Thursday, June 11, 2009

Knowing Your Impact

Probably the most significant blind spot that holds leaders back from being as effective as they could be is this: They are not aware of the unintended impact they typically have on those they lead.

What is the lingering effect that you have on the people you interact with as a leader? When they walk away from a conversation with you, how do they typically feel about it? For example, do they feel heard? Respected? Overwhelmed? Challenged? Encouraged? Shut down? Condescended to? Loved?

Knowing your relational impact as a leader is one aspect of emotional intelligence, and without that understanding, your leadership can be weakened or even crippled in ways that leave you feeling genuinely perplexed about it all. One leader I know was perpetually troubled by what he perceived as a stubborn reluctance on the part of his team to communicate with him. They would often hold back vital information regarding projects they were responsible for until just a few days before the deadline, which regularly put him in the difficult position of having to make significant changes to projects at the last minute--a process that was as a costly as it was frustrating for everyone involved. What he didn't realize was that his frank, direct communication style was having the unintended impact of intimidating just about everyone on his team. His people avoided talking with him because they found the interactions threatening in a way that shut down their own creativity and they put off engaging with him until they absolutely had to.

Fortunately, there is a fairly simple way to discover the impact you're having on those you lead. However, it requires both courage and authentic humility:

  1. Make a list of five or six people in your relational world that you trust and believe will be honest with you. Some of these should be people you lead, but also include a few people who don't work with you directly--perhaps a friend or two, or even a spouse.
  2. Meet with each person privately and let them know that you are genuinely interested in learning how to be a better leader, and to do that you need to ask them a few questions that you want them to answer as honestly as possible. Get their agreement on this before proceeding.
  3. Ask them the following questions, being careful to avoid getting defensive or justifying yourself in any way. Just listen, take it in, and thank them for their honesty.
  • What's it really like to be in relationship with me?
  • What impact do you notice that I typically have on people that I lead?
  • What negative impact do I have on others that I am typically unaware of?
Remember, it takes humility to do this. People will be able to sense whether you authentically want to hear the truth. And often they will have much more to say about your positive impact on others than they will about the negative. Still, you must choose to be teachable. Whatever comes of those conversations, this much is sure: You will be a better leader.


Melissa said...

Parts of me are very nervous to make comments on the web, because I'm afraid of exactly the unintended impact I could be having. I censor a lot of potential blog posts, I whittle down my facebook status updates, I really care about my impact.

In person, I used to remain silent instead of speaking up. But that silence, and extraordinary sensitivity to having an unintended bad impact, also held me back from having any impact. It limited my ability to connect and engage.

I decided to use the 'one time' rule. Instead of not speaking up at all, I'd speak up one time. I wouldn't pursue it if it weren't welcome, I'd just speak in "I statements" and try to speak up with consciousness, but also honesty.

So in keeping with that, on the theme of 'knowing your impact,' I wanted to speak up one time about the impact of a twitter update I read on your blog page today. It directed me to a link of a huge Jesus statue made entirely of white Legos. I was inspired by the artistry and vision of the project. It made me happy to see a church use such creativity and whimsy to create something so simultaneously fun, yet genuinely moving. It was a really exciting piece of art for me to be exposed to. It really inspired me, and I loved that I clicked the link and got to see it.

When I read the twitter comment, "It took 40 people 18 months to do this. Imagine if they'd spent that time helping others like Jesus did instead--" I felt a lot of things. I thought about all those church members coming together for so long, and all the connection and fellowship that must have been involved. I wanted to defend them from the twitter comment, and to let them know I don't share that viewpoint. I wanted to let them know that art is valuable to me, that their art inspired and touched me. I wanted to let them know that by doing what they did, they helped me, just like Jesus helped other people, strangers he didn't know. I wanted to thank them. So I'm doing that here, and I did it on the linked page as well.

Michael D. Warden said...

That's great, Melissa. I hadn't considered the community-building aspect of creating a Lego Jesus. I'll bet it was a meaningful experience for all those involved. So good point! And I'm glad to hear that you found the statue inspiring. Since you did, then I bet a lot of other people did too.

Still, it didn't have that same impact on me. I'm not saying it didn't accomplish any good in the world--clearly, it did, as you pointed out. I just think the potential negative impact is just as great, if not greater, than whatever positive effect it may have.

Thanks for sharing your perspective!

Michelle Brown said...

Thank you for this series on leadership. It has been interesting and challenging.

I must say, it would take a very brave individual to ask for the kind of honesty you talk about in this post. I can think of few who have that sort of courage...