Thursday, February 28, 2013

Trap #6 – Underestimating How Much You Are Being Watched

Everyone watches what you do. That isn’t an ego trip; it’s a fact. As leader of the organization, your behavior—for good or for ill—is the primary example by which everyone else acts. People will follow the leader’s manners, conduct, even writing or presentation style. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. But it’s a bad thing to underestimate it. If there is something you aren’t happy about in your organization, it’s time to hold up a mirror. In what ways are your people copying your own behaviors? Is it time to shift what you do? Don’t underestimate the power of the change, from the top down.

 Whether it’s the time you arrive at work, the way you sign off your emails, or the accolades you give or neglect to give to team members at the year-end party, your employees are watching you. While many leaders know in a general sense that others are observing and reacting to them, they are often surprised at the degree of detail to which employees zero in. “I understand your pet peeve is semi-colons,” I recently shared with a CEO client of mine, who chuckled with surprise that people had noticed. “People are talking about that?!” he asked. Yep, people are talking about that.

 As noted by Porter and Nohria in Harvard Business Press’s Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, “although the power of the CEO’s position is often overestimated, in one respect it is sometimes underestimated—and that is its symbolic significance (Pondy, 1983; Pfeffer, 1981). CEOs we have studied are often surprised by how much their every behavior is scrutinized and the symbolic messages people derive from these behaviors.”[i] When the leader makes an off-handed comment about hating semi-colons, his team may interpret that as a directive on writing style for company emails. When the leader calls out an employee for bringing lunch from home—while the rest of the team orders in—the employee may quickly calculate that to fit into this culture, she has to give up her healthy mid-day meals and up her lunch budget. Simple statements and actions often take on great weight when it’s the leader who’s making them. Why? Individuals want to please the leader, out of deference and respect, and because their jobs depend on it. So they take each and every word and action by the leader seriously, even when the leader may say something off-handed or even in gest.

If folks quietly tell each other not to send the boss emails with too many semi-colons after they’ve heard him complain about them (as they did at my client’s company), just imagine how they react to more significant behavior on the part of the leader. Trap #6 guides leaders to reflect on the good and bad habits they have bred into their organization’s culture and people.


Question: It’s deadline week – the manuscript goes to the publisher tomorrow. What do you think?

[i] Michael E.Porter & Nitin Nohria. (2010). What Is Leadership? The CEO’s Role in Large, Complex Organizations. In Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: A Harvard Business School Centennial Colloquium,  Edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana

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