Have you ever had one of those moments when you sense something’s not quite right? One minute everything seems to be traveling along just fine and suddenly, without warning, it clearly isn’t ‘fine’.
If you’re in a leadership role, chances are you face this scenario often. It only takes one conversation or action to be misunderstood.
Where yesterday your team was working well and hitting their goals, today you’re met with stony silent avoidance or too carefully crafted responses that indicate all is not well.
As you reflect back over conversations and wrack your brain to try and identify what happened, you draw a blank. You can’t recall anything obvious and you’re stumped.
Of course you could just ask your team but without anything tangible to go on, you’re unlikely to get a truthful answer.
So… what’s going on here?
Chances are you’ve inadvertently crossed what I call a ‘Leadership Fine Line’. Like stepping on a landmine you simply didn’t see, the effects can be long lasting and damaging to your leadership credibility.
While the goal is to avoid Leadership Fine Lines all together (tip: activate your internal Self-Awareness Detector), it's likely you will unintentionally cross one or more throughout your career. Luckily it is possible to recover and strengthen your credibility.
What Are Leadership ‘Fine Lines’?
First, we have to understand what Leadership Fine Lines actually are. While there are many more, the following 5 examples are the most common:
1. Confidence and Arrogance
If your team, colleagues and senior managers are going to believe and have confidence in you, you have to believe in and back yourself. This includes trusting your judgement and being assertive.
But when you stubbornly stick to your position (even when new information suggests you should change it), you risk moving onto the dangerous ground of arrogance. Failing to listen and genuinely consider others’ perspectives will frustrate your team and cause them to shut down all together.
Likewise, promoting your own achievements over those of your team or disregarding other’s priorities will soon see you labelled as ‘arrogant’.
While confidence is admirable, if you struggle to demonstrate ‘confident humility’ you may be more prone to crossing the Confidence/Arrogance fine line.
2. Influence and Manipulation/Coercion
One of the most common leadership skills clients seek help with through Executive Coaching is increasing their ability to influence. Strengthening your influence is a powerful way to boost your credibility, effectiveness and impact.
And yet, when you’re influencing someone to change their mind; back your proposal or buy-in to your idea, it can be all too easy to inadvertently tip into manipulation. When you are heavily invested in a specific outcome, it’s tempting to convince and coerce others to side with you.
If you pause to consider the situation through the lens of your own integrity and it feels uncomfortable, it could be a sign that you’ve already crossed over to this Fine Line’s dark side.
3. Lying, Omitting and Telling the Truth
Regardless of how honest we like to think we are; research suggests otherwise. According to a study published in the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 60% of people lie at least once in ten-minute conversation.
According to the research, people do this because they want to be likeable and viewed as competent. This means that during even a brief conversation, someone is probably telling a lie or two.
And then there’s the situation where we simply withhold information, keeping quiet about facts that don’t support or threaten the ‘party line’. A classic example would be when you know all about an upcoming restructure but your team doesn’t yet.
You dread any of them asking you directly because you know you need to avoid the conversation until the official announcement is made. Withholding or telling the truth can be a tough ethical decision to make.
4. Caring Enough and Caring Too Much
Making time to care for your team and showing genuine concern are essential leadership traits. But how far do you go?
When a team member confides in you about a distressing personal matter what do they need from you? If you enquire again, it may be seen as prying. If you don’t, they might feel like you don’t genuinely care.
And then, when your team member tells you they have no one else to talk to about it, you may begin to feel overly responsible for their emotional well being.
Before you know it, you’re constantly worrying about the situation and doing everything you can to help. We all need to be needed, right?
But, when you become over-invested, it’s too easy to lose perspective and cross the fine line into caring too much, believing you are the only person who can help.
When the burden of responsibility impacts your own well being and relationships, it may be a sign that you are caring too much.
5. Professional and Personal Friendships
Related to #4, it’s also important to build trust and rapport with your team. And yet, fostering personal friendships, spending increasing non-work time with them, runs the risk of blurring the boundaries.
Are you friend or leader first and can you be both?
As a leader, there will be times when you need to have hard conversations and make difficult decisions that your team members won’t like. And, by association, they may not like you for demonstrating necessary leadership.
And then there’s the risk to your credibility and reputation based on how others in your organisation perceive the closeness of the relationship.
It’s only a matter of time before people begin to notice repeated long lunches, seemingly private glances exchanged in meetings and you avoiding conversations about what you did over the weekend because it involved spending time with one of your team members.
While it’s no one else’s business what you do outside work hours, others will draw their own conclusions. Before you know it, your reputation as a respected leader is tarnished, regardless of how innocent the relationship is.
Dismissing or ignoring the rumours has a way of making you look like you have something to hide which can raise questions about whether you can be trusted.
We spend so much time at work, it’s natural that professional friendships develop over time. It’s when the friendship tips into being far more personal than professional, you can find yourself skating on thin ice.
Why Psychological Safety Matters
In the split second it takes for you to decide what you will believe and do, it is likely the degree to which you feel psychologically safe will inform your decision. Many of our behaviours are guided by what we believe will help us feel safe.
Likewise, how your team and colleagues react will be heavily influenced by whether they believe it will be safe or dangerous and career limiting to speak up.
In predominantly psychologically safe work places, crossing a Leadership Fine Line creates the opportunity to deepen understanding, learn and grow. However, if your workplace culture is one where people are afraid to speak up and fear the consequences you'll likely feel isolated and unsupported.
In this case, reaching out for independent, external support is a positive first step.
How to Bounce Back When You’ve Crossed a Leadership Fine Line
As every Leadership Fine Line crossing is different, there is no ‘one simple way’ to resolve them all. When coaching leaders facing these predicaments, their answers to the following questions have been helpful:
- What were the events leading up to the situation and what are the facts?
- How do I feel about it and what is the meaning I and others are putting on the situation?
- What was my intention?
- How did I contribute to the situation?
- Which of my core values came into play and which ones may I have overlooked?
- Knowing what I know now (but didn’t foresee at the time), what could I have done differently?
- What do others expect me to do now?
- What would I expect someone else to do now, if this had happened to them?
- If this was resolved and no longer a problem, what would ‘resolved’ look like?
- Based on the above, what will I do now?
Crossing Leadership Fine Lines is more common than you realise. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s easy to forget that all leaders face these situations throughout their careers.
Regardless of how you choose to manage them, the most important part of the process is to learn from them.
Once you’ve identified and taken on the lesson, hindsight and wisdom will protect you from stepping on the same leadership landmine in the future.
Accepting and owning any errors in judgement you may have made will go a long way to restoring your credibility. To err is human and leaders who acknowledge their unintentional mistakes gain far more respect than those who reject or deflect responsibility.
Seeking constructive advice and support from trusted friends, colleagues, mentors or your coach is one of the most effective ways to resolve your inner conflict and map out the best way forward.
If you're feeling challenged about navigating the ethical minefield that is leadership, let's connect and see how I may be able to help you develop the mindset and strategies you need to stay on the right side of the line.