Keep it together. You got this.
I nervously reviewed my talking points before meeting with my manager. I was pursuing my first job as a Junior Developer at a small software firm in New York City, and though I was eager to do my best, he always seemed disappointed.
I paced back and forth, adjusted my collar several times, and prepared for yet another talk where I didn’t know what to expect or whether my ideas would be taken seriously.
When the time came to sit across from him, everything I rehearsed seemed to evaporate. Within a minute of going over my concerns, I could tell he wasn’t interested in what I had to say.
This wasn’t the first time I debated sharing my thoughts with my supervisor.
After several months of walking on eggshells before meetings, I opted to stop speaking up about company improvements altogether, fearing inevitable rejection.
What does it mean to be a good leader? For one, the exact opposite of this.
As Sydney Finkelstein points out in Harvard Business Review, employees tend to be happiest when they feel free to contribute new ideas and take initiative. He writes:
It’s hard to feel motivated when the bar is always shifting in unpredictable ways and you never know what to expect or how to get ahead.
What great leaders have in common
It’s always the same question, should you be a “nice” boss or tough as nails?
There’s a misconception among leaders that in order to garner respect, employees should be kept on their toes and at arm’s length. The gist being: remain firm and distant to avoid appearing “soft.”
But fear-driven workplaces don’t only lower productivity, they also wipe out creative thinking.
Sure, you can be effective in having teams do as they’re told, but you’ll end up destroying the chance to receive vital feedback you need to keep your business growing, innovating, and moving forward.
Good bosses elevate those around them and foster a culture of openness and trust. They do this by focusing on the quality of their relationships with each employee. They’re available and accessible, and more importantly, they focus on fostering engagement.
And it’s not a question of opinion, research has shown that the more employees trust in a leader, the more productive they are.
Breaking down fear-based communication
There’s no doubt about it: an empathetic workplace atmosphere promotes mental and physical wellbeing.
At Jotform, it’s important for me to reinforce confidence in my team’s abilities by reconnecting them with the company’s larger purpose.
This has proven to be a powerful way to increase engagement and boost performance. I do this by carving out time each week to go on walks during lunchtime with different team members and connecting one on one. What are your interests and hobbies, I ask? And then I encourage them to ask questions and offer feedback.
“Rather than feeling like another peg in the system, your team will feel respected and honored for their opinion and consequently become more loyal,” writes Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., author of The Happiness Track.
But breaking down communication barriers is about more than trying to just win over everyone’s loyalty — it’s also about being vulnerable and authentic.
This doesn’t mean being weak or submissive, but coming to work every day willing to reach out and meaningfully connect with others.
Instead of trying to project an image of competence and authority, good bosses know when to let their guard down and embrace their human flaws.
“While we may try to appear perfect, strong or intelligent in order to be respected by others, pretense often has the opposite effect intended,” Seppälä notes.
Leadership is just as much about sharing your weaknesses as well as your strengths, knowing when to apologize and when to stop talking and listen carefully.
For the past 13 years, I’ve been committed to rooting out workplace fear and promoting confidence, curiosity, and transparency. I make it a point to make sure that every employee feels their questions and opinions are always welcomed and encouraged. Below are ways that have been helpful to me in fostering a culture of openness and trust.
3 ways of strengthening leadership
1. Focus on the person
Everyone you work with wants to feel seen. Employees are happiest when they are treated as individuals and not part of the herd. Remember: each person has their own unique perspectives, needs, talents, and ambitions.
Be generous with your time and get to know what makes each person tick; this means holding space for them to be themselves. At Jotform, I keep an open-door policy so that people feel comfortable coming to me about any concerns (without first having to nervously review talking points).
2. Build meaning
Teams want to feel highly engaged and encouraged — like their opinions matter. Good bosses don’t rely on monetary incentives like bonuses, they build meaning by inspiring their employees and making them feel valued.
For us, holding Friday demo days has allowed our teams to share what they’ve accomplished, lead discussions, and provide feedback to one another. By doing so, I’m reinforcing the company’s vision and values and enabling everyone’s voice to be heard.
3. Be authentic
Great leaders acknowledge their own shortcomings and strive to become the best possible version of themselves. But being reliable, trustworthy, and transparent with your team also has a domino effect. One 2010 study found that when leaders are self-sacrificing, employees are more motivated to be helpful and friendly to their colleagues.
Strengthening your leadership means waking up every day with a willingness to be open and allow others in. Perhaps American businessman Thomas J. Watson said it best:
“Nothing so conclusively proves a man’s ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself.”
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