At work I am in the awkward position of reporting to two different people. One of them is constantly telling me I am wrong, and the other never criticizes anything. I know I am not perfect, but both people are so extreme that I basically tune them out. I am taking a new position with a different company in two weeks, so I will no longer be in this situation. My question is this: Since I did not have a good example to follow, how can I avoid being either too extreme or too passive when I am leading my own team?
Many years ago I reported to two people at one time. It is a terrible management matrix. The good news is that the poor examples you experienced on both sides will act as a barometer for you to recognize when you go too far in one direction.
Your managers remind me of the approach taken often by us Christians. On one hand, there is liberal thinking, which pretends that everything is okay, thus encouraging permissiveness. On the other hand, there is fundamentalism, which can be so brutal about what is true that compassion is sometimes lacking.
St. Paul gave us the best answer to your question when he said that we should speak the truth in love. Always speak the truth in love and you will prevent yourself from going too far, even if the truth is painful for the other person to hear. Leadership is not always about pleasing others; it is more about the courage to share the truth. Sometimes your employees might find that the pain of the truth is more potent than the compassion that accompanies it. If that is the case, you can rest well knowing you did what you could.
Remember that leaders are most effective when they make a connection to the people they lead. As a leader, the primary emotions you need to cultivate in order to make a connection are affinity and trust.
Affinity is another way of saying similarity, empathy and kinship. It is not necessarily popularity or a buddy-buddy feel. It is more about your team being able to say, “I can relate to him.”
You can build affinity with people by validating their perspectives or experiences even when they are wrong or you don’t agree. Validation is not about telling someone they are always right, which is what one of your managers apparently did. It is about telling them that you understand how they might have drawn their conclusions but then going on to correct them if they are in error. It is the perfect blend of judging actions, which we are called to do as Christians, without judging hearts, which we are called to avoid.
Affinity does not always mean trust, although it is great fertilizer for trust. Trust is often built when you stand by your people despite their errors. Of course, there are limits to how long or how often it is reasonable to stand by an employee who is not performing. Every employee you will lead will make mistakes, so you can count on having many opportunities to stand by them. To strike your desired balance, deliver the truth in love and pray for the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Catholic business consultant Dave Durand is online at DaveDurand.com.