We all know the stories about tough leaders like Steve Jobs and their ability to engender passionate disciples while ruling with an irrationally firm hand. Demanding. Critical. Hot-tempered. Ridiculously high expectations. These are the types of words & phrases used to describe these legendary leaders.
But in the real world, demanding, critical and hot-tempered just doesn’t fly. A leader can’t behave like Steve Jobs and expect to retain their team—it just simply doesn’t work for 99.9999% of us.
Many times in the early days of running our first company, I lost my temper with an employee (especially when I was stressed about running the company!). I criticized and I complained. If things weren’t done exactly as I wanted them or if someone had not lived up to my impossibly high expectations, I was pretty vocal in my displeasure. I didn’t go on rampages, and I didn’t scream at the top of my lungs. But I would be too candid, too firm, too upset, too frank, too unpleasant about whatever the disappointment was.
And yes, my voice would sometimes be raised. So, probably someone on the receiving end of that did think I screamed at the top of my lungs and went on a rampage.
I had a low tolerance for mistakes and oversights, especially from employees who I knew were very capable—those seemed to be the ones that really got under my skin. It was just so damn frustrating to me when things weren’t done really well.
Then one day, I had the good fortune of receiving a lesson that significantly improved my ability to contain my emotions at work.
After one of my public displays of frustration, I popped by an employee’s desk to discuss something and over her shoulder I glimpsed an inter-office chat window open on her screen. It said “I hate it when Anna gets upset with people in the office. It makes me so uncomfortable.”
It all came into focus for me at that moment.
I had never thought about how my emotions at work made other people feel. Talk about self-absorbed. That was 14 years ago. I can’t say I’ve never lost my temper at work since then but now it’s few and far between.
Whereas I never thought about an outburst before, now on the rare occasion I have one, I am deeply regretful.
If you, like me, are a leader with high expectations (and who among us isn’t), keeping your cool in the face of let downs might be a challenge for you as well. That is unless you have the good fortune of coupling your high expectations with a very patient, understanding, calm demeanor—in which case, I want to be you!
I personally struggled with the balance between keeping standards and expectations high while being understanding and tolerant of inevitable disappointments. I wrestled with how to set high standards and also be sympathetic and understanding when those standards weren’t met.
I wanted to be both loved and respected yet also taken very seriously about meeting our goals and it wasn’t always clear to me how to be both. I often felt as though I was alternating erratically between complacency and rigorously high standards. Nothing about this was straightforward for me.
What I do know is that if you want to be an effective leader you must master your emotions and never lose your temper with an employee no matter the situation. Losing your temper accomplishes nothing, alienates the very people you want to inspire, and puts everyone on edge. It’s entirely counterproductive.
Will there be uncomfortable conversations when you are disappointed in an employee? Yes. Will you need to express your disappointment clearly? Yes. Should you sugar coat missteps and pretend they didn’t happen? No.
Leaders must channel their passionate enthusiasm and forever unrealistically high expectations into a positive force for good inside of their organization. I think the best example I witnessed of this leadership style was one of my son’s Little League baseball coaches, Barry.
Barry won games. He took underdog teams to the championship every year. Boys didn’t arrive late to Barry’s practice. They didn’t throw the bat when they had a rough time at the plate. They never sulked off the field with their chins down. They ran every base like a homer depended on it. Barry set the highest expectations and standards of any coach in the league and expected excellence. And the boys lived up to his expectations. He also never lost his cool when the boys missed the mark. He led with love and with inspiration and a very firm hand. Honestly, I don’t know what alchemy he used to be so effective as a leader, but I did learn some things from seeing him in action.
Tone it down.
Your level 2 frustration might be perceived as a 10 by your team. And perceptions are all that matter. People are sensitive creatures and what may feel just like a run-of-the-mill serious conversation to you may be perceived as something very different by the person on the receiving end, particularly when it is happening in public. Have hard conversations in private (or even better, with an HR representative present) and be firm and gentle. Be gentle. Be gentle.
People need to know what your expectations are and why, in a very direct way. When expectations are clear from the get-go, and when you never waver on those expectations, it makes it easier for people to achieve them. Wavering causes confusion. Clarity brings focus to everyone.
Address issues directly.
Don’t brush missed expectations under the rug, especially in an attempt to “be more zen”. When you brush things aside, you aren’t being consistent or clear, and the likelihood you then blow up later from keeping things bottled up increases.
Remember that what you focus on grows.
Whenever I am particularly troubled by the performance of a team member I spend several moments (or days if need be) reflecting on their positive traits. This “pause” button helps me put things in perspective and gives me time to cool down. It also helps me appreciate the things in that employee that are easy to lose sight of in the heat of the moment.
Consider it your social currency.
When you lose control you may feel justified at the moment but the people around you feel scared or humiliated and it never improves your relationships. When I got in touch with how much I valued strong, positive relationships with my team members it helped me keep a lid on any moments of anger. When you lose your temper you become unpredictable in your team’s eyes. And unpredictable doesn’t inspire loyalty, it bankrupts your social currency.
If you do accidentally blow, apologize right away.
If needed, apologize publicly within the organization, in addition, to directly to the person or team you lost it on.
It’s so easy to find fault with those who don’t live up to your expectations or who somehow disappoint you but simply change your entire frame of mind and be grateful for the things that they do well. A phrase I once heard from Tony Robbins helps me do this. When I am upset or frustrated with someone, I ask myself: “Where can I change expectation to appreciation?” For example, I can change the expectation that Jane should have responded to that email faster with an appreciation for how well she handled that disgruntled customer yesterday.
If I am being very honest, I’d rather be a hothead than complacent. But in the workplace (or anywhere else for that matter) no one should be made to feel uncomfortable or stressed or humiliated by emotional outbursts. The real choice isn’t to be a hothead or be complacent and it took me several years to figure that out. The real choice—the real work as a leader—is to get the best out of people, and being erratic in your temperament isn’t the way to do that.
I think the most effective leaders I have worked with were those who were very clear and direct about what they wanted to accomplish and why. That echoes the times I have probably been most effective as well—when my vision and expectations were clear and I was communicating them in a very consistent way to my team. That inspires people to want to do their very best. Which is exactly the opposite of what outbursts do.
This quote. It says everything:
“Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.” -Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People