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