How to Bridge the Leadership Perception Divide

Your team will make their greatest contributions when they are clear what it is you value most.

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Leadership style has a huge impact on how employees feel and perform at work. And while many leaders may think they inspire innovation, creativity, collaboration and other traits that move the business forward, research shows their employees might well disagree.

A July 2016 survey from VitalSmarts uncovered a huge gap between how management and employees view the company's leadership style and culture. Even worse, this gap markedly influences productivity and turnover. When employees thought leaders valued obedience, deference to authority, predictability and competition with peers, they were 32 percent less likely to be engaged, motivated and committed to their organizations. In these circumstances, employees were 26 percent less likely to rate their company as successful at innovating and executing.

Related: Why Culture Should be a Pillar of Your Business Strategy

To be effective, a leader must make sure his or her perception of personal actions does, in fact, align with how employees view these same decisions. Here's a look at a few areas where leaders miss the mark -- and how they can follow through to actually lead the way they think they already are.

Conformity versus innovation.

Many leaders think they encourage employees to innovate and approach them with new ideas, but a majority of employees feel as if they should think inside the box. In the VitalSmarts survey, employees were 53 percent more likely than leaders to say the office-culture norm is to conform, follow the rules and make a good impression.

Why do employees feel this way? No matter how much leaders think they ask employees for new ideas, employees often believe their leaders are not listening. More than 600 employees participated in the Society for Human Resource Management's 2015 Job Satisfaction and Engagement survey. They ranked having an immediate supervisor who respected their ideas among the Top 10 overall job-satisfaction factors. But only 37 percent of respondents were very satisfied with how carefully their supervisers considered those ideas. What's more, just 23 percent were very satisfied by the level of communication with senior management.

Related: How to Inspire Innovation Within Your Business

Leaders need to show they truly value innovation and new ways of getting the job done. Listening to employees' ideas is a strong start. Even if you suspect the idea won't work, don't simply dismiss it. Talk through the logistics together and explain why this particular suggestion isn't the best fit. Be sure to thank your employees for continually thinking about ways to make your business better. Additionally, consider holding informal meetings once a month to discuss and brainstorm new ideas.

Transparency versus closed communication.

Leaders tend to think they're open and honest with employees, but the VitalSmarts survey hints employees don't feel the same way. Leaders were 67 percent more likely than employees to say the norm in the office is to speak up immediately whenever there is a question or concern that could affect performance.

While leaders expect employees to come to them with questions or concerns, they don't do the same. The disconnect happens in feedback. In 2015, Interact issued its Many Leaders Shrink from Straight Talk with Employees report, which found 37 percent of managers are uncomfortable giving direct feedback and criticism when they anticipate employees may respond poorly.

Related Book: Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur by Steve Tobak

Delivering real-time, frequent feedback can help bridge the distance between viewpoints. This means communicating the good news along with the bad. Open conversations, though, shouldn't be limited to performance topics. Real transparency means addressing other uncomfortable topics with the same degree of candor. Share what's appropriate and keep employees in the loop.

Goal-oriented versus task-oriented.

Many leaders believe they're helping employees set goals and establish plans to reach them, but employees from VitalSmarts' survey were 18 percent less likely than leaders to agree this is true.

Setting goals isn't enough. These objectives sometimes get lost in the flood of day-to-day responsibilities. Think about the last time you discussed growth-plan goals with your employees? Start by assessing their stated aims. Do they have both long- and short-term goals? Are these goals realistic? And are employees held accountable for their progress?

Work with employees to set individual and team goals. Then, keep these statements top of mind. Refer to them as a guiding force in operations as well as in performance evaluations.

Competition versus teamwork.

Collaboration and teamwork have become large areas of focus for leaders, but employees aren't seeing the change. After all, respondents of the VitalSmarts survey said they felt competition with peers was valued by leaders and their company culture.

Related: 3 Things Leaders Can Learn From Great Team Builders

While goals and metrics are important, don't use them to pit employees against one another. Instead, lead the team to achieve goals together. Keep everyone on the team accountable for group goals. At the same time, keep progress toward personal goals strictly one-to-one, between leader and employee. Recognize different team members for their efforts and contributions so employees know they're valued and don't feel a need to compete.

Thuy Sindell and Milo Sindell

Principals of Skyline Group International

The Sindells are principals in Skyline Group International, Inc., Skyline Group is the leading provider of scalable leadership solutions with a foundation built upon decades of executive coaching with some of the most recognized companies in the world. Skyline is revolutionizing the leadership development industry with the C4X coaching platform. C4X is the only coaching solution that gives you the ability to develop all leaders consistently and systematically from onboarding to executive development. C4X combines a flexible and mobile technology platform (integrated assessment, personalized content, metrics, and coach management system) with the impact and connection of 1:1 coaching. Learn more at and

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