LEADING IN UNCERTAINTY: DROP YOUR MASK
In a leadership forum earlier this week, I was asked “how do we create deeper levels of connection with our teams at this critical time?” The easy answer to this question is to communicate more effectively; to focus on the emotions of your people, to provide lots of context, to use powerful metaphors, and so on. This will certainly help.
The more challenging answer, however, is to drop your metaphorical mask; to allow yourself to be seen, and to truly see those you lead. Why? Because masking is weakness, vulnerability is strength.
Recognising that you are wearing a mask, no matter how subtle, and then dropping that mask, is the true path to deep and meaningful connection with your people. The COVID disruption gives you a real opportunity to be yourself, warts and all, because the lines between your personal and professional life have likely blurred. You might as well stop wasting your energy on pretending, and start leveraging the value that comes from being more authentic, vulnerable and human.
Why do we mask?
We mask to conceal perceived imperfections, or to project an image that we feel is necessary to get ahead and get along in our organization. Of course, as we ascend to more senior roles, it feels ever riskier to remove the mask, no matter how burdensome it becomes.
The prevailing culture in an organization often encourages masking. Perhaps leaders are expected to be perfect, to know it all, or to be infallible. Many leaders wear perfectionism as a badge of honour, but perfectionism is not about doing good; it’s about looking good. It’s driven by self-doubt, insecurity and a fear of failure.
In the past few weeks, my colleagues and I have observed a noticeable uptick in ‘superhero’ masking. There are leaders who attend back to back meetings from sun up to sun down, without admitting the need for a lunch break; or say “yes” to endless and unrealistic requests; or stress about “how things may look to others” on Zoom; or overprepare for meetings to give the impression they are in total control, amongst a host of other examples.
Why should we drop the mask?
The cost of masking is substantial for the wearer, those we lead and our organizations more broadly.
Masking encourages us to over-emphasize tasks and under-emphasize people, to devalue emotions, to appear invulnerable, and to keep others at a ‘safe’ distance. In other words, it disconnects us from those we lead, at exactly the time they need a deep sense of connection to feel safe, valued and seen.
Masking also stifles creativity and innovation. How can we expect our people to be vulnerable and take risks, if we overtly or covertly demand perfection?
Perhaps most importantly, masking creates significant internal conflict for the wearer; it requires enormous energy to maintain a pretence of perfection, or to adopt a persona that is at odds with who we are at our core.
Being authentic is far more important than appearing perfect. Our imperfections make us whole, human and much more interesting. More importantly, our imperfections enable others to connect with us; they always knew we were imperfect, so when we embrace that, they know we’re honest as well!
How can we drop the mask?
There are three steps you can take to effectively drop your mask.
- Declare your gaps. Be honest about what you know and what you don’t know; where you’re confident and where you’re not so confident. Expressing vulnerability makes others feel comfortable to do the same.
- Reframe your gaps as a strength. Choose a story that empowers you and those you lead; for example, “I don’t have all the answers, so we will lead this organization together.”
- Ask for help. The best way to influence others is to be open to their influence. Invite people in and allow them to contribute, rather than pretending you know everything, which pushes them away.
I hope this blog helps you to create deeper levels of connection with your people, right when they, and you, need it most.
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