First-Class Coach

You may be worried about assuming a more assertive style, but you have a lot to gain from it.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I've always cared about the people who work for me, but the further I climb within my organisation, the more troublesome I find the conflict between managing with my 'heart' and my 'head'. I now face difficult decisions and feel I need to toughen up - no more Mr Nice Guy. But I'm finding this harder than it sounds.

A: Turning into a good leader involves broadening your managerial repertoire. You're strong on affiliative and collegiate styles and the supportive element of coaching but avoid authoritative, assertive and directive behaviour. This is typical of the manager who favours friendship as the tool for getting things done.

Often, such people have mental scar tissue associated with authoritarian behaviour from a parent or a previous boss, which has produced an aversion to controlling and being controlled and - consciously or unconsciously - a desire to avoid the behaviour of this negative role model. This can manifest as uneasiness in the leadership role, which, as you have noticed, sometimes requires more directive behaviour.

But don't confuse authoritarianism with authoritativeness and assume that directive ways of managing are aggressive and negative. Whereas the basic message of authoritarianism is 'Do what I tell you, right now', authoritativeness says: 'This is the way we're going, come with me.' The skills it requires include having a vision and setting direction, but also coaching to encourage engagement.

Your heart-based, caring approach works well on people with the same mental wiring as you - estimated at about half the population. For the other 50%, rationality and logic and a focus on task, not people, are more important in their work than being popular. They prefer to be respected for their output - being liked is nice to have rather than fundamental to job satisfaction. So in managing with your heart, you may be short-changing half the people you manage. And actually, for the other half who may well enjoy your friendliness, you could be letting them down by failing to challenge and stretch them and tolerating poor performance - and thus breeding mediocrity.

So how can you broaden your style to suit your senior role? Certainly not by abandoning your humane approach and assuming a cold, aggressive and unfeeling demeanour. Such a pendulum swing would confuse your followers and fail to produce the desired results since, I suspect, you wouldn't convince in this style. You could lose self-respect and confidence in your abilities.

No, what you need are the positive aspects of this more directive style, building them on the base of the empathy you've established. These include setting clear objectives and holding people to account for delivering them; communicating bad news as well as good; using concrete evidence and data to form judgments, not just gut feel; being fair to everyone, not just those you get on with; and weighing the needs of the organisation against the needs of the individual.

Try doing an audit of the status quo: how far out of line are things from where they need to be for the organisation to be successful? Decide what standards and values are important to you and the business, then assess how far the people you manage are living up to these core requirements. If you can base your views on objective facts, so much the better: you'll have evidence if anyone challenges your insistence on the need to raise the quality of their output.

Then, tackle the issues, one by one. Add assertiveness to your empathetic approach where you spot underperformance, so you can criticise constructively. Give praise where it is due, but also be clear where standards are not being met. Communicate your expectations and the consequences of failing to meet them. Even if you have to sack an incompetent member of staff or make redundancies, you can do it fairly and humanely. Clients of mine who applied both logic and empathy in carrying out these tasks have succeeded in achieving them without losing their good relationships with departing people.

You may be worried about a change in style, but you have a lot to gain from it. More objectivity, rationality and detachment will help you to become a more effective leader. The good news for you is that it's much easier to build the required skills from the basis of heart than the other way round.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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