Understanding what your staff think of you, and what impact you have on them, is a powerful source of insight – if you listen, says HR expert Viv Foster.

Think about the best boss you ever had. How did they help you to develop and to enjoy your role? Now think about the worst boss you ever had? What made that person so lousy? As a leader your actions and behaviour will have a significant impact on how your staff members feel about their jobs. Show me a team with high performing, loyal and motivated staff, and I will show you a great leader at its head – even if he or she is not aware of it.

When I have been asked to help improve a team’s performance, I often discover (from candid conversations with staff) that the biggest problem is the leader who had asked for my help in the first place. Invariably, this revelation comes as a complete surprise to that manager.

So what might your team members say about you behind your back? The trouble with being the boss is that you rarely get to know – even in a small firm. If people are talking about your decision to grow a beard, or that radical new haircut, then probably it doesn’t matter. If, on the other hand, they’re discussing something you are doing which is making their jobs harder, it’s much better to know before your business starts to suffer.

If you don’t understand how your leadership style affects your staff, you are running your team blindfolded. Being a good leader, including being open to feedback (both positive and negative), makes good business sense.

That’s because employees who are engaged, motivated, clear on what they have to deliver, and feel supported to deliver it, will outperform their peers every time. And so will your business.  You may hope that is how your team members feel…. but do they?

It’s what you do, not what you say

I have worked with leaders of different-sized business in various sectors and have found time and time again that there is a tendency for them to underestimate the impact their everyday actions have on their staff.

Often, they spend time setting out their visions, explaining how they want to see things done and what are the core values that should guide their team’s behaviour. But they are often left frustrated when these messages don’t get through. What they don’t understand is that their own behaviour may undermine, or even contradict, those key messages.

It is only natural for employees to look at what their leaders do, rather than listen to what they say, to show them what are the business’s real priorities. Nobody likes a hypocrite, especially as a boss. You are far more likely to get the results you want if your behaviour supports your stated vision.

So what messages do you send to your teams by how you behave? Here are some of the ways I have witnessed leaders unintentionally sabotage their efforts to run a great team.


What you say What you do And what they hear
“We all work as one team here” Focus most of your management time on your client-facing staff. Some staff members are more important than others.
“Customer service is our priority” Ignore emails from your team because you are too busy to reply. It’s OK to ignore some important people if you’re too busy to deal with them.
“I want my staff to make their own decisions” Want to know every detail of what’s going on in your team, and tend to overrule things you don’t feel comfortable with. It’s best to double-check everything with me first as I don’t trust you.
“Innovation is key to our success” Disregard suggestions from staff about how to improve the way they work. Don’t bother with innovation because I won’t listen to you.
“The development of my staff is really important” Cancel one-to-one meetings, move appraisals, don’t have coaching conversations. You don’t care about my development.
“There’s an exciting vision and future for this team” Shut yourself in your office when you’re not out with clients. You have little day-to-day contact with us. We don’t really know what’s going on in this business or how we are part of it.


If you can’t understand why your team isn’t performing quite as you’d like, a good place to start is by analysing your own performance.

Your employees are your most powerful tool for the future growth and success of your business. But they need a self-aware and consciously good leader. It might be necessary for you to take off that blindfold, take a long, hard look in the mirror to make sure you are the boss they need.

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