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The Changing Relationship between Leaders and Employees

Leadership’s Changing Relationship

No shocker, the workplace is changing. The market shifts, raw materials are not available or are no longer environmentally or socio-economically friendly – so things change. Consumer demand has changed, technology changed, available information has changed. Internet is pervasive and requires tossing the old marketing standards when teamcommunicating with consumers, customers or a client, never mind employees, because those same messaging tools do not produce the same results. The way we do business now cannot be the same as before. This includes esoteric soft skills involved in leading your team.

Being part of a leadership team today has new requirements. Leadership used to be pretty formulaic. Normally it would be enough to lay out the end goal, put out the carrots or stick and it would happen. When the market changed the man behind the curtain was revealed to not really be who we needed him to be. He was not really all over the details or forthright with the details that would be considered value-based truth in anyone’s religion. What was really surprising was the unheard shift in responsibility to those who “blindly” followed leaders down a path which was less than ethical. Talking about cases like MCI, where everything disappeared, and Enron, where people were criminally charged and went to jail, or BP, where remuneration is in the billions. If you are close to the hot spot, you are now responsible for turning those spots into something profitable in the face.

Get used to it. The world changed,  responsibility shifted and we do not know how it will look tomorrow. There is a phrase called VUCA. That’s really an acronym. But it does not really sound appealing. What it stands for is Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

Leadership and Productivity

Do not worry: this is when social human behavior can be (somewhat) predictable. Leaders and their employees have varying degrees of tolerance with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Of course those variances present in a series of behaviors that change from functioning to when leaders, employees and the teams are not performing at their finest. We are in it whether we acknowledge the challenges of it or not.


I assume, if you are reading this far into the article, you have heard of fight or flight. This fight or flight response is a reaction programmed into our DNA
for survival. The amygdala in the limbic system of the brain tells us of imminent danger and hijacks the brain to get you to act without your knowledge. Those responses are the “fight or flight”. There is another action, which includes freezing. You will notice that, when an animal freezes, they are more difficult to see.

Without consciously knowing, we respond to the unknown if we are scared. As leaders, we need to read behaviors to thwart problems without having someone come to us and say, ”gosh, I suck at ambiguity.” Or “I don’t function well in uncertainty” or “you know, this complexity is really making it hard to sort out the project and get it started.” What you will see are solid behaviors that indicate challenges. Your job is to identify there is a problem first.
Here’s the order they might happen and what you might see:

Freezing – remember the invisible animal that fears being eaten? Standing perfectly still in the office is a way to not get noticed or get additional work or questions.
• fuzzy thinking, spending more time on tasks that usual
• unable to finish projects, just not getting to it or finding the easier stuff is, well, easier to approach
• inability to stay up on email – when someone tells you they didn’t get an email and you know they read it, it’s a sign
• silence in meetings when there are no ideas or challenges there is fear in the room
• not acting with a real sense of urgency or responding on hot tickets

Flight – running away is another tactic. Avoidance works. There are people, projects and answers that are easily avoided when fear is overwhelming.
• missing meetings, coming in late, missing deadlines
• avoiding eye contact, not socializing
• not coming prepared or keeping up on paperwork like doing expenses
• calling in sick, or if you are in the south, calling out sick

Fight – this choice for humans is the last choice but when your back is against the wall and you not invisible and you cannot run, you may need to fight when the fear is great.
• challenging openly or passive aggressively
• arguing, bullying or just plain conflict without resolutions
• when teams are not working smoothly together or cross-functional teams are not so functional.
• heated discussions, or out and out yelling all show there is fear in the work place.

To identify when your people are not functioning at peak performance is easier said than done, and one sure fire trick is to understand your own style of leadership under pressure. The challenge with any caged animal with something to lose is, there is bad behavior and then there is the solution, which is to admit that I am not keeping pace with this volatility, uncertainty, complexity or ambiguity. I am shut down and you still need to pay me because my mortgage is due. This might not be normal “corporate” leadership, but doing so can work wonders.

Leadership Tips to help Your Team’s Performance

1. Identify non-functioning behavior – you cannot manage anything that does not exist
2. Name it – for you and your behavior – name it boldly. But for your employees name it as fear. However, you do not need to share with them your prognosis.
3. Get curious as to the underlying need that is not being met and is evoking fear. If this is squishy for you – think in terms of motivation or blocks to performance.
4. If you need help with that, think survival. Do they need to know we are all in this together? If you have their back, tell them. If you do not have their back, get a different role where you do not have direct reports.
5. Listen to the answer when asking, “What is going on for you?” Really listen. Then listen some more. We are all capable human beings and there are few challenges in business that are beyond solution – they are simply new.
6. Ask, “What do you need?” or “how can I support you?” And then really listen.
7. Offer available resources – your time, time on the project, additional help, administrative help, spreadsheet guru, brainstorming sessions, recognition for past successes that you know they will carry those same skills through this crazy project.


I have to admit that, as I write this article knowing I suck at ambiguity, I see behaviors I know are standing in the way of my success. There, I said it. Quite frankly, I know I am not alone, but there is an underlying code of “we’ve got this”, meaning we have the unknowns covered and do not look at my spreadsheet too closely because most of it is hyperbole.

The leadership and employee relationship is now as allies – with the requirement to bring dialogue to where there is fear. Ideally, if leaders could bring certainty where there in uncertainty, calm people during volatility, simplify complexity and, of course, bring clarity to ambiguity, your role will get so much easier. “Leadership in the new normal” is really about, well, talking about it. Got that?

Do not worry – there is still no crying in business.

Additional Information on the Changing Relationship between Leadership and Their Team

For help identifying the root cause of behavior or getting squishy with your employees, coaching can help. If you need ideas on how to really listen contact Pat Weiland, President at Sage Strategies.

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