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Stop Inspiring Your Team to Underperform

A lot of well-intentioned leaders set the bar too low for their staff.

Every so often I hear a phrase so well turned that I say to myself, “I wish I had thought of that.” That happened a few months ago when I was talking with a top executive of a Fortune 500 company to get his feedback on a colleague who was one of my executive coaching clients. This exec loved my client and compared him quite favorably to his predecessor who, the exec said, regularly “inspired his team to underperformance.”

I laughed out loud when he said that and asked him to elaborate on how that happened. The essence of his answer was that the predecessor leader didn’t set high enough expectations for his team and failed to even follow through on the low bar that he did set.

In close to 20 years of individual and group coaching, I’ve seen a lot of well-intentioned leaders who, by setting the bar too low, inspired their teams to underperformance.

During that period, my company has run over a thousand 360-degree leadership assessments based on the success behaviors I highlight in my book, The Next Level. I’ve read every one of those assessments and have come to some conclusions about how leaders fail to fully leverage their teams. Based on the patterns I’ve seen, here are three things to do if you want to stop inspiring your team to underperformance:

1. Dial Back the Nice

My observation is that leadership behaviors typically fall into one of two broad categories:  behaviors that drive results and behaviors that build relationships. The best leaders, in my experience, exhibit roughly equal amounts of results-driven and relationship-building behaviors. A pretty common pattern when I’m reviewing 360 results is to see a leader whose top 7 or 8 highest-rated behaviors are all relationship oriented. They’re genuinely nice people and lead with that strength. Nothing wrong with that at all unless the nice is dialed too far to the right. What I usually see on the flip side for those leaders is that their lowest rated behaviors are all deficiencies in the kinds of actions that drive results. They need to improve on things like holding their team accountable for results, setting up systems to monitor progress towards results and assembling a team of experts who meet or exceed the requirements. To create space for those kinds of results-oriented behaviors they usually need to dial the nice back a bit. Most of them are so nice that they can dial it back a good bit and still be one of the nicest people in the room. One thing I encourage them to think about as they make the change is short-term nice vs. long-term nice. The short-term nice approach is to sugarcoat it for people and let them coast or drift along. The long-term nice move is to be straight up about what’s expected and coach them to get there so they grow as the organization grows.

2. Let Go of the Work

Another thing that leaders who inspire underperformance do is hold on to work they shouldn’t be holding on to. I’ve coached a lot of rising leaders in our Next Level Leadership® group coaching program who think they’re protecting their team from being overwhelmed by holding on to work that they think is going to be too much for their team to handle. That’s almost always the wrong call. Instead of helping their team, they’re hurting them by becoming a bottleneck. The other thing that happens is by holding on to the work, they hold back their team’s development. In reading all of those 360 degree feedback reports, I’ve never come across a comment from a direct report that says, “My boss is giving us too much work.” On the other hand, I regularly see direct report comments along the lines of “My boss is holding on to things she should be giving to us and, by doing so, she’s holding us back.”

3. Share Perspective and Information

The best leaders inspire their team’s performance by connecting their work with the bigger goals of the organization. In doing so, they focus a lot more on the “why” and the “what” of the work than the “how.” If you’re the leader of a team, you likely have access to information, people and conversations that your team doesn’t have. All of that shapes your perspective as a leader. That perspective is only valuable to the degree that you share that perspective with your team. When reading 360 comments from direct reports, I love it when they write things like, “My manager shares information and perspective with us that my peers on other teams don’t get from their bosses.” The people who write comments like that are on higher performing teams because they have the context and information they need to make smart decisions without having to constantly ask for permission or validation.

See anything here that could inspire and raise the performance of your team? What would you add to the list?