It’s great to be in a position of authority — you have a unique chance to get things done and move your business forward. Command, though, is a funny thing: It’s useful only when others accept your right to wield it.
On paper, being a boss does mean that you can fire someone who doesn’t follow your direction. However, that’s no way to motivate people: It’s a way to give up on them.
Power doesn’t come from a title alone. It comes from having created a state of interdependency, according to Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School Linda Hill in her Big Think Edge video “Influencing Others: Manage Yourself.”
As your team’s leader, all eyes are on you. As Hill says, “They’re watching your non-verbals, they’re really paying attention to your words.” In particular, they’re looking at two aspects of your personality: your intentions and your competence. It’s vital that you develop the habit of sending out the right signals if you want your team to trust you.
Signal Your Good Intentions with Your Behavior
Your team needs to feel confident that you’re looking out for the entire company, and for them — not just for yourself and your personal ambitions. If they feel that you care only about your own success, so will they.
Signal Competence with Your Behavior
The team also needs to be able to trust in your competence so that when you ask them to do something, they assume you have a good reason. This is especially helpful when they don’t immediately see what it may be.
On those rare occasions when you really aren’t certain about something, it’s best be honest about it, so long as you also signal that you’re doing everything you can to strengthen your grasp of the issue. In such a case, the best use of your authority could be to get everyone together to brainstorm the optimal solution — it’s certainly better than leaving your team with the feeling that you’re bluffing.
Remote team members are a special challenge
Off-site team members are particularly dependent on your signaling, since they don’t benefit from daily, face-to-face interaction with you. The key is to keep their unique perspectives in mind. Hill cites some common behavior that can make a virtual worker question both your competence and your appreciation of their value: “Do you ever adapt to them? Do you always hold the meetings at a time when it’s 9:00 in the morning for you, but frankly, it’s a very inconvenient time for them?”
Watch for Others’ Signals
Of course, your direct reports are continually sending signals to you as well. Remaining observant is important, since a broken or weakened relationship can be hard to repair and may only get worse over time. It’s likely that either your intentions or competence have somehow come into question. Taking it personally won’t make things better. Calmly correcting a misunderstanding might.
Are Your Intentions in Question?
If you get the sense that something you’ve done has created an inaccurate impression — such as an action taken in a hurry with no time to explain — consider sharing your reasons for that action afterward. As Hill says, “Maybe it didn’t look so good on the surface, but you do often have to make some tough decisions that might confuse people about whether or not you’re well-intended.”
Is Your Competence in Question?
Something you’ve done might have brought your abilities into question for a team member. “People aren’t stupid,” says Hill, “they know when …you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Another person’s faith in your judgement is a difficult thing to restore, but your best option is to provide evidence that you’re aware of and addressing any mistakes you may have made.
Hill suggests saying something along the lines of, “By the way, these are some things that I know and I know I’ve been put in this position because I know this piece of the puzzle of the job, but I know that I have a lot to learn here.” No one can reasonably be expected to know everything — even you — and such a statement can even cause its recipient to feel personally invested in your growth as a leader. It turns a problem into an opportunity for greater team interdependence, the very thing a smart manager seeks to strengthen each day.