The Problem With Managers Who See Themselves As ‘Inspiring,’ According to Harvard

Lots of managers seek to "inspire" their staffs, but Harvard researchers encourage another priority.

Employee and manager


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Taylor Tobin1.84k

In an iconic moment on an iconic show (“The Office”, of course), regional manager Michael Scott offers the following reflection: “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” In his desperate desire to be considered “inspirational” by his employees, Michael represents an unfortunately large number of supervisors who place their priorities in the wrong spots.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, researchers explain that a full 70% of managers and supervisors consider themselves “inspirational” figures, capable of effectively motivating their employees. However, 82% of surveyed employees don't actually see their managers this way themselves, indicating a pretty major miscommunication between those at the top of the pyramid and their reports.

HBR implies that the issue with positioning oneself as an “inspirational figure” for your employees to admire involves a disconnect between this goal and the very human experience of being an effective manager. As human beings, the researchers point out, we are "all driven by basic needs for meaning, happiness, human connectedness, and a desire to contribute positively to others. And leaders that truly understands these needs, and lead in a way that enables these intrinsic motivations, have the keys to enable strong loyalty, engagement and performance. As leaders, we must be humans before managers.”

Rather than fixating on “inspiring” their employees, HBR suggests that managers should try to engage their workers using a “people-centered” approach. The writers describe this form of motivation as a four-step process:

1. Practice empathy.

Focus on relating to your employees with empathy, thinking of them not as cogs in a machine, but instead as intelligent people with their own opinions, ideas, and priorities. HBR encourages readers to keep this thought in mind when considering their management strategies: “If my child or parent or good friend worked here, would they appreciate this decision? In this way, any managerial decision [becomes] a personal question.”

2. Be self-aware.

Work on your self-awareness, as having a good handle on what drives you and how you deal with challenges will enable to you have a clearer perspective on those you lead.

3. Be selfless.

Remember that “leadership is not about you, but about the people and the organization you lead.” Removing your personal agenda from your management practices and instead focusing on actions and behaviors that benefit your employees and your company will ultimately make you a more effective leader.

4. Have compassion.

Never think of compassion as a weakness, because it’s actually your greatest strength as a manager. In the words of HBR: “When it comes to leadership, nothing beats compassion. It is a universal language that is understood by anyone, anywhere.”


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