Management Power Or Leadership Safety In One Word

So you wanted to lead people and be the manager. Congratulations! And be careful what you ask for. So often the idealistic image of what promotion into management role means and the raw reality are drastically different, and it tends to be a collision. I have asked candidates interested in promotion, ”Are you more interested in being promoted or in doing the job once you are promoted?” They pause and in that moment of hesitation you have your answer. We dig into what the reality is about being the leader. Here are a couple of quick but significant notes, that may get minimized in the process:

  • Success as a leader, relies on taking our ego down
  • Questions should be asked for curiosity (safety) and not for challenge (power)
  • The goal is creating a dialogue, less winning your point
  • We can handle the truth, but we can’t handle being shamed
  • Leaders don’t fail others, they fail themselves (and this is usually because they don’t know their own values first)

Ego drives power; curiosity drives safety. If the #1 job of a leader is to build trust, then creating a safe environment is the #1 tenet of management conversations – to build empathetic trust. Our words and how we use them as leaders in conflict situations with our boss, peers, or direct reports, directly shape the environment. Simple words we learned from our parents, are still shaping our actions and reactions in today’s complex communications.

Take for instance the ‘what’ behind the word “why” limiting conversation success. People in authority, speed up effectiveness by getting to the point with the word ‘why.’ It is not a word designed for the person asking to actually learn, rather for them to find blame, get results, act in charge, and in the end,  does not build truth. The word ‘why’ creates fear, anxiety, and defensiveness. We recall as children being asked ‘why’ usually by our parents or other authority figures, and the outcome was not good. Examples: “Why isn’t your room picked-up or homework done? Why didn’t you do as I asked? Why didn’t you tell me where you were going? Why are you always acting out? Why do you never listen? Why are you hanging out with that kid?”

All of these questions are targeted to place responsibility and blame.

When we are confronted with challenging questions starting with ”why,” we clam-up, attack, become defensive, lie, or do whatever it takes to get away from that environment. And in our technology hurry-up world, conversations are more strained than ever. David Maxwell and Kerry Patterson in Crucial Conversations® call it going silent or violent. The conflicts that arise, even from a simple word ‘why’ are often unplanned and unexpected. Joseph Grenny (co-author of Crucial Conversations®, has said, “We have no problem handling the truth, what we can’t handle is being shamed.”

If the environment we create as leaders is not safe, the results of tough conversations will not be good. If we don’t feel safe, we will wiggle. We will mask our feelings, say untrue things, and not disclose certain pieces of information. We will do almost anything to avoid being shamed. It is still important to ask and learn why if it’s done for authentic, genuine curiosity it may be fine. If we ask “why” as a challenge, threat, or intimidation tactic, it won’t be fine.

Consider trying these statements and questions:

  • Help me understand how you plan to clean your room.
  • You seem uninterested in listening.
  • The project plan you submitted is not on time.
  • Are there other ways you plan to get this work done?
  • Being late is not ok – how can we fix this?

The key to creating a safe environment – is taking the emotion out and putting the curiosity in!


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