Leader Alert: Beware the Downside of Being the Big Cheese

One day you’re following direction and the next you’re giving it. Promotions to leadership positions are watershed moments.                    

If we’re not careful about how we wear our new leadership mantles, we’ll find ourselves isolated. 

The chilling effects of deference 

Employees try to figure you out as soon as you become the big cheese. 

New leaders, even when they’re colleagues we’ve known for years, are inevitably suspect. 

Most employees will likely play it safe until they understand how you will conduct yourself and deal with them in your new-found power position.    

The result is deference—submission to your requests and courteous yielding to your direction. 

Here’s how deference reveals itself: Your employees 

  • Wait for you to talk first
  • Ask, “What do you want?” questions
  • Tend to wait and see how you’re leaning before weighing in
  • Routinely check in with you before acting
  • Shut down the informal information pipeline to you
  • Are extra careful about what they say, holding back on input and feedback 

The consequences of deference may be elusive at first, but, in time, you’ll feel their sting when you realize you’re: 

  • Out of the loop with your employees because no one lets you in on the scuttlebutt
  • Unaware of the disruptions your decisions and direction have caused
  • Disconnected from the needs of your own employees
  • No longer considered a member of the team, even though you’re its leader
  • In this alone, that you’re employees have positioned you to hold the bag

Check yourself 

Deference will isolate you. That means you need to understand what you’re doing, consciously or subconsciously, to attract it. Then you need to undo it. 

Remember: You now have position power. Employees understand that you are expected by the business to act in its best interests which can, at times, be in conflict with theirs. 

Great leaders need to earn the trust and confidence of their employees through: 

  • Humility and openness
  • Consistently balanced and fair decision-making
  • Timely actions and ability to minimize obstacles
  • Respectful treatment of employees 

You can’t undo crippling deference until you understand what’s contributing to it. The major factor is fear: Your employees know that you can

  • Make or break their career progress
  • Impact their work assignments
  • Hurt them with your assessment of their performance; impact their salaries
  • Influence their stress levels, self-confidence, and self-esteem
  • Direct them to adopt work processes that are ineffective 

Smart employees are careful about how they treat their leaders because a lot is at stake. 

Break the pattern

Smart leaders recognize the signs of deference and take action. They: 

  • Ask employees for their ideas and concerns at meetings and privately, waiting for their answers, acknowledging and rewarding the value of counterpoint
  • Demonstrate trust by doing what they say they’re going to do
  • Communicate openly and regularly on all topics
  • Roll up their sleeves and engage with employees where they work, inquiring about their issues, needs, and frustrations
  • Involve employees in problem-solving by delegating responsibility and authority
  • Ask for ideas from employees before offering their own 

Slice the cheese 

Leadership is a balancing act. We need to understand that “good” power is about influence not about control or self-aggrandizement. Misuse of leadership power takes on a life of its own and deference can feed it negatively. 

Our job as leaders is to make sure that we keep everyone in the game. It’s essential to lead effectively so others want to follow, but not in silence. We need them to voicing their ideas and feedback without fear.

Every team needs a leader and every leader needs a team. When we give a little slice of influence to each player, we increase our collective chances of winning. 

Photo from The Wu’s Photo Land via Flickr

9 thoughts on “Leader Alert: Beware the Downside of Being the Big Cheese

  1. hi Dawn – another very insightful post about human relations/human relationships in a corporation. Those peer to peer relationships are important as well, and the grapevine is where most of the action

  2. Dawn — your post provides a great deal of insight into the transition from good ole pal to leader of the pack, and that alone can pose numerous issues. I like the way you suggest the new leader continue to relate to the new direct reports, but I think one issue is overlooked that greatly impacts the entire dynamic of the transition — the relationship with the team.

    Once a team member is promoted into a leadership role the camaraderie dynamic changes. No longer is it wise to socialize with the team after work for drinks or appetizers. A boundary must be created to separate the team and the leader simply to maintain the fairness in interaction and the new leadership role. The new leader becomes an authoritative figure who needs to be heeded by the team. Some members may believe if they maintain their close friendliness they may receive special attention if something negative happens. When the new leader has to discipline someone, unless the team is very mature, it could create animosity and negativity. I’ve seen this happen within teams many times with disastrous results for both team and new leader. Also, team members may believe they can get the ‘scoop’ on leadership decisions and news because they are pals with their “boss”, Additional impacts are added responsibilities by the team leader that are not related to team members activities.

    If upper managers can clearly communicate this change and new leaders immediately address that their relationships have changed, fewer issues will arise. When a good ole pal is promoted, s/he becomes the good ole boss and those dynamics are a great deal different for team members..

    Otherwise, great post. Thanks for sharing.

    • Linda, thanks for raising these important points in your comment. There are different challenges for individuals promoted from within a team and those who are promoted into a team whether they know all the players or not. For the former, as you aptly state, there are real issues around being a workplace buddy now leader. Like you I have seen the fallout when new boundaries aren’t set but also when impenetrable boundaries have been. I believe there are serious risks when leaders set themselves up as authority figures in strict terms. That’s when isolating deference can take over. It’s better for the leader talk to all employees about the their obligations to upper management and employees and how they will balance that. There is a need to invite input and feedback but it would be improper to confide insider information to certain employees and not others. Just as you said relentless communication is essential. For me it is all about boundaries as well as protecting the optics of one’s relationship with the team and its individual members. That’s where the issue of socializing comes into play. It’s not whether we go out for a drink with employees to me; it’s more about when, where, and how much :-) Thanks for adding so much to the conversation. ~Dawn

  3. Dawn,
    I was wondering about Linda’s point and how a leader keeps a good balance between interaction, conversation and not being a buddy. Or does it matter if one is a buddy – ex. going out with group afterwards. I’ve gone out with bosses in the past & found it a good way to see their humanness and it didn’t upset the applecart of “who’s in charge?”

    • Cherry,

      Great point about getting to see our own leaders and own employees in a different light by connecting with them socially. As I replied to Linda, I believe the issue is setting boundaries that position us to lead effectively without shutting out the voices of our employees. It’s all about building healthy, productive relationships at work. Some are harder to build or rebuild than others. Lauding it over people can be self-defeating but so can forgetting that you’re no longer part of the old club. Great leaders know how to balance the two. I’ve been lucky enough to work for many of them. Thanks for sharing these helpful ideas from your experience. ~Dawn

  4. Loved this post. I remember keenly what happened when I started managing the database dept….it felt different and it was different. It is nice to hear someone talk truthfully abt this experience. Thanks!

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