Are you a “my way or the highway” kind of boss? If you haven’t yet figured it out, this approach makes your team less, not more, effective. Instead of practicing leadership from the top down, try leading from the bottom up. How can you do that?
The Secret To Success
1. Walk in your employees’ shoes from time to time. It’s essential for small-business owners to delegate if they want to grow their businesses, so I’m certainly not implying you should spend all your time doing lower-level tasks like ringing up sales or packing orders. However, if you’ve gotten to the point where all you do is high-level stuff and you’re never down in the trenches with the people who actually make your business run, you’re missing out on many things.
First, you’re likely not interacting directly with customers. Second, you’re not seeing when processes and systems in your business are no longer working and need to be updated. Third, you’re building a wall between yourself and your employees. Make sure you regularly spend some time working side by side with everyone on your team—from the salespeople to the sales clerks.
2. Solicit opinions—then listen and act. Lots of business owners say they want their employees to offer opinions or suggestions, yet never act on the ideas. It’s easy to get defensive when someone criticizes the way you run things and instinctively dismiss what they have to say. Instead, take some time to truly consider the ideas—and not just by yourself. Involve your whole team in discussing employee ideas and suggestions. (You can keep them anonymous, which obviously makes it easier to get honest opinions and discuss them openly.)
This doesn’t mean you always have to act on the will of the majority: After all, you’re the boss, and this is a business, not a democracy. However, it does mean you need to sincerely consider ideas and suggestions and why they will or won’t work. It also means you need to share your decisions and the reasons behind them with your staff. This will help give employees a big-picture view of how your business works, enabling them to be more invested in your company and to come up with better and more targeted suggestions in the future.
3. Listen to what your employees aren’t saying. No matter how good a boss you are or how well your team gets along, sometimes employees are still reluctant to say what’s on their minds. This is why it’s crucial to keep your ear to the ground and pay attention to the mood in the office. Often, what employees don’t say speaks louder than words. Is absenteeism increasing with no obvious reason? Are two people who used to be buddies suddenly refusing to work with each other? Has someone stopped meeting his or her goals? Observe the situation and you’ll likely spot clues to the real problem, which you can then address. If human behavior isn’t your strong suit or you’re not a good observer, enlist another key employee or manager to scope things out and report back to you.
4. Give (and get) lots of feedback. As you engage with your employees, be sure to offer ongoing feedback. Most bosses give too little feedback, and most employees can’t get enough. Make sure your feedback ratio is more positive than negative—if you’re constantly criticizing, your employees will wish you’d stayed in your office. By offering on-the-spot feedback when you see an employee doing something right, or gently correcting when he or she does something wrong, you’re able to mold employee behavior. That starts a positive cycle where employees do better, then feel better about their performances so they’re even more motivated to do more.
The side benefit to giving frequent feedback—and what makes it a great “bottom up” leadership tactic—is that it often leads to a conversation that gives you some feedback as well. For example, if you compliment an employee on the professional way she handled an irate customer, she may tell you how she manages to stay calm in that type of situation or what other tactics work for her. These are ideas you can share with the rest of your staff, perhaps creating an internal “best practices” exchange.
The Boss Isn’t Always Right
Small-business owners tend to be stubborn, and we often have preconceived ideas about the right way to do things. But even if you’ve earned an MBA, have decades of experience in your industry or three successful startups under your belt, that doesn’t mean you’re always right. The real secret to bottom-up leadership is being open-minded enough to acknowledge someone else’s experience, perspective or expertise. That way, instead of forcing goals, quotas or processes on your employees from the top down, you can truly listen to them, modify your thinking and create new goals or processes that reflect your entire company—from the bottom up.
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