Becky had a simple job to do.
Becky, a senior leader at her company, was to meet Will, a much more junior employee. Becky and Will had never met before. Becky’s job? Engage Will in a thirty-minute conversation.
But this was no ordinary chat. Becky was in the middle of a two-day leadership training course, and this conversation was an intentional leadership experiment. Will was a confederate in the experiment. He’d been briefed in advance, and during their time together, he was keeping track of what Becky did well to engage him, as well as what she could do better.
When their conversation was finished, Becky and Will were separated, and debriefed their experience with separate coaches.
Becky felt that the conversation went well. According to her, the time flew by, as they got into the details talking about a shared common subject: their company. There was a good back and forth of talking and listening. She said she felt very “natural”, that she was “just being herself”.
Will’s experience was quite different. Coming in, Will was already aware that Becky was much more senior than he is, and he felt anxious about it. During their meeting, Becky did nothing to put Will’s anxiety to rest. Her questions about Will and his job felt more like an interview or an interrogation than a conversation. Will never really relaxed during the meeting.
When Becky heard Will’s feedback, she was dumbfounded. How could this be? She meant well. How could she and Will have such a vastly different experience of the same conversation?
What Becky didn’t realize is one of the fundamental traps that leaders fall into: Power is blind to itself.
Becky entered the conversation with Will thinking she was “just being herself”. However, when you’re a leader, you’re never just seen as a person. You come with strings attached: specifically rank and power. and hierarchy. Others see you elevated on the hierarchy, and hold you to a different standard.
If you, like Becky, don’t consciously do something to level the uneven playing field, the relationship you create will feel uneven and uncomfortable. The onus is on you to put those you lead at ease.
The best way to do that? Reveal your humanity. For instance, you could share something personal about yourself reveals more about you as a person. Be authentic. To do this really well, risk being vulnerable—share something that goes beyond the superficial.
When people feel at ease, not only do they feel better, they perform better. Becky thought she was doing and saying the right things, but she unknowingly kept the conversation at a “strictly business” level. She could have focused on building relationship with Will first.
When you, as a leader, are authentic, you give permission to others to do the same. The sad truth is that 61% of all employees conceal part of their identity, because they’re afraid of drawing unwanted attention or making others uncomfortable. That’s a big burden to carry.
By modeling openness and authenticity, you send the signal that it’s OK for others to be full themselves.
What’s one thing you do to address inherent hierarchy in relationships? Join the conversation by leaving a comment today.