Are you a fake leader pretending to care about your team?

Leaders who are open, honest and have a “what you see is what you get” mentality are often described as “authentic leaders”. They also behave in a similar fashion in their personal lives as at work, which is something that separates them from the leaders who are putting on an act. This Forbes article characterises authentic leaders as self-aware and genuine.

I can’t help but feel that there is something missing, however. If you are authentically a terrible person to be around, that can’t be a good thing. If you are authentic in your lack of interest in your team or colleagues, then surely just being an authentic leader is not enough. You need to be able to build trust and rapport authentically, not to just be yourself all the time.

We’ve all met the people who say “I just call it as I see it”. Those people are misguided, because they are often disagreeable and hard to get along with. They like shoving their opinions down your throat, regardless of the outcome.

The best leaders I have worked for are authentic, for sure – but they also show an interest in their team. What does this do for you as a leader? If you show a genuine interest in your team, it makes your team feel like they are important. Genuine interest is the key.

The power of making people feel important is a key point made in the popular book How to Win Friends and Influence People (as summarised at Hubspot) and I’ve found this to be true over my career. Of course it works on me, too. I notice when somebody shows a genuine interest in what I’m doing or what I’m talking about, and it makes me feel good. But it only works if you seem like you mean it.

The rise of the fake leader

I’ve noticed over my career that there is a tendency for some leaders to try showing an interest in people, but fail miserably.

It is like they have read the “how to be a great leader” handbooks and know what they should be doing, but they are unable to execute. Often I find that this isn’t because a fake leader really doesn’t care about you, but instead it is because a fake leader is internally focused and trapped in their own head. A fake leader is thinking about what is more important for them right now, not about what you are saying.

The result is a forced exchange, where you come away feeling like your boss is pretending to care about you, trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

Unfortunately, what this does is reduces a leader’s credibility in all areas – how can you trust what they say if they are putting on an act all the time?

How to show that you’re interested

As a leader who wants to show interest in their team, here are some things you should do. Some leaders do this very well and it makes a huge difference in how important and valued their team feels.

Ask relevant questions related to the topic of discussion

Often referred to as part of  “active listening”, this involves asking relevant questions when somebody is speaking. What this does is proves that you are listening, and above all, because you want to know more information, it shows that you are interested in what is being said.

Conversely, one of the worst things you can do is cut somebody off mid-sentence to get onto something you are really interested in.

Pay attention – remove distractions

As I wrote in this post about the power of paying attention, it’s a good idea to close your email, lock your computer, put your phone on silent or face down and give your undivided attention to the person you are talking to.

Sometimes all of these are not possible – you can’t stop somebody calling your desk phone while you’re talking. What you could do, however, is to mute that phone or excuse yourself briefly to tell the caller that you are “in the middle of something, I’ll call you back later.”

What these actions demonstrate is that right now, the most important thing to you is to listen to the person talking. In reality, obviously your family, health and life are more important to you – but right now, make this person the target of your attention.

Find a way to be interested

Sometimes you need to find a way to be interested in what the speaker is talking about. I’m not saying you should pretend to be interested. I’m saying you should find something to be interested in.

Sometimes your team will speak with you about things you have no knowledge of and possibly no interest in. This doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to show interest.

One example might be somebody in your team who is a surfer. Maybe you are not a beach person at all and you can’t even swim. What you might do when talking to someone about their latest surfing trip is ask the following questions:

  • How do you walk out on the sharp reef without cutting yourself when you’re getting to that remote surf break?
  • Have you ever had an emergency when you were stuck out the back and couldn’t get in? What did you do?
  • How long have you been surfing for?
  • How did you get introduced to surfing?

These sample questions are just a few of many possible options. The point is, sometimes when people are different from you and have different hobbies and interests than you’re used to, you can find points of interest just finding out about what they do and their motivation for doing it.

This can be very difficult. Especially when the topic is about something you have never had any involvement in. However, in many ways, this can make it easier. Become curious and ask questions to understand why on earth somebody would be interested in the topic. You might just find some common ground that you didn’t expect.

Lastly, an anecdote about a disinterested leader

One of my previous leaders was notorious for seeming like a “people person”, but often showing signs of extreme disinterest. He came across as personable and had an amiable nature, but occasionally this would unravel in obvious ways.

One day I was speaking to him on the phone about a client meeting that I had earlier. I was explaining how it went and some of the interesting outcomes and events of the meeting. At one point, I had finished speaking and there was a long pause of around 5 seconds. After this I heard from the phone “That’s great”, after which he wrapped up the phone call. I knew at that time that he was actually checking his emails while pretending to listen to me.

It was funny at the time and I loved telling the story to my colleagues. However, it did demonstrate to me that what I was talking about wasn’t really important to him. In previous conversations he had expressed that this client was very important. After that point, I questioned the authenticity of many of my interactions with him and became skeptical of his motives. In short, he became a fake leader to me.

If he was that disinterested in what I had to say, the courteous thing would have been to excuse himself from the conversation. This would have been more effective than pretending to be interested.

Remember that a keen observer will always notice when you are pretending. They will almost never call you out about it, they will most likely just record that interaction in their brain. They will be skeptical about their conversations with you in the future. You might think you’ll get away with it, but most times, you wont.

The best way to avoid being caught out as a fake leader is to show genuine interest wherever possible. Make your team feel important. It’s one of the best things you can do as a leader to grow rapport and build trust.

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