August 2013
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TD Magazine

Four Ways Leaders (Unintentionally) Scare Employees

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Leaders can avoid sabotaging the success of their teams by sidestepping these simple mistakes.

Most leaders know that dread and anxiety kill employee motivation. Yet, according to Christine Comaford, author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, even good leaders can unintentionally strike fear into the hearts of their employees.

When that happens, people naturally revert to what Comaford calls "the Critter State"—meaning they're too preoccupied with keeping themselves safe to put forth the kind of innovative, collaborative, and fully engaged effort that leaders need from them.

So, what are leaders inadvertently doing to cripple their own teams?

"Help out" employees by offering solutions. According to Comaford, "When we consistently tell people what to do instead of encouraging them to figure things out on their own, we develop a company full of order-takers instead of innovators." On the other hand, when leaders enable workers to solve problems for themselves, they create a sense of safety, belonging, and mattering.

Focus on problems rather than outcomes. Viewing everything as a problem causes anxiety. The solution, Comaford says, is to switch your focus from problems to outcomes. Instead of asking "What's wrong?" ask, "What do we want?" That approach instills confidence.


Frame "change" the wrong way. People inherently resist change, so Comaford recommends that leaders present change as an improvement. "Don't use the 'C' word. Say 'growth' instead," she suggests.

Give feedback without first establishing rapport. When offering feedback, Comaford advises leaders to use two phrases: "What if ...?" and "I need your help." The first removes ego, stabilizes emotions, and enables employees to brainstorm more easily. The second is a dom-sub swap—"When the dominant person uses it, they are enrolling the subordinate person and asking them to rise up and swap roles," Comaford says.

If you recognize mistakes you have made in this list, relatively simple changes can lead to dramatic improvements in your results.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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