Using Your Unused Capacity As Boss

Everyday Leadership means you don’t need no stinkin’ boss to tell you what to do. You have your own value and values, your own initiative and instincts. Sure, the boss is “above” you, but they may not be smarter, kinder, or more effective. And even the owner . . . don’t own you!

They should know that and grant every one of their employees the respect that belongs to them by virtue of their humanity. And with a big fat grain of humility, they should recognize that their position almost always grants them a power that few of them fully use.  That’s a shame.

I didn’t quite see it in focus until Friday when an executive team I was working with was pushing back pretty hard on my view – and the supporting data – that high-functioning teams (like high-functioning marriages) have a 5:1 positive:critical communication ratio.  One said, “I don’t really like attaboys for people who are just doing their job.” Another argued that in his engineering training in Europe he was exposed to a much more critical feedback system than he gets here and it helped him, he felt, to learn much faster. A third said that people see through feedback which is not genuine.

We worked through each of those objections.  And the CEO, a very hard-driving, high-expectations (ENTJ “field general” for those who know Myers Briggs typologies) talked about how when he learned this ratio he began to consciously introduce more positivity and praise – and even tracked himself against this 5:1 ideal.  I’ve seen results, even with you, he told one of the questioners, when I have consciously begun from a positive and personal standpoint.

At that point, something clicked.  It was a moment of clarity, and I shared what I think I heard beneath the surface of feeling in that room.  The praise and positivity of bosses is different.

  We are wired to be hierarchical and praise from above matters.  Mom or Dad’s approval is huge. A teacher who “sees” us and appreciates us can bring us completely out of the shadows. These things matter:  A boss who tells a young caddy that he’s noticed his hustle and he’s going to go far in life; the partner who tells the associate she loved his insight; or the professor who asks you if you’ve studied philosophy, “because your comments come from such a deep place.” Wow, what a difference.  For me, when my nearly 87-year old mother tells me she’s proud of the way I love my wife and kids, and grateful for the way I listen to her, I admit it, I’m almost 60, but I still glow a little inside.

If you don’t believe me, can you honestly say that genuine positivity and praise from your mom, dad, teacher, or boss doesn’t give you a boost that’s qualitatively different? Or that you don’t even crave it to this day?

Unless you can say no, and maybe even if you would say no, I ask you two more questions:  (1) How closely are you observing the positive contributions your people bring? And (2) Are you using your full capacity to clearly and wholeheartedly share that positivity with them?  Two simple(y) profound ways to

Lead with your best self.

  • Just yesterday I was emailing with a former colleague who is a very experienced professional in her field. She could not remember ever having a supervisor who truly wanted to hear her opinion and her thoughts about something at work. She said The more we wrote about it the sadder she got.

  • Dan, you might sit in on rehearsals of an orchestra at the university you teach at, and listen to the comments of the conductor. Take a tally of positive versus critical statements by the director in an educational setting. There is some praise, but more often the comments are critical, terribly critical. The pressure that musicians feel is enormous. Every moment and note is made of the highest importance, and the musician is often left alone to find the solution to the problem stated by the conductor. You might ask such conductors hwy they think this is the best way to drive improvement in their musicians and get great performances. Criticism in the arts is intense.

  • >