Historically, those in positions of authority were revered simply because they occupied the position. Esteemed for their long, loyal careers, these executives were often readily trusted—some even became respected as super-human—and the reverence became misguided and distorted. The truth is that leaders then, were no less fallible than they are today. Whether or not they were as corrupt as the spate of recent failures suggests leaders are today, may never be known. However, we do know that the residual impact of widespread ethical and moral failure has fueled a high degree of cynicism. Most leaders are viewed suspiciously, and proving their trustworthiness has become increasingly difficult.
Engaged followers have grown intolerant of substandard executive leadership over the last two decades, and have responded by raising the expected-performance bar significantly. Our research suggests that in this environment with such elevated standards, leading others has become one of the most challenging and unpleasant aspects of executive leadership. Scrutiny from so many directions imposes an unrelenting pressure on leaders to contort themselves into infallible, godlike creatures.
Certainly, followers don’t readily admit to having these expectations, but their behavior and responses to their leaders’ shortcomings tell a different story. Two-thirds of our executive respondents lament they spend too much time dealing with the performance shortfalls of others while more than half feel that they are held accountable for problems outside of their control.
Unrealistic expectations come from many directions. However, your relationship with direct reports can be particularly challenging since failure here has potentially career-derailing implications.
Do own your shortcomings
Deep down, followers need to know that you know you are flawed. Your best offense against unrealistic expectations is to be upfront with your followers about what they can expect from you—your strengths and weaknesses. Invite their feedback, and encourage them to come to you directly when one of your weaknesses is problematic for them, or is getting in the way of their work or relationship with you. Before they come to expect perfection, assure them that they will more regularly experience your imperfection.
Apologize early and often when you make a mistake, and show your followers grace when they slip-up. Establishing an environment of mutual support when things don’t go well actually raises the bar on performance and accountability. When people know they have the freedom to fail, they are far more likely to avoid it. Conversely, when they fear failure, they are more likely to run headlong into it and resent you for any of your shortcomings.
Do clarify the rules at the outset
Followers want to know the rules, and to know you care when the rules are broken. If they understand at the outset what the standards are, and how rewards will be distributed, they will see there is no capriciousness in your decision making. They also want to know that you understand the realities of organizational injustices, and will advocate for them—have their back—within the broader system.
Let those you lead know when you become aware of both systemic injustices as well as episodic ones. When someone in the organization is behaving in ways that undermine, disrespect, or disadvantage those you lead, be very clear and swift in stopping it, no matter who it is—especially if it’s your boss. Resist the impetus to lower your standards of behavior to match the unjust behavior. Your advocacy on behalf of those feeling its effects sends a powerful message about your standards of organizational justice. Even if you don’t prevail, those you lead will know you are their advocate.
Do become steady and predictable in decision making
Followers want a sense of predictability when decisions are made. They want to know your analytical process, your moral compass, and your trade-off criteria—especially when making tough calls. They want the ability to forecast with reasonable accuracy how you will behave in a given situation. When they can’t predict, it becomes easy to assume that you are hiding something. This leads them to fear your political motives, question who may have curried favor with you, wonder about the disaster you are working privately to stem, or what plot you are devising against them or another organizational nemesis.
Discourage such ‘Kremlin watching’ by providing a consistent and clear approach to decision making that sustains followers’ confidence by allowing them to participate and even own decision where warranted, and, where not, for them to reasonably forecast how you will lead them through critical decision points.
Do make yourself reliably accessible
Followers want reliability. They must be confident that when they have problems, you’ll be there to offer perspective and help them find solutions. When they run into a roadblock, they should know you’ll run interference if necessary. While the amount of time you spend doing these things will vary by person, when followers conclude that you aren’t reliable, the amount of time you don’t spend with them becomes the issue.
You can’t and shouldn’t become everyone’s “answer ATM.” You need to build self-sufficiency within those you lead, and knowing you are there as a resource to guide, support, roll up your sleeves, challenge, admonish, and just plain help. This bolsters their trust in your leadership and helps them more effectively decide when and how to engage you most effectively.
