How bosses can rise above their 'evil twins'

June 5, 2012: 9:27 AM ET

Managers often fall victim to good ideas poorly executed and positive intentions inadequately expressed. How to avoid this sort of management fiasco.

By Jill Geisler

(Poynter.org) -- Consider this fair warning, managers.  Lurking nearby, ready to make an uninvited workplace visit, is your "evil twin." That substandard sibling is the one your staff sees when they misinterpret your behavior.

I've met countless "evil twins" while reviewing the 360-degree feedback of managers I've taught and coached. I'm not talking about truly bad bosses. These are skilled supervisors, trying to do something positive, but their actions are misread by those they manage.

I see it so often that I've made the eradication of "evil twins" an essential part of my management teaching and writing, so leaders can know and do something about it.

Imagine that you've always believed that good bosses shouldn't be afraid to get their hands dirty, so you roll up your sleeves and do front-line work from time to time to prove it.  You envision yourself as "the boss who pitches in." Unfortunately, your staff sees your "evil twin," the micromanager.

Or perhaps you want to emulate the best boss you ever worked for, a person with extremely high standards.  So, when employees perform really well, you automatically tell them what they must do to raise their game to the next level.  In your mind, you're "the boss who builds great performers" Unbeknownst to you, those employees see your buzz-killing "evil twin," Captain Impossible-to-Please.

"Evil twins" are often the result of good ideas poorly executed and positive intentions inadequately expressed. Under these circumstances, forthrightness can come across as tactlessness, consensus building as indecisiveness, or positive feedback as puffery.

Fortunately, there are ways to discover and disown your "evil twins" before they damage your reputation -- or career. Here are five tips:

  • Talk about values -- early and often.  When people know what you sincerely stand for, it makes it less likely they'll perceive "evil twin" scenarios.
  • It's best not to assume people understand your motives. Actions may speak louder than words, but the right words keep your actions from being misunderstood.  According to psychologists, we humans are constantly trying to determine the motives of others. They call it "Attribution Theory." The problem is we're very likely to guess wrong.
  • Don't be above explaining yourself. You may think managers shouldn't have to include the "why" behind directives or initiatives. Explaining doesn't mean you're negotiating. It means you're providing context, so why not?
  • Dare to invite feedback. When people feel they can approach you with a concern (or a compliment!), you've got a built-in early warning system.
  • Understand the impact of good intentions. People appreciate more deeply and forgive more readily when they believe the other person means well. That's not just feel-good folklore; there's research to back it up. Read on.

University of Maryland psychology professor Kurt Gray conducted eye-opening experiments that suggest that the perception of good intentions affects not only our emotional reactions, but can even have a physical impact as well.  In his study, "The Power of Good Intentions," subjects were given identical candy, massages, and electric shocks. Those three items were administered in a variety of scenarios. In some, the delivery was very matter-of-fact, and in others, it came from an apparently benevolent person.

The result? Subjects declared the candy to be sweeter, the massages more pleasurable and the shocks less painful when they believed they were given by someone with good intentions. (If you're wondering about the shocks, subjects were told the "shocker" was trying to help them win money.)

Gray and his team noted the real-life implications of their findings, for everything from medicine to interpersonal relationships -- and of course, to the office.

It helps explain why, when I ask people to identify great bosses they've worked for, they rarely identify saints. In fact, they often talk about managers who were highly demanding or impatient or tight with a dollar. But every one of those perfectly imperfect bosses also made it a point to communicate another unmistakable message through their words and actions: "I do what I do because I believe in you and I'm committed to your success."

When employees get that message, the praise is sweeter, the criticism less apt to sting – and both stand a chance of encouraging good performance.

Jill Geisler heads the leadership and management programs of the Poynter Institute. She is the author of the recently published book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know.

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