A Team Leader's Key Instrument: Behavior

In the previous blog post, you looked at the first of three essential tools that are at your disposal as a first-time manager (FTM). You looked at how action or non-action ends up defining you as either powerful—in the positive constructive sense—or powerless.

Now, it’s time to look at the next key instrument—your behavior.

When I work with young managers who are in their first leadership position, I always give them a brief talk about being on stage.

It goes something like this:

The moment you become a leader of any kind, you're on stage 24/7. What I mean by that is that everything you say and do is registered, compared and interpreted by your followers.

The way you get out of your car on the car park in the morning, how you walk across the parking lot, what you say as you come in through the door, who you talk to first and who you don’t talk to—on and on it goes throughout the day.

It’s as if you have a GoPro camera mounted on a rod on your back and it's registering your every move.

Each person on your team makes their own video, each from their perspective. As they're not inside your head at any given moment, they don’t have enough information to understand what's going on, so they fill in the blanks as best they can.

They interpret what they observe. From that, they make their own assumptions, as well as stories.

It might be that as you got out of your car, you had a deep frown on your brow—you were thinking about your 5-year old and their bad cough last night—but your followers may say to themselves, “Oh, probably still pissed off about that incident yesterday," even though the last thing you said as you left the day before was, "Okay, let’s forget about this and move on."

It's not what you say that counts, but your behavior. As each of your followers has only part of the story, they compare notes at the water cooler, over lunch or wherever, and see if they can make up a complete story among them—a story that helps them predict the future. Essentially, that's what they're trying to do.

Don’t believe me? Well, just think of the ways you observe your own boss—

You're the role model.

If you've had the experience of bringing up children, I'm sure you'll recall a time when you overheard your 3- or 4-year old suddenly trot out a sentence to their favorite toy or best friend. You realized that it was a word you've exactly said to your child in another situation.

If you have, you've probably also had the following reactions: First, you find it hilariously funny, then you have this chilling realization that this is what you sound like to your child, then you're possibly less thrilled.

As a parent, you're the role model. Similarly, you're the role model when you're the team leader. What you do gets registered to and copied by your team members.

As a team leader, you need to be aware that every little thing you do gets interpreted. There's never a period where you can claim a time-out. At any given moment—24/7—you're communicating to your team. There's no off button.

The only way you diminish their need for interpretation and story-making is to be aware of your behavior, and clear and transparent in your communication. You'll look at the verbal communication part in the next blog post. You'll need to leave as little as possible to their interpretations and imagination.

How do you do that?

It's all about being clear and consistent.

Some team leaders try to joke about clarity and consistency to their members. "Don’t do as I do, just do as I say." It may be funny, but it doesn't work.

It's simple: What you focus on is what's important in your team members' eyes. What you're not focused on is judged to be of less importance.

Your behavior, not your words, shows your team members what's truly important.

What are you paying attention to? Who do you speak to? What questions are you asking? What do you follow up on? What do you ignore?

It's all observed and registered.

I was once coaching a reception manager from a large hotel. She told me that she had trouble getting her team to understand that they must take their lunch break—in peace—in the canteen because it was important that they get the break. Anyway, it was also not appropriate to snack at their desks.

But no matter how much she urged her team members to do it, she would keep catching them taking their plate into their desks and having it next to their computers. She wanted me to help her work out what sort of punishment would work to make them stop. Instead, I asked her, "Where do you have your lunch?” She replied, "Well, you see, I don’t really have lunch. I just bring some fruits, nuts, or a carrot, and have them during the day. I'm not too busy on most days—"

No matter what she says, it'll always be overruled by her own behavior. Nothing will change until the day she changes her behavior.

What are you paying attention to?

Who do you speak to?

What questions are you asking?

What do you follow up on? What do you ignore?

How do you come into work in the morning?

Whatever's important to you is important to them. From their perspective, if you—their busy team leader—pay attention to something, it must be because it's important. That's the cue that they take from you.

Oh, never forget what Steven Covey said: You can’t talk your way out of something you behave yourself into. You have to behave yourself out of it.


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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.

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