Monday, July 24, 2006

The Boss: Neutral or Ally?

There is a simple observation that misses many executives, managers, and supervisors: You cannot expect to be regarded by your employees as an ally if you act like a neutral or, worse yet, an adversary.

Adversarial leaders get a lot of ink so I’ll save them for another day. For now, let’s just consider how department, division, and team leaders often treat their employees as resources to be managed, objects to be manipulated, or specimens to be examined. This neutrality seems much safer than any messy alliances that may imply, God forbid, some commitment. “I’m neither for you nor against you,” – the leader's actions proclaim – “and as a clinically-detached enforcer of rules and regulations I can, depending on the circumstances, treat you as the body or the tumor.”

In a cool frame of mind that would make James Bond envious, the savvy leader keeps all options open. If the decision comes down to fire old Frank or Sally or everyone in the division, things won’t get too emotional. After all, we’re adults here and being an adult means getting past childish attachments. While allies want you to succeed, neutrals are more focused on enforcing standards.

The problem is that while being neutral may be oh-so-sophisticated, in the eyes of the employees it is oh-so-unworthy-of-trust. Neutrality, with its lack of passion and caring, severs any serious connection between the follower and the leader. The follower knows that the leader, despite all of the rhetorical bunkum about the group being like a family, is more than capable of throwing grandma to the wolves if it will lighten the sleigh.

Being an ally carries risk. You may have to engage in some tough love. You might have to discipline a person you’ve come to like if all of your caring efforts to improve performance don’t work. But being an ally stands a far better chance of creating a cohesive team than a cold, neutral style that fosters mistrust.

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