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A New Leaders Guide to Thriving — Lesson 3: The Most Effective Leadership Tool You Have

Learn to use your praise muscle


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Leon Purton

3 years ago | 7 min read

Being new to leadership is hard. It is confronting to realise that the unique and powerful skills that you honed to become great at your job, are not going to help you now. If you want to start your path to being a great leader on the right foot, there are three things you can start straight away.

I had to learn these the hard way, I tried to transition from one cubicle to the next. From lead technical officer to a first-level leader of a small team, but one who had an influence on a much larger organisation due to the nature of the role.

Despite some people telling me it would be different, and the transition difficult, I thought I would pick it up as I had everything else that had come my way. I was wrong. I actually needed to unlearn some of the things I held to be ‘always’ true, and start to learn the basics of leadership.

From my time during learning this new role, I learnt the hard way three simple things you can do to accelerate your usefulness. To turn from a middling manager to a truly valuable leader. You have to prepare a to-stop list, learn the true role of your team, and truly learn the importance of praise.

This is the third and final part of a leadership series, aimed at preparing the new leader so that they can thrive. In this article, I’ll explore the most valuable tool a leader has.

What is the power of a leader?

You have been put into a position of authority for your team. With that position comes some power to influence the performance and outcomes of the team.

In 1959, two University of Michigan researchers conducted a study to categorise the bases of social power. They identified five different types of power for a leader, and these were grouped into two categories.

Formal Power

The first category of power is formal power, this is the power inherited through position.

It can be broken into 3 different types; coercive, reward and legitimate power.

Coercive power is derived from the ability to penalise the people in your team. You can explicitly or implicitly threaten their job. The threat of poor performance reviews or demotion is an example of coercive power.

It’s opposite is reward power. Where coercive power is the stick, reward power is the carrot. The opportunity for a boss to reward employees for good performance, or with better assignments in an example of reward power.

Coupled to these two is legitimate power. This is the last of the positional, formal powers of leadership, and is defined by the position and the respect for that position or individual.

Formal power is rarely earnt, and often inherited in the position. This type of power in leadership is weak. Formal power does not provide a strong platform for good leadership. It is the type of power held close by the insecure boss. The boss who knows that their value to the team is tenuous and they are relying on these formal powers to get the most from their team.

Most of the time they will fail.

Personal Power

The second category of leadership power is personal power. It is an earned power and cannot be granted or attached to a position, it is attached to the person. There are two different types of personal power.

The first is expert power. This type of power is developed through a person’s knowledge, experience and skills. This often manifests as specialist area thought leadership. These acquired skills and knowledge lend power to assist others through challenging scenarios.

These people may not hold formal positions of authority, but everyone on the team knows that they should talk to them when they need help navigating a related situation.

The second type of personal power is referential power. This is the type of power held by a person when they are referred to as trustworthy and respected. It is earnt through personal interactions that follow a consistent path. This is the type of power that takes time to build but can be hastened for new team members.

Which power do you want?

Studies have reported that while a CEO or Managing Director might have formal power, this is weakly coupled with organisational performance. The bosses who also hold personal power have higher-performing organisations.

The problem is you can’t just be given personal power, but you can be given formal power. This is difficult for new leaders, especially those who have moved into their very first leadership position. One that they earnt through hard work and high performance over an extended period of time.

They essentially only have three or four of the powers available to them. All the formal powers, and for some the expert personal power.

With these four, many new leaders think it is enough. But they are missing the most important of these; referent power. The hardest to earn and the easiest to lose.

However, as a new boss, there is one thing you can do from the start to begin developing it.

Photo by N I F T Y A R T ✍🏻| iPhone 6 photography on Unsplash
Photo by N I F T Y A R T ✍🏻| iPhone 6 photography on Unsplash

Learning to use your praise muscle

The best leaders will make you feel like you are the only person in the room when they listen to you. The only person with anything important to say. This is the most valuable thing they have to give you, their time and undivided attention.

So, you’ve just started in your new role. The team you have been allocated to knows little about you. While your team is getting to know you, they may well know your boss, and will definitely know the person you replaced. They will have an impression of you and they will be comparing you to those that have gone before.

You can control none of that.

What you can control is what you choose to do, and one thing you should focus on early is giving it all away.

Credit and praise, that is.

You need Captain America’s shield here — deflect it all. If your team member does something good, tell them. If they exhibit some positive attributes, acknowledge them. If your boss says something positive, then you should lift that shield and deflect the credit to your team.

I had a boss once who was exceptional at this. I would sit in a meeting and listen to them tell others of the great idea I had and its effect, all the while I knew that we created it together. It was not solely my idea, and while it was not his alone either, he never hesitated in giving all the credit to me.

There is nothing like being praised to someone else, while you are in the room.

My boss knew that they had played an equal part in that idea, but they claimed none of the credit. It was all deflected to me. Seeing this helped me realise the importance of this action for leaders.

There are two important transitions to make as a leader of a team. The first is the transition from ‘I’ language to ‘we’ language. You know where some people start, ‘I doubled our profits this quarter’. Or, ‘we were in the boardroom for hours and I realised that there was a simple change we had to make’.

The first transition of a leader is to stop saying I. If you want to reach the higher levels you need to take an ‘other-focus’. Studies have shown increased use of ‘we’ over ‘I’ is seen in higher-status individuals. It associates any success with the efforts of the team.

The second transition required is the transition past ‘we’ for successes, to ‘they’. This is the transition that my boss had made, never taking credit for something we both worked on, instead, giving all the success to me.

But, how do you give praise more frequently? You can’t just wait for opportunities to publically acknowledge someone's efforts, you need to use that praise muscle more frequently.

Pay attention to them

As a new boss, you are often stuck thinking about all the things you need to be doing, you are not really paying attention to your team. You are trying to understand how what they are saying or doing affects you and the team’s performance. You have stopped paying attention to them.

Attention is a way of giving credit and praise. Many would say, this is the ultimate gift. Common praise is just an assembly of words and platitudes. Attention, undivided attention, comes from the most valuable of resources — time. It is assembled through genuine care and commitment.

I am not talking about paying attention to what they are doing, what they said they would be doing and aren’t. I am talking about paying attention to them.

If you give someone a minute of undivided attention, you can change their day. Do it dependably, and you can change their life.

The best thing about giving your staff attention in those initial days in the job, is you learn more about them. Be genuinely curious, work out what they enjoy doing inside and outside of work. Identify how they will need to be supported to get the work done, work out how you’ll need to challenge them to strive to get better.

All these things can be done in these moments of genuine and undivided attention.

So, when you are new in the job, you need to understand that you earned none of the credit and praise. As time progresses, you need to remember to continue giving it away. You need to deflect it if you receive it and develop a deep well for giving it. That well, your praise muscle, comes from your attention, not your words.

The best leaders will make you feel like you are the only person in the room when they listen to you. The only person with anything important to say. This is the most valuable thing they have to give you, their time and undivided attention.

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Leon Purton

Inspired by life. Leadership, Growth, Personal Development. Engineer and Sports Enthusiast. Top Writer in Leadership. https://medium.com/@spurtapurton


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