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Becoming a better boss: Leadership

By Akindotun Merino
01 April 2021   |   2:49 am
While many who enter into management and leadership roles want to be genuinely liked by the workers they supervise, seeking popularity for its own sake can be a dead-end path.

Akindotun Merino

While many who enter into management and leadership roles want to be genuinely liked by the workers they supervise, seeking popularity for its own sake can be a dead-end path.

Many have tried to lead while seeking popularity only to find that, indeed, they are loved but not respected. Becoming a more likable boss, however, does not mean you have to sacrifice respect. However, being a likable boss and a respected boss does mean you have to learn to be more effective.

Is it Better to be Loved or Feared? This famous question comes down to us from Niccolo Machiavelli, a political theorist who lived in Italy during the Renaissance. He contended that a leader who is feared is preferable to a leader who is loved. However, he also lived during a time of great political instability where city governments changed in a flash, usually violently, and usually involving executions of the previous leadership.

An authoritarian approach to leadership is not all bad. Some people in leadership positions might still maintain that leaders who approach their employees with a sense of antagonism have fewer instances where employees take advantage of them. They can use “tough love” to “whip employees into shape.” Where supervisors who aim for popularity fail in setting boundaries for their employees, authoritarian leaders make those boundaries clear through well-defined consequences for crossing them. This approach to leadership seldom suffers from employees taking liberties or taking advantage of a perceived weakness from the supervisor. While an authoritarian approach to leadership might give you the appearance of being respected, it’s not so likely that this respect would be genuine. Real respect must be earned and involves respecting others. If you genuinely care about your employees, you may not have to work so hard getting them to do what needs to be done, uncovering instances where they were too afraid to approach you, or squashing conflicts with your employees that might tend to flare up when you approach your leadership role from an authoritarian standpoint. Perhaps being loved is not such a useless approach to effective leadership.

The problem in leadership isn’t being more loved nor is it being feared more. Both have their upsides, but each also has its downside. Beloved leaders might be popular, but they might also be easily manipulated and put into unnecessary situations where it feels as if the inmates are running the asylum. Conversely, those who use fear as a leadership tactic frequently have to deal with such issues as insubordination or dishonesty from their employees. In addition, a work environment that is marked by fear turns into a poisonous place to work.

Authoritarian leaders often experience higher rates of turnover from their employees. This means the time that might otherwise be productively spent is now redirected towards training new employees. Any efficiency such a leader hoped to gain by cracking the whip has been lost when employees won’t stay for any length of time. There must be a middle way.

Since both leadership styles have both upsides and downsides, perhaps the best approach is to be a little bit of both. Like an authoritative leader, you want to have clear boundaries with clear consequences, but you do not want to create a fearful and poisonous work environment where everyone is trying to stab each other in the back and no one will tell you the truth, but whatever you want to hear.

In addition, a middle-ground approach would mean that you do value your employees as people. You are genuinely interested in their lives. You understand that respect is a two-way street and must be earned. Yet, you impose clear boundaries. While you and your employees may be equal in both a personal and possibly even a professional sense, you have a different job than your employees. You face a different set of pressures. The key to understanding whether it is better to be loved or feared is considering the big picture and the long term, and in each situation, which approach would be more effective in the long run for that situation.

Whether you prefer an authoritative leadership style, a lenient one, or something in between, one factor that can truly enhance your effectiveness in leadership is to see yourself as serving the needs of your employees even as you serve the needs of your company or organization. Often these two sets of needs will coincide. The needs of your employees are the needs of a well-run organization as well. When they do contradict, seeing yourself as a kind of servant to your employees can help you to better weigh your priorities in both the long and short terms.

The traditional form of hierarchy in business organizations is known as a top-down or vertical structure. This means that you have a clear ranking from CEO to mailroom clerk, and everyone understands his or her place. This structure has both advantages and disadvantages. If you are a leader in this type of organization, it is helpful to understand what those advantages and disadvantages are in order to better serve the needs of your employees.

Advantages include: You always know who is in charge and who to report to; Decision-making is efficient and Advancement up the career ladder is clearly defined.

Disadvantages include: The potential for power-based politics and maneuvering can result in flattering and yes-man type behavior rather than providing accurate information; Employees at the bottom can feel less of a stake in the goals of a company; If you have a weak leader, you will have a weak organization; Information from management and higher-ups is prone to distortion as it trickles down through multiple filters and finally, both management and employees can have a distorted understanding of what the other group does and has to deal with.

An alternative to the traditional vertical organizational structure is known as a lateral or horizontal structure. In this structure, the different departments are administered by project managers who report to upper management and serve as a conduit between the team and the administrators. This approach has its own pros and cons:

Advantages include: This approach tends to reinforce creativity and innovation because employees are more willing to take risks when they know that they won’t lose status in doing so; The organization can better adapt to changes in circumstances because communication does not have to go through as many filters; Employees have a greater feeling of stake in the organization and Employees have a greater sense of autonomy which can lead to greater development of a wide array of skills.

Disadvantages include: When something goes wrong, the lack of a clear structure can lead to blaming of different teams and departments; Decision making can be a slow process; The lack of authoritarian supervisors can lead to an undisciplined and chaotic work environment; Transitions from vertical to horizontal organisation structures can be difficult because those used to authoritarian management styles find it difficult to adjust to seeing co-workers as peers.

Regardless of which organizational structure you employ, to lead effectively it helps to know your employees on a personal and professional level. Obviously, with larger corporations, the former is more difficult than the latter, but taking the time to get to know your employees as people can help inform your decision-making in ways that not only affect employee morale but also help in crafting more effective approaches.

If you understand what it is like to work on the front lines, you can better address problems in such a way that does not create additional problems. Keeping abreast of what goes on in your employees’ lives can also help you in addressing each person as an individual.

Brian Browne Walker’s commentary on the I Ching offers some excellent advice about leadership: “Gentleness and understanding create in others an unconscious willingness to be led.” When you can genuinely understand where your employees are coming from, you are able to know exactly what to do or say to get the best results from them. This requires developing your own capacity for empathy. Here are some suggestions for developing your empathy:

Listen. You may not always understand where an employee is coming from. Even the most creative and open-minded of people can fail to grasp another individual’s unique circumstances. Consequently, the only way you can understand where others are coming from is by listening to them. Listening in this sense is not merely listening to the words a person says, but listening for the underlying needs that the person may be expressing even while failing to articulate this.

Validate. Particularly in times where people seem far apart in their beliefs, it’s really easy to look at a person with whom you disagree and see an enemy. However, we all have the capacity to feel the same types of emotions, whether these are fear, anger, or joy. We also all have the same basic needs. When you try to recognize that beneath any disagreement are two people who need love and respect, it’s not so easy to see someone you disagree with as the enemy.

Consider your own attitude. When you find yourself in a disagreement with someone else, ask yourself what you want from the interaction. Do you want to see the other person punished? Is this about winning or being right? Wanting to see another person punished presumes that you know best, a dangerously arrogant attitude, especially from a leader, who should be looking to serve employees.

Suspend your own viewpoint. When you are trying to understand another person’s feelings, your own point of view isn’t a necessary perspective. In fact, it gets in the way of seeing another’s point of view. Remember that suspending your views is not the same as dropping them or changing them. Your viewpoint will still be there if you still need it.

*Prof. Akindotun Merino is a Professor of Psychology and a Mental Health Commissioner in California.
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