards the end of the project, my colleague pulls me aside and says, ‘Liz, I need you to stop saying that thing you say all the time.’ ‘What thing?’ I ask him. I really did not know what he was talking about.
“‘You say it all the time,’ he said. ‘It usually goes, “Hey, we can do this. We’ve got this.”‘
“Recognizing my own optimism, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I do say that all the time.’ ‘That is my way of saying that we’re smart and we can figure this out, that I have this belief in what we can do,’ I explain to him.
“‘Well, I need you to stop saying it.’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘This is good leadership. Optimism, we need that just to survive,’ I say. ‘The reason I need you to stop saying that is because what we are doing is hard; it’s really hard, Liz, and as my manager, I need you to acknowledge it.’
“In that moment I realized that my can-do, get-it-done personal brand was setting a pace that was making it really hard for other people to keep up with me.
“I came to the conclusion that sometimes my optimism — which is a gift — can also translate into processing a little too fast for other people. I need to give them time to process at their own speed.”
Dispense your executive presence in small but intense doses.
That personal experience, combined with her research and work with leaders, has led Wiseman to the conclusion that the really great leaders know how to dispense their executive presence in small, but intense, doses.
“When a leader is always on, they become white noise,” says Wiseman. That’s one of the ways executives end up as what Wiseman calls “accidental diminishers.” These are leaders who have an intention for their staff to be empowered but are so whipped up with positive energy all the time, they end up diminishing those around them. “They think their energy is infectious, but not only are they sucking up all the oxygen in the room, they are getting tuned out,” says Wiseman. “People around them are like, ‘You’re killing me with your energy. I’m dying here.'”
So what’s the enthusiastic and eager executive to do? Wiseman suggests two almost ridiculously easy (but highly effective) ways to rein in your energy, without losing your optimistic edge.
Practice the five-second employee rule.
After you ask a question, wait five seconds to give the person a chance to think. For many leaders, when no one answers immediately, the tendency is to want to answer themselves. Don’t. Some people are fast witted, quick to process and quick to answer, but not everyone. Not all forms of intelligence manifest themselves in speed.
Avoid rapid response.
Optimistic leaders are often quick to respond immediately to situations and take action, even if someone else on their team could handle it. Except in a case of immediate required response, try taking a hands-off stance for 24 hours.
In both these cases, it’s the power of the pause that creates the opportunity. It gives other people, who may not be so quick on the draw, a chance to comfortably formulate opinions and bring their own brand of optimism to the party — even if it’s a few decibel lower than yours.
By Karen Tiber Leland
President, Sterling Marketing Group@KarenFLeland
Contact Peta at Flexiforce to learn how we can help you with engaging employees…