Want to know how people feel when you lead poorly?
Think of a time when you’ve felt misunderstood.
Not making people feel understood undermines your ability to lead them. Try pausing for a minute to remember a time someone you cared about didn’t understand you. How did it feel? Do you want people you lead feeling that way toward you? As for me, it makes me feel
- Futility that there’s no point in trying to communicate with this person. If they don’t understand me on this important thing, they won’t understand me on anything less important
- Angry, especially if the person thinks they do understand me.
- Alone, not part of a team, even alienated
- I want to look for alternatives, like different places to work. I can do better than this. I’ve had people understand me so why would I spend time with this person?
- Self-righteous that whatever they think about me is wrong
- Impatient to explain myself
- I don’t want to listen to the other person. If they don’t understand me, I don’t expect them to say anything relevant
Do you want people you lead feeling that way toward you?
By contrast, feeling understood about something that matters feels as good as almost anything. If people worked hard to work somewhere, they have deep motivations. Making them feel understood and supported about those things enables them to act on those motivations. Leaders who know how to act on this have a powerful tool to motivate people and help them feel great about their work.
To work with someone who makes me feel misunderstood, I have to use willpower and rationalizations to overcome how I feel emotionally repelled. That’s hard. I have less motivation to do my work and more to look elsewhere. I’ve worked with leaders and managers who made me feel that way and I don’t want to again.
If you make people feel that way, you can do better. If you haven’t had someone tell you they feel understood and if you haven’t specifically put the effort in to make them feel understood, you probably haven’t made them feel understood and you probably activated some feelings like I listed above. You understanding someone is not the same as them feeling understood. People make that mistake over and over. You understanding them is a step on the way to making them feel understood, but you understanding them happens in your head. Them feeling understood happens in their head and heart.
If you think you changing something in your head will automatically change something in theirs, you’re delusional. You can learn the skills to make someone feel understood and lead them to feel inspired, but I wouldn’t expect it would come naturally without effort. For example, saying “I understand you” won’t lead anyone to feel understood. They know someone who doesn’t understand them would say the same thing. It raises suspicion, just like hearing “trust me” from someone who gains from your not checking up on them.
I wrote this post to get you thinking about the consequences of people not feeling understood. I hope you paused and thought about those feelings, not just read my list.
Incidentally, what I wrote about leadership and understanding applies to all other relationships too. I suspect when many of you thought about times you felt misunderstood, you thought about non-work relationships. So improving your ability to lead by making people feel understood will improve other relationships too.