How to lead employees who are less open to being led

Tom Moriarty says every relationship between a leader and a follower has a dynamic level of trust; it varies with each interaction.

By Tom Moriarty

Imagine you’re blindfolded and placed in a room within a building with which you’re only somewhat familiar. Your task is to navigate your way from your current location to a point in front of the building.

Specifically, you’ll need to exit the room, go down a hall, make a turn and proceed down another hall, down two flights of stairs, then go through the foyer to a specific location 20 yards in front of the main entrance to the building. And, you must do this within a 5-minute period and end up within 5 feet of the objective.

If you try to make the journey by yourself, and you don’t cheat by lifting the blindfold, you’ll have a difficult time complying with the guidance. If you have the patience to stick with it, you will most likely not be able to make it happen within the 5-minute requirement. You’ll make choices – some will be correct and some will not – but nobody will be there to tell which ones are correct. You would feel frustrated due to unrealistic expectations, and not having the knowledge or capability, under the circumstances, to achieve the objective.

This is the feeling that workforce personnel (followers) have when they get incomplete guidance. Even those that have experience with similar circumstances may not know if they’re performing properly. They can’t be certain they’re performing the way their supervisor or manager (leader) wants them to perform.

Now imagine that you’re again blindfolded, placed in the room within the building with the same task of navigating outside within the 5-minute time limit to the specific location. This time, you have a person with you who knows the proper path out of the building (the leader). It’s this person’s responsibility to provide you directions on how to proceed. You’ll certainly have a much higher probability of achieving the objective.

How well you make the journey blindfolded becomes dependent on the attentiveness and communication skills of the person who is guiding you. For instance, what if you get to the top of the flight of stairs and the leader isn’t paying attention, or if he simply says “keep going” instead of “you are approaching the top of the stairs?” The follower would be in danger of a critical error due to no guidance or incomplete guidance, possibly tumbling down the flight of stairs. You, the follower, would take the pain, and the task likely would be disrupted or not achieved. But the root cause of the tumble would be the leader’s lack of attentiveness and/or poor communication.

You may be thinking that the best approach is to remove the blindfold and let the follower do the task. After all, it’s a pretty simple one. That’s true, but there are two concerns. First, the follower has to know the route and be open to having the responsibility for the task – not to wear the blindfold. Sometimes people are unwilling, or unable, to make that choice. Second, the leader must be willing to give up power. They must share knowledge and delegate while still being accountable – not putting the blindfold on followers. Some leaders are unwilling, or unable, to empower and delegate.

In one case, the follower puts the blindfold on themselves. In the second case, the leader puts the blindfold on the follower. In both cases, the follower is wearing the blindfold. The difference is who decides the follower will wear a blindfold.

The thing that helps a follower resist being blindfolded is the same thing that encourages a leader to not put blindfolds on followers: trust. When there’s no trust, both leaders and followers feel vulnerable. Trust is defined as confidence in the thoughts and actions of others. Confidence is attained by repeated interactions with consistent and/or predictable outcomes.

When a follower trusts a leader, that person is more willing to be empowered. A leader has the responsibility to be trustworthy. But a follower also has a duty to be trustworthy if he/she wants to be empowered. When a leader trusts a follower, that leader will be more comfortable with empowering the follower.

The goal is have high levels of trust. Realistically, every relationship between a leader and a follower has a dynamic level of trust; it varies with each interaction. When trust is low, leaders and followers each have a role in improving it.

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