Women's Agenda: I was a bad boss and this is what I learnt -

In this article for Women’s Agenda, Michelle Gibbings bravely concedes she was once a ‘bad boss’. She took feedback from her colleagues and amended her leadership style. Here’s Michelle’s advice for leaders who find themselves in the same boat.

Fictionalised in movies, but all too real in offices, factories and worksites around the world, we’ve all worked for one — the bad boss. But have you ever wondered if you’re someone else’s bad boss?

No rational person wakes up in the morning and thinks: ‘My goal today is to be a crap boss and to make the working day for my team members hell.’ Yet it frequently works out that way.

As a boss or a leader, you may be:

  • ill-equipped for the role
  • working for a boss who puts unreasonable demands on you
  • hampered by a low level of self-awareness
  • blind to the impact you’re having on your team and colleagues
  • struggling to handle the pressure
  • working in a toxic environment
  • oblivious to what good leadership is.

I learned this the hard way, discovering through feedback that I could make life hard for my team. I was often relentless with expectations and workload, keeping my team members at a distance, and not having enough time for them.

Here’s what I learned…

You need to get real
The expectations of leaders these days are huge. You work long hours, are always on call, and must sort out complex problems and juggle competing demands; all the while knowing you face permanent job insecurity. Throw in an overly demanding boss, or stakeholders who don’t support and back you, and the pressure rises.

Most of us have an image of our ideal ‘self ’. We picture how we respond to situations, or what we might say or do if presented with a problem. Sadly, however, we don’t always live up to our expectations, and we can be blind to the impact we have on those around us.

To be an effective leader, you have to open your eyes to what is going on, by turning your ‘unconscious’ self into a ‘conscious’ self.

Take time out to reflect critically and honestly on what is going on in your world, and how internal or external circumstances are affecting you.

Take care of you
If you are working in a job you don’t like, in a toxic culture and for an over-demanding boss, then you will likely struggle to be a good leader. Similarly, if you don’t take care of yourself, then you’ll struggle to have the bandwidth to cope when things go haywire, and unproductive leadership behaviours will surface.

When you are stressed you are not at your best, and those around you will likely suffer the fallout. Staying in peak physical and mental condition is not just a nice to have; it’s essential. So set aside time to meditate, exercise, eat well and other activities that help you unwind and recharge.

Change starts with you
You can’t expect others to effectively lead if you aren’t willing to role model the desired behaviour.

Harvard academics, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey studied why many crucial change efforts fail, finding that one of the core problems is the gap between what is required and a leader’s level of development.

As they write in their book, Immunity to Change: “…it may be nearly impossible for us to bring about any important change in a system or organisation without changing ourselves (at least somewhat)…”

Achieving this requires you to delve into the meaning that drives your behaviour, the mental models you are applying to the decisions you are making, and knowing your leadership moments of truth. These moments are the actions which define how colleagues, peers and team members view your leadership. It may be the gap between what you say and what you do, how you promote and recruit, and how you reward people.

With that knowledge in hand, you can build an approach to elevate your leadership.

Learning never stops
Making leadership progress isn’t about the one big thing you do. It’s about the things you do every single day. Some will be tiny, and others are big; some quickly noticeable, some not.

Leadership development is an ongoing journey of discovery. The learning never stops. Equally, be prepared for progress to take time. While you may notice some shifts around the edges quite quickly, most change takes at least six to 12 months of sustained effort to translate into tangible benefits and outcomes. Don’t be put off or disappointed if progress isn’t as fast as you’d like it to be.

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