When Leaders Lack A Backbone

There are few things more difficult in the workplace than leaders who lack a backbone.

The second rung on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (above physiological needs of air, water, food, shelter, etc.) is safety and security.

Safety and security in the workplace boils down to trust and a sense of understanding standards.

In other words, it is known what is expected and that leadership will support and uphold known standards (policies/procedures).

A sense of safety and security has a big impact on employee morale. Of course we know that morale is tied to important things like employee engagement and satisfaction (just do a Google search for employee morale and employee engagement/satisfaction and see the myriad of results).

Morale and the resulting engagement and satisfaction is where the “success factor” lies, which explains why large research organizations, such as Gallup, spend high levels of resources on this and related topics.

What articles about increasing employee engagement/satisfaction frequently assume is that leadership is trusted. The suggested behaviors to raise morale and increase engagement and satisfaction only make an impact if the leader isn’t being second-guessed or dismissed every step of the way.

If the leader is not trusted, any action (perhaps outside of obvious vulnerability) will be looked at as having a hidden agenda.

There are many ways leaders lose trust. One of them is lack of support. In other words, lacking a backbone and feeling unable to uphold standards in the face of opposition.

When leaders fail to consistently uphold standards, employees lose motivation to engage.

Lack of leadership support generates an underlying feeling of not wanting to uphold standards or policies. Because, let’s face it, there’s no use expending energy enforcing something that will only be overturned by leadership.

Here are three huge steps leaders can take to build trust and keep the backbone strong for their team:

  1. Understand the nature, background, and history of policies and procedures. If questions arise regarding what has been done before, it is always appropriate to make sure it is still up-to-date and then respond. If it isn’t, make appropriate changes with an informed group.

  2. Don’t promise anything or make a decision without talking to everyone involved. Enough said.

  3. Become comfortable with making a decision. If decisions don’t come naturally, an option is to say this decision is for a certain amount of time and data will be gathered to determine if the decision needs to be changed.


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