One of the biggest pitfalls for leaders and managers in business is a rock-solid belief in their own impartiality. Long experience and intimate knowledge of situations and people mean they must know best.
It's a problem when it comes to relationships and diversity - in how different types of people are perceived and treated; when it comes to assessing new ideas; to dealing with disagreements over strategic direction, when acting as judge or arbitrator in cases of conflict in the workplace; whenever it comes to making personal judgments on other people.
This lack of curiosity, this complacency, means directors don’t ask questions and aren’t open to learning. Attitudes and ideas start to ossify as more junior managers look to just get in line with the behaviours coming from the top. That means a lack of innovation on one side, and on the other, the inability to think differently, to appreciate and understand contrary positions - in other words, a recipe for niggling disagreements and a block to innovation.
Being impartial is a quality that can and needs to be learnt. And is an essential part of building a reputation as a good manager and leader.
1. Be curious. It’s the first set to ridding yourself of assumptions and prejudice. That means learning to listen in an active way, not half-heartedly while you formulate your expert, informed response. Listening and wanting to listen leads to good habits: the ability to see the value of different perspectives, to value diversity, to have empathy and the will to test your own assumptions, to have a thirst for new thinking.
2. Get to the heart of issues. Ask exploratory questions and show a meaningful interest in what an employee thinks, believes, fears and wants. Not only is curiosity a really strong working relationship building tool, it also gives you more information which will help with the problem-solving. Recognise your version of events is composed of a mix of fact, fiction and assumptions, and try to separate what you know, what you believe, and what you are unsure of, before you open your mouth.
3. Make it a two-way conversation. Leaders also need to feel able to express and be open about their thoughts and feelings. They need to have a sense of benevolence - to genuinely want the best for the organisation and other individuals as well as themselves. And courage - essentially - to be willing to initiate sometimes awkward situations, to speak honestly and be vulnerable personally for the sake of dealing with situations that are harming other people. A coaching style, based on two-way conversations, supports the growth of motivation and commitment rather than setting limits based around hierarchy. Fundamentally, managers need to make mature decisions about when they need to use their authority, when it’s time for control, when for collaboration.
4. Don’t duck out of difficult conversations. Being detached from disagreements and conflict, just looking on from a distance isn’t always going to help. Challenging conversations are good for business - for encouraging new perspectives and innovation, as a basis for a better working environment, better self-awareness, more positivity and sense of motivation. It’s what accepting diversity is all about. Actively decide a conversation is needed - don’t be bounced into it by circumstances or in an emotional way. Plan what you want to accomplish: ’what do I need to talk about? what do I really want for myself, for them, for the relationship?’. Find ‘something in it for them’ to talk – a mutual purpose.
5. Reflect. Managers tend to develop strong relationships with some members of their team and not others. It’s important to think about where these relationships are, the gaps this leaves, the impact on those not included in the circle. You should be asking for feedback from the team on the state of relationships and level of inclusion. Because ultimately for there to be inclusion there needs to be trust. And that means ensuring people feel its safe to share the full extent of their feelings and opinions. It’s the leaders who set the tone through their willingness to listen, the impartiality they exhibit.