Why don't leaders and employees understand each other?

Why do leaders sometimes get it so wrong? Why do policies created with the best of intentions meet with resistance? Why does it seem like leaders and their employees speak different languages? The answer is that employees don’t trust their leaders and don’t feel safe. In this environment, no shared meaning can occur. The chasm of understanding is too far to cross.

Consider a senior leader announcing a new policy: a change to the L&D budget.

Does this leader think she’s doing the right thing? Yes.

Has she thought through the implications? Yes.

Are the changes met with distrust and dissent by employees? Unfortunately, yes.

Here’s what happens next: The explanation rings hollow to employees, and the policy is viewed with suspicion. Hours are lost — and much emotional energy is spent — on unending clarifications. No one is happy.

Employees and leaders hear the same words and read the same documents but make very different meanings.

What happened? Trust and safety were absent. There could be no shared meaning.

We bring so much that is unique and unseen into every relationship. We bring our values, beliefs, fears, and more. With all these differences, how can we hope to connect?

The answer is for leaders to build trust and safety. Trust means believing the other person has your best interests at heart. Safety means being able to share more of yourself and your thoughts. Together, trust and safety create a space for shared meaning to emerge.

Once, I failed as a leader because I hadn’t created trust and safety.

I’d started leading a new team. The team was performing well, but there were some challenges in how they were working. The current structure wasn’t sustainable in the long run.

I saw a similar situation in the same company less than twelve months ago. At that time, I implemented a change that resulted in solid team buy-in and positive results.

But when I pitched the change to this team, it landed like a lead balloon, weighed down by a collective air of scepticism and mistrust. My team distrusted my intentions, my reasoning, and my conclusion. And why wouldn’t they? They were a tight-knit community; I was an outsider.

We went ahead with the change, painfully and reluctantly for all involved. Things became worse before they got better.

Over time, I built up the relationship. We began to work together to improve what we delivered and how we delivered it. But the scars of that first breach of trust remained.

What I could have done differently was build trust and safety first. Then, I may have come to a different conclusion about what to do. Shared meaning isn’t a leader imposing their view on others, nor is it a compromise. It’s “us vs. the problem,” where both groups share an understanding of not only “us” and “the problem” but also of what to do about it.

People matter more than great ideas and brilliant strategies. As a leader, I must ask myself: Have I invested in this relationship? Have I built the trust and safety to take this action? Without it, nothing else matters. But with it, we can go far.

© Braden Moore.RSS