Thursday, October 18, 2018

Being Blind to Your Downstream Impact

It can be easy to underestimate how much our behavior impacts the people around us. Sometimes, it can play out in the case of the "submarine boss," a leader who is silent for a period of time, then suddenly surfaces and makes requests that create chaos and knock every other boat out of the water.  Other times it's a case of having an "initiative du jour," when a leader directs the group to take on one pet project one day and then switches the group to another project the following day. It's important to be aware of the downstream impact we have on our teams and how much disruption we may unknowingly cause.

Being Blind to Your Downstream Impact

As a leader in any organization, it's easy to have a blind spot regarding your downstream impact: you may not have any advisors to give you feedback, and your direct reports may silently defer to you. Chances are that they will never let on, at least directly, to the disruptive effects of your decisions, initiatives, requests, and behavior. For the manager who regularly communicates the belief that "my priorities override everyone else's" problems may occur. Employees can start to feel disrespected and become disgruntled. The leader may become the butt of a few jokes around the office or, worse, set him or herself up to be undermined by others as they disengage and fail to alert the leader to possible trouble or even set the leader up for failure. No one wants to work for a dictator, even a benevolent one.

Every decision you make as a leader ripples through your organization in waves, and the amplitude can become more intense the farther "downstream" it flows. Too many managers forget that the choices they make, even seemingly small ones, can have far-reaching effects throughout the organization. Notoriously shifting priorities, feeling hot about a project one day and cold the next, making everything a priority at once so that nothing is prioritized-all of these behaviors, and others, can get in the way of sustaining the organization's long-term goals and cloud the company's vision. By clearly reading the potential effect your behaviors have on others-by exercising empathy-you can avoid the pitfalls of being blind to your downstream impact.

Some examples:
  • shift priorities on a whim or treat everything on their mind as a top priority
  • assign "simple" tasks that are actually time and resource-intensive
  • level jump, i.e., give assignments or directives to those further down the chain of command rather than to direct reports
  • assigning things without deadlines and then reacting with urgency or disappointment when they are not done on your timeline
The Battle of Ego vs. EQ

Ego says, "I have needs and my team will meet them." Ego says, "When I have an idea, I should have others implement it." Ego thinks about itself and doesn't notice the impact of its actions on everyone else. Ego doesn't pause either to reflect on how others might perceive its behaviors.

In contrast, EQ says, "My team has needs too and I will consider them when making my own known." EQ also signals the leader to consider the impact of making impulsive or last-minute requests on others in the group, recognizing that people have their own responsibilities to juggle. EQ reminds the leader too that treating employees with respect breeds return respect for the leader as opposed to trampling on others, which can lead to weakened support and loyalty.

If ego has the leader thinking in terms of "the team is here to serve me," then EQ has the leader thinking the converse: "I am here to serve the team." In practice, it is a blend of both of these approaches that helps to get things done in an organization, but the other-directed, EQ-related mindset can ensure that the leader never steps too far in the wrong direction.

The goal is to get good at recognizing when your ego is leading the way, causing you to instinctively make requests or engage in behaviors that have not been fully thought through in terms of possible downstream impact. If you have the urge to pitch a new strategy to your team, act on the latest business book, or hand out bonuses just because it feels right, notice this instinctive feeling and, instead of acting on it, pause and reflect on whether it is truly the right course of action-first, for yourself, and then for your team and organization.

Next, it's time to read the environment and exercise some empathy. How will your request or the big idea that you're thinking about acting on really affect your employees? Will it move the organization forward or disrupt workflow? Where would you rank your request or idea in terms of other organizational priorities? Is your ego leading the way or are you truly onto something important?

When you are ready to respond, keep your self-control at the ready. If after looking within and outside of you, you still feel justified to introduce your new idea, make requests, or engage in the desired behavior, do so with sensitivity to everyone else. This may mean calling a meeting with your executive team to get their input and perspectives before rolling out a new idea. Or it may mean your requests acknowledge the required time outlay and give others enough time to shift around priorities. Or maybe you simply ask, "How does that work for you?"

When you use EQ rather than allowing your ego to reflexively lead the way, you may abandon some ideas and initiatives; others will be rolled out with pacing and consideration. That's good news for everyone as you maximize workflow and your best ideas get implemented in a way that works for the whole team.

This article is a summary excerpt from Ego vs EQ: How Top Leaders Beat 8 Ego Traps Using Emotional Intelligence. Click here to order a copy of the book, or here for companion webinar.

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