We all remember that manager who inspired us.  The one who pushed us to achieve our best and helped us to feel skilled and valued at work.  We also remember that other manager who made showing up each day a drudgery and who seemed to steal the joy out of our jobs.  If asked, we might easily be able to rattle off the traits that made one of them great and the other awful.  But, if you look closely, you might find that most of them are really just two sides of the same coin.

Most of us who have years of experience in management have long ago realized that the line between effective and ineffective leadership can be razor thin at times and that good management comes from learning how to walk that line as well as possible.  A valuable skill that we think of as a strength can quickly become a weakness if we don’t master the whens, wheres and whys of how to use it.  Assertiveness can become bossiness in a blink.  One moment you are a visionary with a clear goal and the next you are too rigid and not open to your employees’ input.   Your openness to feedback has always been an asset until you are accused of being indecisive.

No manager has ever walked this line perfectly, so let’s throw that goal out the window right now.  Rather, we want to constantly be evaluating which side of the line we are on and then course correcting; the more balanced our trajectory walking this line, the more effective a leader we will be.  This thinking follows one of the secrets to success in life: Be aware of where you are.  Keep track of where you want to be.  Adjust as needed.

With that in mind, let’s look at one of the trickier leadership traits to find a balance on: Respect.  We all understand the inherent value of fostering respect from our employees but often don’t realize we are trying to balance two different types of respect:

Personal Respect – The feelings and attitudes your employees have about you as a person.

Role Respect – How much your employees respect your position of authority.

In order to operate as an effective manager, we must garner respect for our role.  We are the final decision maker and our employees should understand and respect this role clearly.  However, if we put too much emphasis on just this type of respect (eg “do what I saw because I am the boss”), we end up with resentful and passive-aggressive staff.

Likewise, there is great benefit to the workplace if employees have a deep personal respect for their manager.  If they like and value you, they are more likely to enjoy their jobs and feel supported.   But, if you stray too much to this side of the line, i.e. you are too busy being a friend and not setting limits, you risk employees becoming less productive and feeling entitled.

So, the skill that defines a great manager is the ability to walk that tightrope between personal and role respect, managing to maintain both and catching herself when she strays a bit too far one way or the other.  Here are some ideas to consider when trying to manage that balance:

Understand the reason for the balance.  The value of personal respect is not just so you can feel liked in the workplace.  We foster personal respect so that we can utilize role respect most effectively.   When our employees like us, we have leverage to help them achieve the goals and make the changes that are required of them.

Be Empathic but emphatic.  One of the great skills a leader can learn is the caring no.  When an employee wants something that is not practical (for whatever reason), you don’t dismiss them with a flat “no” and “there’s nothing to discuss.”  If you do this, you have strayed too far to one side of the line.  But you also do not give in just because it is really important to them.  The middle road allows you to listen, value their opinion, empathize with their position and explain why the answer is still not what they want to hear.

Allow respectful disagreement. Do not be afraid to let your staff share their opinions, even if they disagree with your own.  Teach the difference between hearing them and agreeing with them.  Just because you understand a concern, doesn’t mean you’ve been convinced by the argument.  If they respect you, their disagreement is not meant to undermine your authority and, if they respect your role as manager, they will accept that your decision is final. You care what they think and how they feel but ultimately the decision rests with you.

Set clear expectations but allow room to be creative within those expectations.  As the manager, you are required to set the parameters for any given task.  However, you usually have latitude within those parameters.  Be clear with staff about what must be done a certain way (eg the timeline of a project, the budget, etc.) but then give them as much latitude within that structure to be creative.  As you know, the more decisions individuals make themselves, the more ownership they have of the final product.  Set the limits and boundaries and then build their respect for you by showing your respect for their abilities to get the job done.

Explain your rationale.  We have all heard about the importance of transparency but I know that sometimes management can feel like it is giving in to entitled employees when “because I am your boss” should be enough.  This is another good example of where finding the balance can serve you.  We do not explain decisions because we need staff approval; we explain decisions because we understand that it reduces anxiety and increases buy-in.

Create opportunities for equality.  Allow spaces where you are on equal footing with your staff and your opinion has no more sway than theirs.  This might include regular brainstorming meetings or opening up a portion of staff meetings for feedback.   If your staff sees you giving them opportunities to have power, they will be less frustrated during the times when they have less of it.

Be the example. Live the rules you expect others to.  Nothing undermines staff respect for you, both as a person and a manager, then seeing you bend your own rules.  If you take a long lunch, why shouldn’t they?  If you always make your bosses out to be the bad guy for every unpopular decision, why should your employees take any responsibility?  Spend time on the front lines with your staff, seeing the work they do, learning from them and showing that you understand their jobs.  If you show them that you understand their daily pressures, they will be more understanding of yours.

Like many aspects of management, finding the right balance around respect can be challenging.  Only by understanding the negative sides to seeking too much respect for your role as a manager or too much respect for you as “one of the group,” can any of us hope to balance our way across that tightrope effectively.



This article by Pete Small was published in The Skyline Group’s C4X Newsletter, April 2013 edition