When Leaders Act Like Managers

We’re all panicked. Agitated. There’s world-wide upheaval. No one knows what the future holds. For many of us, our so-called stress behaviours can start to become the norm.  If we’re honest, we’ve all probably found ourselves acting more like a manager than a leader at some point.

As our stress rises, it becomes harder to make sure what we say aligns with what we actually do. Sometimes the shift might be subtle—a sudden increase in the amount of data and frequency of reporting perhaps. Or it can be flagrant—we tell our teams to be sure to keep a healthy work/life balance…but then ask them to work the weekend so we can meet our deadline.  Over time, the inconsistency between words and actions, the second guessing and the micro-management can start to erode their trust in us as leaders.

If this sounds like a familiar problem, consider empathy as your antidote.

One-on-One Empathy

Imagine a conversation where a leader shows empathy for how an employee might be feeling: “At the risk of overstepping my boundaries, it occurred to me that I have no idea what your world is like right now. And I’m sure all these new processes to make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to are not easy on you. How do you feel about it, and are you getting what you need from me to help support you?”

An honest conversation goes a long way. The leader is taking a small risk by having a conversation that is out of the norm, which allows the employee to take a small risk in return by answering with honesty (if they choose to do so). Regardless of the employee’s answer, you’ve created a safe place for open feedback and a foundation of trust is being built.

Empathy in a Team Setting

Now let’s shift our perspective to the team. Consider the scenario where a team member has to share some challenging news: “You remember that assumption we made about (insert your favorite COVID assumption here) …we were wrong and now we’ve got a 6-week delay.” Responding in the moment with second-guessing, laying blame and micro-managing might help you feel better, but as a leader, it can actually diminish the sense of safety, discretion and trust within the team.

Consider a more empathetic and supportive approach.  Turn the conversation around: “I know that’s a hard one for the team, but we made the best decision we could at the time.  What do you want to do now and what support do you need from me?”  Being supportive and non-judgmental allows the team to communicate openly with full honesty and transparency.


Leading a team can be challenging, especially now.  As a leader, your actions speak louder than words and it’s important to be mindful of the messages your actions are sending.  If you think about your recent interactions with your team, as a group and one-on-one, did your actions send the message you wanted?  What might you do differently to make sure your team is hearing the message you’re trying to send?

Read more from Lisa McArthur on Trust & Leadership and/or join us on April 13 for our free webinar, Caught in the Middle – Leading with Trust in Times of Stress.

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