Add nuance to your leadership toolbox to better manage people

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As a leader, sometimes the details count. Observing your staff can help you address their needs as individuals and as a team.

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fizkes, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Several weeks ago, I was working with one of my team members on a presentation. As the content came together, we spent a significant amount of time adjusting seemingly minor details on the fonts, text alignment and consistency between slides. I could tell my team member was getting frustrated with what they felt were rather pedantic changes.

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We paused, and I asked my colleague to put herself in our client’s shoes, who would be viewing our slides as we pitched a program that required a significant amount of user interface design that would directly impact their customers. Part of our pitch was that we would bring considerable (and certainly not inexpensive) resources to bear that would create a world-class customer experience.

I could almost see the lightbulb go on above my colleague’s head. In this context, even the most minor flaws in our pitch deck might cause the client to wonder whether we could deliver the experience we were promising if we didn’t even care enough to pay attention to details in our pitch deck.

My team ultimately won the work, and during the delivery, we once again found ourselves putting together a status report, using the consultant’s favorite canvas of the PowerPoint deck. As we discussed the content, the team suggested we plan extra time for “pixel peeping,” the humorous name we’d adapted for careful focus on detailed slide design during the pitch process. I told them we didn’t need that level of detail, and a more spartan presentation was appropriate here since our slides were designed to convey a fast-moving, test-and-learn approach that we were taking in the field. The team quickly understood that something as nuanced as the appearance of a slideshow could be used as a way to lead the client.

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Similarly, there were definite periods in the project when I counseled one of my managers to authoritatively guide the team during an uncertain time to show confidence to the team and client. During a research phase, she “led from behind” to allow the researchers to feel like they had the freedom to do their best work.

Reading the crowd

In all these cases, the best leadership style depended on a combination of the work being done, the schedule and timeline, and the overall mood and sentiment of the team. As leaders, we’re tasked with a strange combination of being active, visible and in command. We also carefully study and observe the scenarios unfolding before us and how they affect the participants.

Too often, we take a one-size-fits-all approach to our leadership styles, rather than taking the time to observe, assess and incorporate the facts on the ground and the team’s mood. The latter can sound like what my daughter calls “hippy-dippy bologna,” but we will never be effective leaders if we can’t understand and motivate the people that make up our team.

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As you develop as a leader, strive to become a student of human behavior. Study the interactions between your team members, ideally among themselves rather than when they interact with you. As you observe, ask yourself:

  • Does this team appear to enjoy working together?
  • Are they energized by the work or merely going through the motions?
  • Are they focused and working hard or bored?

The same task with the same team might require a completely different leadership style from you if the team is burned out and struggling, versus doing the same thing for the fifth time and bored to the point that attention to detail and outcome might suffer.

If this sounds overly complicated or subtle, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Imagine yourself as someone on the team, considering their energy level, how they’re feeling and what concerns they might have. As this imaginary team member, what would you want from your leader? Do you need simple acknowledgment for a job well done? Do you need a fearless leader who is front and center, protecting the team while it regroups, or do you need a leader who provides space and directional guidance?

Some of the best leaders are chameleons of sorts, readily adapting their styles and changing their leadership styles just as the lizard subtly changes its colors based on the environment. Observing and applying nuance isn’t the easiest job, but it can elevate a competent manager into a great leader.

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