Updated: Feb 15
“No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent.” ~Abraham Lincoln
Valentine's Day is nearly upon us again and it's time to revisit the leadership relationship. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: leadership is a relationship. Someone agrees to step forward and take responsibility, while others agree to step back and follow the lead. These relationships shift and change depending on the circumstance. You are not, and should not, be a leader in every circumstance, nor would you want to be. Learning how to form healthy relationships is good for stepping up, as well as letting others take the lead. Just like in other kinds of healthy relationships, there must be consent. Consent is simply gaining and maintaining agreement. Without consent, you are simply managing.
In the legal definition of consent, there are two important parts: agreement, which is the clear approval for something, and competence, which the ability to make the decision. To be an effective leader, you must gain consent while keeping followers competent and informed, but there are a few behaviors that bad leaders use to undermine consent and, ultimately, ruin leadership relationships.
Lack of Consistency
Whether in word or deed, consistency is fundamental. Executives that I work with often complain that they are responsible for managing too many small problems, and that their teams won't make decisions without them. They feel like they're "behind the 8 ball", unable to step away for the more strategic work that needs to be done. This can be due to a lack of consistency. When expectations change without warning, or are different for some and not others without reason, leaders and followers have to expend valuable time and energy to clear up confusion and make new plans to achieve their goals. Consistency allows the people around us to infer without explicitly being told. For leaders, consistency means setting expectations and moving forward, trusting that those expectations will be met, and shifting responsibility to follower for their own behavior. For followers, consistency means they are clear about what is expected and if there are any consequences for not meeting expectations, allowing them to act interdependently with their leader and team.
A behavior I frequently see in dysfunctional leadership relationships is "knowledge hoarding". Knowledge hoarding is the control and defense of any vital information (timelines, financials, or processes for performance) as a form of manipulative control. Hoarded information is controlled by one person or group, for personal or group preservation. Knowledge hoarding is dysfunctional for a few reasons. First, the hoarder has a lot of power, and the more power, the more opportunity for abuse. Many organizations express frustration that a few under-performers can't be removed because they control vital information that others don't have. Secondly, that information isn't being used effectively if it is controlled by only one person, especially if/when that person is no longer available to access it, preventing knowledge transfer and succession planning. And lastly, knowledge hoarding is a signal of a larger insecurity issue, meaning that the person feels they need to hold on to this information, or else they will become disposable. Hoarders may feel they lack key training to make them more effective in their position. Healthy leadership relationships need transparency from both sides in order to flourish, and allowing or encouraging knowledge hoarding does not create transparency.
Emotional manipulation is the use of emotion to control or coerce. Signs of emotional manipulation in leadership relationships are behaviors like the use disruptive emotions (anger and fear) to achieve outcomes, expecting others to mirror disruptive emotions, and punishing those who don't. Emotional manipulation can be loud and clear, like yelling and demeaning people to elicit fear, but it can also be very subtle, through innuendo, suggesting that someone should feel a certain way about something, creating distrust or negative attitudes. Emotional manipulation is quite common in organizations for one reason: it works very well! Emotional responses tend to be quicker and more intense that intellectual responses, and using anger and fear overrides the reason response in the brain, making followers more receptive and more easily controlled. Unfortunately, controlling the emotions of others is short-sighted. Followers who experience emotional manipulation experience more stress and burnout, and they are also more likely to engage in their own counterproductive workplace behaviors, like other forms of manipulation and abuse.
Bad boundaries, or more specifically a lack of good boundaries, is another telltale sign of an unproductive leadership relationship. I usually break down boundaries into three categories: physical, emotional, and temporal. Physical boundaries are for your personal space (i.e. respecting your workspace, hugs or handshakes), emotional boundaries are for how you feel (i.e. letting someone who is angry make you angry, feeling emotions more strongly than others about something that effects them and not you), and temporal boundaries are for your time (i.e. having unexpected tasks dropped on you last minute, having time stolen from other areas of your life). Good boundaries are negotiated, agreed upon by all parties concerned, and respected. In a leadership relationship, respecting boundaries is giving respect, but lacking boundaries is disrespectful to yourself, while ignoring boundaries is disrespectful to others.
It's difficult to talk about creating consent when it's not solely within your control. What is always within your control, however, are your behaviors. Here are a few suggestions to improve your leadership relationships!
Create consistency. If there can be standardized rules and roles, make them clear. If a process needs to be done a specific way, employees should be told and trained. If there are problems, look for long-term solutions, rather than focusing on symptoms of larger issues. Ask your team what could be standardized to take uncertainty out of the equation.
Create Agency. In the same way that people need to have clear structures around their roles, they also need to be able to exercise their freedom and creativity to complete tasks in the ways that work best for them. Giving people freedom not only allows employees to build and maintain healthy boundaries to meet their individual needs, but it can also lead to innovation and process improvement.
Create Transparency. It's well known that some material must stay confidential. However, to the best of your ability, be open with team members when you can. Share as much as you can about the workings of the organization, and work to share your own vulnerabilities and concerns. There is nothing like transparency to build trust and empower teams.
Create Boundaries. There may be many things you can do, but not nearly as many that you should. Good boundaries teach others how to treat us, but they also hold us accountable to ourselves. Creating healthy temporal, physical, and emotional boundaries is an important part of building respect in your organizations.
There are plenty of opportunities to build and maintain agreement in organizations, but make sure they are healthy for you and those you work with. And enjoy Valentine's Day 2022!
**Erika Weed is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University, studying leadership and trying to reconcile the seemingly competing goals of happiness and success, for herself and others. She has a B.S. in Communications from Winthrop University, and MBA from Queens University of Charlotte, and has been an Executive Coach and Organizational Development Consultant for over 10 years. Erika founded Ascendry in 2015.