Leadership, Expectations and Equity

Working in a team environment can sometimes feel like a balancing act. We are constantly balancing what we need to get done and deem important with what other people need us to get done and deem important. If we focus only on our priorities, we get them done but risk losing the trust and support of our co-workers, peers or superiors. If we focus only on the priorities of those around us, we keep the team happy at the expense of our own priorities. This balancing act becomes even more complex in a leadership role, when leaders are faced with decisions to grant or deny requests, share information or not, and assign duties and tasks. The tightrope is raised, and gets thinner, the more responsibility you have.

John Ortberg says that “leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can handle.” Leaders can’t always say yes. They cannot always be the good guy, and they sometimes have to share bad news. That precarious balancing act is always there, and a misstep can produce….ugly results. The key to making it across the wire, to mastering the art of successful disappointment, is to build equity with those around you.

Equity starts with trust and belief, and it is reciprocal. People follow leaders they trust, oftentimes because those leaders have demonstrated genuine caring and empathy for those around them. They will put up with the occasional disappointment so long as they believe in the mission and vision of the organization or the leader himself. That belief in leadership starts when a leader believes in the team and trusts them enough to give latitude (when possible) on how to accomplish a goal. By empowering employees to use their skills and creativity to find solutions, by sharing information with the team and providing a rationale behind company direction, that leader is building equity with his team. The payoff— the “cashing in” on that equity— comes when that leader needs something done immediately, by the book and with little or no explanation. No one likes the “because I said so” answer, but if there is enough equity built up, people will more willingly accept it, because they know it is the exception, not the rule.

Employees need to build equity with leadership as well. Following procedure, hitting deadlines, handling tasks and assignments with a good attitude, builds equity, which can lead to more rope and leeway when it really matters. Being able to demonstrate quality and results while sticking to the plan can lead to a more likely yes when you ask for permission . . . or more leniency when you need to beg for forgiveness.

I recently ran a communication workshop with a company to get to the heart of some internal issues, primarily between the sales and operations teams. As it turns out, no equity was being built on either side— sales was constantly pushing to get things done, regardless of timeline or procedure, while ops was demanding that procedure was followed rigidly. The breakthrough came when both sides realized that they needed to move to the center and build that equity with each other. If sales worked to follow procedure, ops would be more likely to respond positively to the occasional fire drill. If ops could work creatively with sales to find client solutions, sales would be willing to dot I’s and cross T’s more regularly. By building equity through compromise, the two sides began working more cohesively, and the entire company benefitted.

Equity comes down to expectations, and expectations are everything. Leaders can more effectively deliver disappointing news when their employees know that they will work hard to deliver the good as well. Employees can more likely get what they need when they deliver what the company needs. Build relationships and trust with people, believe in them so that they can believe in you. Establish equity with others, and give them equity in return. And watch what it does for you and your organization.

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