When it comes to effective leadership, the gaps matter.
The gaps between how leaders and followers view reality, that is.
There are other well-known “gaps” in the world, so maybe you thought about one of those first. There’s the clothing retailer, for instance. Or the space between subway train and the platform (“Mind the gap”). And then, of course, there’s the Gap Band, the American R&B and funk group whose hits in the 1970s and 1980s included “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” “Early in the Morning,” and “Oops Upside Your Head.”
Oddly enough, that last title actually connects to the types of gaps I’m talking about. As the song says, “just because you don’t believe that I want to dance, don’t mean that I don’t want to.” We’ve all been there as leaders. We believe something with great confidence, but the people we’re leading are on a totally different page and reality hits us like an “oops upside your head.”
This is a dangerous place for leaders because it means we’re likely basing some decisions, perhaps some very important decisions, on bad information. For instance, one recent survey of 1,000 employed Americans found that 49.1 percent of managers believed workplace relationships in their organizations had improved during the pandemic. Another 36.2 percent felt there had been no change, while only 14.7 percent said workplace relationship had gotten worse.
Those managers, of course, will make decisions based on their belief that workplace relationships are in good shape. Whatever they’ve been doing with regards to things such as remote work and employee interactions, they’ll likely keep doing. Why fix what’s not broken, right?
But here’s the gap. Only 18.3 percent of employees said workplace relationships had improved, and 27.5 percent said those relationships had gotten worse. Not only that, but 65 percent the respondents felt their team morale was high or somewhat high prior to the pandemic, but only 45 percent said team morale was high or somewhat high now.
It seems likely that there’s a connection between poor relationships and low morale, but managers might not see those connections if they believe things are going great.
Most gaps identified by this type of research trace their roots back to another gap – the trust gap. The unfortunate reality is that people don’t trust much of anything these days. They don’t trust their governments, their sources of information, not-for-profit organizations, or businesses. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer found, “none of the societal leaders we track—government leaders, CEOs, journalists and even religious leaders—are trusted to do what is right, with drops in trust scores for all.”
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People, however, have higher expectations than ever when it comes to business leading the way forward. So whether it’s with workplace relationships, morale, or any other challenges facing our employees, we have to close the trust gap so we can have the credibility to address all the other gaps. How? Here’s my quick take on some of the recommendations suggested by Edelman:
Embrace your mandate and expectations.
This one is tricky. I agree leaders need to take meaningful actions when appropriate, but all organizations aren’t the same. Frankly, the bigger test for many leaders today is to know when not to take a stand or not to wade into some politically charged debate.
Lead with facts.
Honesty is essential, and leaders should share accurate, reliable, information, even bad information, whenever possible.
Act with empathy.
Interestingly, I’m working on a project that explores the idea of real empathy, so I hope you will look for it in the future. For now, I’ll just say it’s vital for leaders to show compassion and caring.
Partner with others to solve issues.
Collaboration, internally and with leaders in other sectors, can help promote unity and build relationships that strengthen trust.
When you boil it down, leaders need to intentionally cultivate strong relationships with the people around them, because that’s how we can build genuine trust, spot gaps early on, and avoid those painful oops upside our heads.