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5 Tips for Being a Human Leader

I know a leader who is doing everything right and losing his people because of it.

This leader might more aptly be described as a manager. After all, leaders have followers... And he doesn't. The only thing being followed on his team is the rule book.

This senior manager takes comfort in the rules and boundaries and policies and procedures and protocols he's established. He delights in having clear and inviolable rules. His authority, he thinks, is the sum total of all these rules.

As you'd expect, others view him as rigid and uptight. He considers that assessment to be a compliment.

The problem is that his rules and rigidity get in the way of his workplace relationships. By putting policies before people, he is alienating his team.

Rules are meant to provide a framework. Sure, some rules must be absolute. But most should be guidelines. For example, rules that stem from employment law must be abided by so there are no legal violations. But rules pertaining to expense allowances could be flexible depending on the situation.

Recently, this manager denied a reimbursement because an employee exceeded the daily hotel and meal allowance while on a business trip. The trip necessitated staying in downtown Manhattan where virtually no hotels and restaurants could be found within the allowed daily totals. Typically, this employee and her colleagues travel only to mid-size Midwestern cities where those allowances are adequate. It seems an exception would be reasonable. But this manager does not believe in making exceptions.

The same manager is unyielding when it comes to filling out forms. He's a real stickler for precision, and he fears being audited. He doesn't allow cross outs or white out on any form submitted (which are all produced by hand with no soft copy form available). When mistakes are made, employees have to start over. These forms are complex and detailed. They take a lot of time. And they must be perfect.

In his former job, this manager worked at a Fortune 100 on the East Coast. The dress code, hierarchical structure and workplace relationships were very formal. For over five years now, he's been working on the West Coast in an environment that is much more relaxed. Most people wear jeans. There is no formality in the hierarchy. But he continues to wear a suit to work every day and to insist that people follow the chain of command. He doesn't particularly care that he looks and acts differently. In his mind, this is the "right" way to do things.

He's been advised to loosen up. He's had a 360-degree assessment that clearly spelled out why he's losing people. He just can't grasp that being "right" could be wrong.

These 5 tips could help him find a balance between doing the right thing and doing what's right.

1. Realize there are few absolutes. It may feel murky to operate in the gray area, but that's where relationships are formed. Taking time to evaluate unique situations shows empathy and concern for individuals. Refusing to do so suggests that people are not valued.

2. Put people before policies and processes. Most rules are established to protect and help people. When the rules negatively impact people, it may be time to take a second look at them. Rules are never meant to become a bludgeoning force that prevent people from doing their work effectively. When people are surfacing issues related to existing policies and procedures, take the time to listen and understand the impact.

3. Don't use formality as a shield. Over-relying on the rule book is lazy. It's also cowardly. If all we needed were rules, why bother employing managers? If most of your work time is spent on policing people and enforcing rules, something is wrong. (Hint: it's probably not the people.) Dressing formally, speaking formally, conducting business with your own team formally... All these are a sign of separation when they don't fit the environment. Leaders don't seek ways to separate themselves. Instead, they find ways to connect.

4. Be human. Who wants to work with a robot? While predictability and consistency have their place, they shouldn't override human discernment and evaluation of unique variables. Being human requires connecting with people, human-to-human, and engaging enough to understand a given situation and the people involved. Being human requires being vulnerable and maybe even making mistakes. Worth noting: not humanizing the workplace is a very big mistake, so the trade off here is not as big as it seems.

5. Don't assume the worst about people. We all live up or down to the expectations of others. Assuming that people will take advantage of flexibility is cynical and unfair. Treating people like they are thieves when they exceed the per diem reflects poorly on the manager himself. Erecting barriers to avoid workplace relationships telegraphs that people are not worth your time and interest. Give people grace, the benefit of the doubt, your support... And you'll get theirs in return.

Leadership isn't a solo act. Leaders need people, and people need leaders more than they need rule-abiding managers. To be a leader, you have to love 'em or you'll lose 'em.

CONNECT 2 Lead graphic smalThe CONNECT2Lead Blog and training programs are products of People First Productivity Solutions. We build organizational strength by putting people first. If you’d like to read more in the Love 'Em or Lose 'Em Series for Leaders, subscribe to our weekly CONNECT2Lead Newsletter for special offers, content, and blog posts.