You are on an airplane, 35,000 feet above the ground, flying from the East Coast to the West. Summer thunder storms have stirred up the atmosphere and the ride has been choppy for some time. The Pilot’s first “seat belts please” message included the statement that this moderate turbulence would last for some time. Moderate you’re thinking, it certainly seems a bit rougher to you than that. Now the pilot is back on the intercom attempting to reassure that everything is under control and states that a new altitude has been requested seeking smoother air. But there is something in his or her voice that suggests unease and perhaps a little nervousness and doubt. How do you feel?
Among the adjectives you conjure up, I’ll bet there are several that indicate that you are now somewhat concerned. Why?
For one, we have all been conditioned from early childhood to look to our authority figures for calm reassurance that no matter what, they are doing everything possible to handle the matter at hand. It’s not that we don’t expect them to occasionally be confused, uncertain, or even wrong. But we do expect that they be focused, calm, and confident that a solution will be found. Any suggestion that those in charge have lost faith in their own ability to cope is downright disquieting.
I remember descriptions of fighter pilots from Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff” working feverishly to pull their doomed airplane out of a death spiral right up to the moment of impact. And I recall — more recently — a US Airways pilot landing his powerless Airbus A320 safely in New York’s Hudson River. Now that is confidence and concentration.
True, managers aren’t airline pilots but managers are designated authority figures and their subordinates and colleagues watch their moods and demeanor closely every day. This is especially true when workplace activity becomes hectic, there are problems needing immediate management attention, and the general level of stress is on the rise.
Managers who become shaken easily, seem uncertain and unsure of themselves, get uptight, display anger and a temper, or seem to shrink in stature under pressure and stress, do not instill confidence in those around them. No matter their actual competence, in a crunch they generally do not seem like competent leaders from the perspective of those who may need leading. And it is hard for any work unit to perform at their focused best when their leader appears somewhat unglued.
Over the years, a few managers have pointed out to me the unfair burden inherent in needing to appear confident and cool, when actually that is precisely not what they are feeling inside. Perhaps unfair, I reply but important none-the-less.
We humans need, and have come to expect, that those who willingly accept the mantel of authority and leadership will step up to a challenge when required. Moreover, our willingness to follow instructions, obey even seemingly unreasonable orders, and focus all of our attention and energy on accomplishing some goal, is heavily influenced by the confidence we place in the competence and self-confidence of the person in charge.
Even when we have little concrete information regarding the leader’s experience and past performance record, we subconsciously intuit a mental image of it by reading her or his tone of voice — the cockpit pilot above — facial expressions, and body language. Now that may seem a little scary because it is hard for us to control what is usually unconscious on our part, but it is true.
So what do you do? Like so many other elements of managing people, you need to think frequently about how you come across to your subordinates, especially during stressful times and in a crisis. If uncertain, ask some colleagues for a “no-kidding” assessment. The more self-awareness you develop, the more self-control you gain.
And do not confuse letting others know you want their help to figure out a correct course of action, with displaying a lack of confidence. Rather it is a mature way of indicating your confidence that a collective set of inputs will likely develop a better set of options, than relying on yours alone. What your subordinates care about is your focused and confident ability to develop possible solutions, not you having them all yourself.