The emperor has no clothes

Don’t expect your team to tell you you’re wrong

If you want to hold authority gracefully, you need to work extra hard to understand how your subordinates are feeling. How you’re coming off to people might only be reflected in the subtle cues in their responses. That’s because they’re very reluctant to tell you directly what they think, preferring to avoid conflict and quietly resent you rather than risk an open confrontation that could lead to the loss of their job.

It’s hard knowing that people are leaving your meetings and having sidebars about something you said or did. It can lead to feeling misunderstood, unappreciated and ganged up on. Most staff members do such a good job concealing their dissatisfaction with you that it’s hard to adjust in real time. All you can do is watch your people head off to lunch together and know that you’re on the menu.

CEOs like to say, “People can disagree with me all they want, but outside this room we speak with one voice.” Not true. People are not going to leave a meeting through which they fought passionately with you for their ideas or were subjected to a ridiculous rant and then just fall in line. People don’t work that way and any leader who expects them to is naïve. You don’t get to have authority, open debate on ideas, and opinions of your own without at times ending up with annoyed, hurt and resentful subordinates. If you want your relationships with people who report to you to work, you have to own up to the fact that in their eyes, you’re gonna suck sometimes.

To be respected by your people as a leader, you must develop highly tuned perceptions of staff discomfort and annoyance. The worse a leader is at listening and recognizing these cues, the more strained relations become with their subordinates. The more strain there is, the less honest feedback they will receive. The less honest feedback they receive, the more they will remain convinced they are right all the time. The more convinced they are that they are right all the time, the more egotistical (and perhaps maniacal) they become. And, like the emperor with no clothes, they are totally unaware it’s happening.

After years of working with my team, I can tell within the first 30 seconds of a meeting if something is bothering them — there’s a lack of eye contact, the timing is slightly off, they’re too quick to agree — and they can do the same with me. Sometimes these are indications of things happening outside the office, but just as much they are cues that the work relationship is off. I can either lean into it, care about it, learn from it, and adjust, or ignore it and plow forward with the agenda. Ignoring the signs that something is wrong leads leaders to make lots of mistakes, which no one will tell them about, which traps the organization in a descending feedback loop.

No one is going to tell the emperor he has no clothes. He needs to recognize it himself.

Under the leadership of Dan Flowers, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank received Feeding America’s 2012 Food Bank of the Year award, the highest recognition achievable by food banks.