Do not reinforce the expectation of perfection
Many executives struggle to accept their own humanity which reinforces an impossible standard. When you act is if you are, or should be perfect, eventually you convince others to require it from you. Perfectionism becomes a painful, self-inflicted wound for executives who won’t tolerate anything less from themselves and others. Consequently, followers, on whom those standards are imposed, typically revolt and withdraw their support. If you are waiting to pounce on the slightest hint of deficiency, abused followers who are starved of acknowledgement of their own contribution and giftedness give no room for their leader to misstep. This becomes a downward spiral.
Executives, fearing criticism or exposure of their imperfections, work to hide their humanity, perpetuating the illusion of infallibility. Followers, weary of the unscrupulous behaviors they have seen and come to expect of leaders, see the inherent hypocrisy and take the first exit.
Do not give into the expectation for equal treatment
When allocating resources—physical, financial, or human—you will be scrutinized for “fairness” in very unfair ways. Unfortunately, many start from the expectation that they will get screwed, and even carry a chip on their shoulder, especially when it comes to an evaluation of their contribution and decisions about their compensation and careers. Organizational injustice is in the eye of the beholder, and frequently, those who play the “that’s not fair” card lack all of the facts. Part of your challenge is that you can’t always share all of the facts; instead, you must distinguish the difference between equity and equality at the very outset.
People may say they want equity, but most often what they mean is equality. In truth, however, people are not all equal—not every contribution holds the same value. It is better to be very clear from the beginning that disproportionate effort, performance, and results will get disproportionate rewards, resources, and opportunities. When executives try to neutralize these differences by creating the appearance of “treating everyone the same,” they provoke the very anxieties they were trying to allay because people instinctively know such equality to be false.
Do not equivocate on your approach to decision making
Executives who retain or relinquish too much control over decision making—or worse, do neither and stifle it all together—create chaos. In the absence of clear decision rights or criteria, followers vie for decisions they feel they should make, push unwanted decision-making back up to executives, and then complain because no one seems to be making any decisions. Leaders who fail to provide sufficient transparency into the governance of decision making are at risk for stalling under the mired confusion they create.
Declaring at the outset the criteria you intend to use and how you will make decisions will go a long way toward building support. While many executives fear being overly declarative, the fact is that followers find it liberating. And, contrary to popular organizational mythology, followers do not expect to be involved in every single decision that touches them. In fact, it would be cruel to expect them to participate in decisions they are neither equipped nor experienced enough to make.
Do not distance yourself too far
Followers who are over-dependent on executives often burden them with too many lower-level issues and prevent them from effectively executing their strategic-system work. Conversely, executives also handicap the system when they become inaccessible: followers can’t get questions answered, set an appointment, or get necessary responses back becomes nearly impossible. While there is no formula to determine exactly how much time should be made available to others, recognize you’ll never feel you have enough of it to give, and they’ll likely never feel they get enough of it from you.
So setting that dilemma aside, the challenge is how to negotiate with each of your followers what exactly they need and how best to provide it. Don’t let militant gatekeepers prevent access to you, and don’t offer unlimited access either. Set clear boundaries and enforce with followers the need to work within them. And maximize the impact of your time with the creative use of governance that gets teams of people access to you versus a series of one-on-one conversations.
The executive stage has become a dangerous high-wire act, and certainly your performance will be judged against standards you’ve not been held to before. Contending with the reality of followers’ expectations won’t always feel rational, but the more you resist them, the more you will struggle. By exploring what followers really want you will become better equipped to proactively make and keep appropriate promises, and set healthy expectations with those you lead from the outset.
Anchoring yourself with a set of principles and values that aren’t vulnerable to the sometimes fickle, unpredictable needs of followers. Knowing yourself well—your character, your strengths, your flat sides, your passions, and possessing a genuine desire to make a difference—will help you weather the sometimes overly harsh blows dealt by followers through stringent and unrealistic expectations.
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