Hannah kicked off the New Year feeling great about the past six months. She had earned top honors as the manager on an architectural project, which had been featured in a number of magazines for its innovative design. She had also successfully managed other high-profile projects at the architectural firm where she’d been working for five years.
With a great track record, she went into her annual review meeting feeling confident and happy about her career path.
Her manager was impressed with Hannah’s outcomes this past year, and he expressed gratitude for her quality projects and dedication. Because of this, he also regretted to tell her that he could no longer overlook the complaints from Hannah’s team that had become pervasive lately. Team members were regularly stressed out, offended by her, and had even requested transfers to other departments at a high rate.
In short, Hannah’s management style seemed to be at odds with the company’s own philosophy, which was committed to cultivating a healthy, inclusive and growth-oriented environment. And while Hannah felt defensive when she first heard the negative feedback, she couldn’t deny the high turnover rate and signs of low morale on her team.
Her manager felt it was a serious enough problem that he gave her six months to turn the situation around. Fortunately the company was happy to pay for coaching because they valued Hannah so much. If things weren’t better in six months, however, they would need to pull her out of management until she could develop a leadership style that better reflected the company values.
Hannah felt some trepidation and a bit deflated, but she quickly called in to set up weekly coaching sessions for the next six months.
Hannah’s work required a lot of drive and strong leadership. She managed large-scale architectural projects around the world with a core design team. She also she served as the liaison between clients, construction foremen, and her design team. She described herself as ‘a driver who gets the job done by holding people accountable.’
When asked to think of times when conflict cropped up in the past year with her team, she recalled, “We had one particular team meeting where some of our design team was lagging, and they were holding up the project. I joked that maybe we should just call the client to tell them that we’d have the building done when we were good and ready! I was trying to make a point and push them to do better, but I know one of them must have complained because she was transferred the next week without explanation.”
Another time, Hannah remembered calling a designer out on a mistake across the crowded company cafeteria. The designer confronted her about it the next day, and she remembered defending her position by telling him that she was just trying to help fulfill their promise to get things done right and on time.
She also admitted that people often seemed embarrassed when she talked directly about mistakes in group meetings, but she didn’t feel it was helpful to dance around the issues or ignore them. People just needed to grow thicker skin because it was more important to her that they perform well for clients than to waste time padding egos.
After hearing some of these anecdotes, it appeared Hannah was so task- and results-oriented that she overlooked how others might experience her delivery. But from the perspective of her manager, all the greatest results in the world didn’t make up for the fact that the team was having a tough time with her leadership style.
Because Hannah had a really hard time seeing the negative setting she was creating, her first step was to practice putting herself in other people’s shoes. To do this, we tried to come up with times when she hadn’t gotten things done on time and someone called her out on it. It took her a while to think of examples, but when she did, she realized that in those situations, she had already felt badly about missing a deadline — and she felt much worse when a manager used shaming techniques with her.
In contrast, her current manager was forgiving and put trust in her to handle any situation that might occasionally come up. His style felt much better and actually helped her perform better because she wasn’t stressed about disappointing him or being scolded.
This was a huge moment of realization for Hannah. She could now understand on a personal level how her delivery might be harming the morale of her team — and even lower team performance.
Since her current manager’s style resonated as a good leadership model for her, we used him as a way to think about how she could hold people accountable without making them feel badly.
- She could practice acknowledging people for their strengths.
- If someone was already a great performer, she could relay her trust in them (and of course give them space to self-correct as needed)
- She could try keeping her voice neutral when following up on issues, rather than being impatient and condescending.
After doing this brainstorming, Hannah was ready to try a few new techniques out at work.
What Hannah Did
The start of the new year brought new projects, and Hannah dug in with her usual zest. She tried to take a step back when she sensed deadlines approaching where some of the work wasn’t on track for completion.
After her fist coaching calls and some improvement using her new approach, Hannah was anxious to give the team full control. When she did this, unfortunately, they ended up missing some deadlines during the adjustment period. Hannah predictably got exasperated and resorted to her old ways.
It took a few more coaching calls to find ways to balance her efforts at trusting and stepping back with kind, firm, and proactive communication. She’d done well with acknowledging people’s strengths and putting trust in them, but had subconsciously avoided trying to confront people with a more neutral tone. This didn’t come naturally at all, so she finally decided to practice it on coaching calls. Once she developed a little more comfort with it, she tried it out on the team.
In a particularly difficult meeting Hannah felt the frustration creeping in again; but she took deep breaths and tried out her new tone. She was amazed at the instant difference this small change made in the outcome!
This experience made her realize that people truly would respond to her very differently based on her tone of voice. It was another huge “ah-ha” moment, because she could actually see the changes, where she had only envisioned them before.
With much more conviction about the potential for positive changes, Hannah practiced using a neutral tone when she talked to her team more often. Any time tensions heightened, she would think of herself as an actress practicing her lines. She found that there were many ways to say, “When do you think you can get that done?” or “Tell me about why you are approaching it that way.” By stepping back and removing her emotions from these conversations, she was able to achieve a neutral, more productive tone.
To help build her team’s trust in her new approach, she also worked hard on providing positive feedback daily and focusing on her positive intention and her wish for success during times where she had to give negative feedback. Hannah quickly found that she was good at giving feedback, and because she was focusing this new approach so often, she saw continued improvement in how the entire team responded to her.
Before long, her manager was happy to report that the complaints were going away and the requests for transfers had disappeared.
Every once in awhile Hannah still finds herself feeling stressed, rushed or impatient, and she’ll notice from someone’s body language that they are shutting down. When she catches herself, she immediately apologizes for the impatient tone and takes ownership, saying it’s coming from her stress, and reassuring them that they are doing a fine job. This self-awareness has made all the difference in how people respond to her in these moments.
What Hannah Learned and How She Grew
Hannah’s first lesson was that when she feels stress, she experiences it as impatience and exasperation. Her automatic way of expressing these emotions is by getting intense, talking to people with an angry tone, and making snide remarks to let off steam. She can now see that when she falls into this behavior pattern, instead of getting her intended positive results, people shut down and shy away from her.
In order to get better outcomes on her team, Hannah now understands that she needs to continue developing more positive ways to deal with her stress.
- That she handles conversations much better when she takes a walk before she talks to anyone about something serious, which helps her remove much of the emotion in her tone.
- Her top priority is to keep her tone neutral when she talks to people to avoid hurting morale.
- It helps that she realizes that she can actually get better performance more quickly with encouragement.
- Hannah is also now reading a book called “Just Listen”and is working to become better at really hearing her team.
Thankfully, Hannah was able to make enough of these changes to create a meaningful shift in her team dynamic within six months of her annual review. Her boss is happy with her results, and has encouraged her to continue with coaching. He sees the combination of her natural talents and her newfound leadership style to be invaluable for the organization. Hannah is now in Aspyrre’s Group Coaching Program and continues to thrive!
Large-scale projects projects require strong leadership and drive to accomplish organizational goals. Yet, as Hannah learned, pushing hard for performance and results without awareness of your delivery can sabotage success by deflating the team and stifling their engagement. If you have a high performing leader in your organization who could get even better results with a more sensitive and flexible communication style, contact Nahid for a complimentary consultation.
Written by Heather Rice in collaboration with Nahid Casazza for coaching content.