By Bernard Donkerbrook

Bernard DonkerbrookLeaders and bosses are used to being listened to. They expect it. Some find it quite satisfying to be the person others listen to and look up to. They enjoy the attention and influence in this role. But being in the spotlight also means taking responsibility for your impact on others.

As boss or executive, you need to remember that you are being observed all the time. Big decisions and actions are front and center, but even small things can have unintended consequences.

Everything you do (or do not do) is observed, analyzed and discussed by your people. What you talk about, include on an agenda and get personally involved with – as well as what you choose to avoid or delegate — sends powerful messages. Your employees then draw conclusions and implications about “what it meant” — whether you meant it that way or not!

Many managers are unaware that their behavior genuinely matters, or are oblivious as to how their behavior may be interpreted by others. For example, maybe you don’t make eye contact with an employee as you walk to the cafeteria; unbeknownst to you, this can be perceived as a sign of disapproval or unimportance, thereby increasing employee anxiety or mistrust. And you thought you were so self-aware!

To better understand the impact you are having on those around you, take a careful look at three things:

What You Say: Of course pay attention to the words, but your impact goes further. What you emphasize, what you repeat and the tone you use all have impact. Are you supportive or critical? Are you sending positive and encouraging messages or demanding, pressuring messages? Is your body language consistent with the words spoken? Remember, your people “listen” beyond the words to what you appear to convey.

What You Do: Your actions send a message of what and who are really important to you regardless of what you espouse. What relationships do you choose to develop and which people do you avoid? Which ones will you listen to and which do you overlook, dismiss or interrupt? Are you warm and open to some people and not to others? How do you listen? Do you have good eye contact when others are talking? Or are you focused on what you will say next? Are you distracted, keeping one eye on your smart phone?

What You Pay Attention To: You send signals by what you recognize, what you reward and whom you reward. The meetings you attend versus those you don’t tell people how you feel about the topic, the person and/or the priority. What you put on the agenda, follow up on or focus on will be given more weight than other projects or issues. Ask yourself: What do I personally get involved with? And what do I rarely pay attention to?

Consider Susan, the CEO of a small marketing company, who believed in the importance of diversity within the company, particularly to reach the range of clients she was targeting for growth. She conducted an appropriate off-site meeting, presented her strong views and expectations at the quarterly management gathering and assigned an implementation team. After that meeting, however, it was business as usual. Susan proceeded to focus on the next client crisis, ignoring the necessary continuing attention that building diversity requires.

Bad manager? Poor leader? Not really. Susan forgot, with the best of intentions, that what she does and what she does not do have a huge impact. She inadvertently sent the message that “other” things were more important than diversity. By creating a gap between her words and actions, Susan undermined her efforts at supporting diversity — and undermined herself as a leader.

Are you getting the idea? Your ordinary actions and behaviors have an impact on the people around you. If you want to be influential as a leader, you have to accept the scrutiny, be highly self-aware and think carefully about the messages you want to send. Psychologist and author Nathaniel Branden says it well when he paraphrases a favorite Spanish proverb: “Take what you want in life — and pay for it.”

Bernard Donkerbrook is a coach and management development consultant based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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