You know that feeling, sitting in the meeting room, stunned by the attitude, demeanor and message from a leader who, just days earlier held an entirely different position and message. One day the leader is empathetic and reserved in their push for continuous improvements. The next day, that same leader would make Gordon Ramsay envious as he barks orders, demeans the team and threatens careers. Confronted about his varying styles and tactics, the leader proclaims, “I believe in situational leadership.” Situational leadership?! Please. Try a poor excuse for inconsistency and unpredictability. Too often, stating situational leadership as a philosophy becomes an excuse for simply being inconsistent and unpredictable. And inconsistent leadership can be the death of a team.
“Situational Leadership” is a philosophy that any given situation may require a different type of leadership. While I am a firm believer that in any given situation, a different approach, practice, action or message may be needed, the leadership principles should be consistent across the organization and time. For example, what you, as a leader, value and prioritize should be consistent. You can not say one day that you respect the personal time and values of your employees and then call them every night for non-critical items. You can not explain that the department’s top priority is quality improvement one day and spend the next week focused on delivering a higher quantity at any cost to quality. Instead, leaders should provide consistent leadership priorities, character and messaging. Here are three tips to better serve your team and avoid situational leadership confusion:
Communicate Changes Clearly
When changes are necessary, whether in a business priority or attitude, wrap those changes in clear communications. Remember, your team is not privy to all the same information you are. Therefore, the reason for any shifts in attitude or priority may not be as obvious to them as to you. When in doubt, assume your team will not understand the reason for your new focus and proactively communicate the supporting details. This can even be done after the initial change is communicated – provided it happens quickly:
This morning’s status update included a clear shift in priority from reducing costs to improving quality. I realize this may have come as a surprise to you. However, you should know that the latest consumer report, due out next month, is questioning our quality. As a result, there is a new directive from the CEO to improve quality scores by at least 5% before the end of the quarter.
As you know, managers do not like surprises. Guess what? Your team does not enjoy them either. Therefore, do not wait until everything is critical to raise the matter with your team. Get ahead of the shifting priorities by providing a “heads up” to your team that a change may be on the way. These warnings do not have have to be long and comprehensive. Instead, a quick note like this may do the trick:
Just a heads up that I was just in a meeting with our VP of Finance. The budget approval for their project may be delayed another week as we shift our focus from cost control to quality improvement. I’ll let you know when I hear more.
Provide Consistent Vision
Business priorities will vary over time. Quarterly focuses in the for-profit sector drive a number of near term investment decisions and non-profit corporations often shift focuses as different crises arise. However, the long-term objectives of the company should be unwavering or at least, not subject to the same, regular fluctuations. Therefore, to maintain consistency for your team, short-term changes must be framed within the long term vision. For example:
I know our new quality emphasis seems to conflict with our annual objective of reducing overall cost. However, it remains our vision to provide a quality product at the lowest possible cost point. In order to achieve this goal, we believe the initial investment in improving overall quality can reduce defects and support costs. The net result is anticipated to be an overall cost savings for the company.
Passion is good, frustration is bad. I wrote about this in Passion vs. Emotion for Leadership and Frustration as a Warning Sign for Leaders. Be certain you do not confuse your frustration for passion and consider a demeaning attitude acceptable. Instead, if you feel frustration, anger or another negative emotion building, take the time to calm down before communicating with the team. You can be passionate, just do not be disrespectful. To help ensure you maintain the passionate focus without offending the team, keep the focus on the future and opportunity, not the past and resentment:
I know our rising costs have been a great disappointment to our team and company. I am anxious to get our cost control measures aligned with global targets. As we also reflect on the poor quality scores we recently received, I think the answer to both issues is clearly before us: we must improve overall quality, with an emphasis on reducing maintenance costs. We may not see a cost reduction this quarter, but I know, as a team, we can ensure both annual objectives are exceeded.
By communicating your changes clearly, avoiding surprises, delivering a consistent vision and controlling emotion, you promote consistent expectations for the team. If you continue to focus on serving your team over the long haul with consistent leadership, they will know what should be practiced in any given situation, minimize surprises and drive the most sustainable success.
Question: Have you seen someone use situational leadership as an excuse? How do you ensure your leadership is consistent?