Just Because You're Not Paranoid Doesn't Mean They Aren't Watching You
Fortunately it’s faded in the news, but you still can learn from this mistake, regardless of where you stand on the issue.
A couple of weeks ago, President Obama appeared on The Tonight Show. As is typical of Jay Leno, he focused on the serious issues first then moved onto lighter topics. During the back-and-forth conversation, he asked about bowling in the White House. The President admitted his high score is 129. Of course, this was good for a laugh. In a quick and clearly unscripted moment, he went on to make the big gaffe—he said his skills were "like Special Olympics or something." Critics seized on the incident to assail the President.
I truly believe this off-handed remark was intended to make fun of his own bowling abilities and in no way was meant to disparage the Special Olympics. However, the President did make a BIG mistake. He seemingly got caught up in the moment of having fun and forgot who he was and where he was. In this situation, the President blurred the line between leader and just one of the guys.
You may not be a guest on The Tonight Show, but your staff is eyeing you just as closely. The real issue here is that leaders can never be too careful about what they say or do. Self-effacing humor is a sign of good mental health, but at some level, everything you say and do is scrutinized by the people around you. We call it professional boundaries, and it has everything to do with leadership image.
When I talk about boundaries with people, I am referring to how much you say and do when you interact with employees, patients, family and friends. These decisions affect your leadership image. Who you are as a leader and what you’re able to accomplish are as much about how others perceive you as they are about your innate skills and ability. Your personality, behavior, body language and speaking style, together with your physical appearance, all contribute to the image others hold of who you are.
The perception that others form of you as a result of the impression you make on them has a significant correlation to their perceptions about whether you’re qualified to do your job. Your image can have a great impact on how people get to know you as a person and as a leader. Whether someone is getting to know you through a first meeting, over time or through the media, your image is being broadcast and your reputation is being formed. Furthermore, your employees take emotional cues from you. They learn how to act by watching you, especially when you're off-balance and your guard is down.
So avoid the gaffes, those comments that are seemingly innocent but misrepresent who you are. We’ve all done it at some point in our lives… made (or laughed) at a joke about a Jewish guy picking up money, an Asian driver, a Mexican worker, a woman in the kitchen, etc. We all know they are in poor taste, but the vast, vast majority of us make them anyway—and we laugh. The risk of forgetting and using this kind of humor can have serious impact on how you are seen by others.
Of course there are those times when you innocently disclose too much personal information. You’re trying to put a quiet patient with dental-anxiety at ease. While the anesthetic takes effect, you talk about the new TV sound system you just bought. Trying to be humorous, you admit there are so many bells and whistles it takes an engineering degree to connect all the wires. But the patient is hearing that you spent an enormous amount of money and he wonders if you’re overcharging him. It’s that easy to slip! Your fees may be the lowest in your community but if that one patient perceives that you spent more money than necessary he’s going to think you have too much money.
Developing your leadership image isn’t complicated but it does require self-awareness and self-management. What image do you want employees and patients to have of you? But before you make any changes, be sure to get a good, truthful picture of your image. Take time to understand how others see you and why. Seek feedback from colleagues, your employees and even your patients. Ask your friends, children and significant other. Each of these points of view will shed light on how your words and behavior are viewed by the people around you. Once you gather this information, you can develop the skills to close the gap between how you are seen and how you want to be seen. For example, if you realize you talk too fast when delivering bad news and are often viewed as nervous, you can make a conscious effort to take a breath, slow down and remain calm.
As a leader, you need your employees and your patients to view you as being capable and trustworthy. Mistakes can threaten that and impact your bottom line. Learn to build a leadership image that conveys credibility, confidence and compassion. After all, they will be watching you… whether you realize it or not.
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