The Underrated Power of Tough Love Leadership

High expectations are the key to everything.” – Sam Walton

It’s 6:30 am and I am drinking a peach mango green tea with honey and reading the morning tech press. My mind started wandering after reading a nice fable. It was about a man who loved his cat so much. He found out that the cat was ill and the vet said that he needed to cut his cat’s tail. The man started crying, feeling sorry for his cat and came up with a solution – he decided to cut the cat’s tail bit by bit, one inch every week, because it would have been to painful to cut all the cat’s tail at once.

Of course, the anecdote is funny but it made me think about some moments from my past as a team manager. I’ve been there and acted exactly like the cat’s owner. I was too afraid to hurt the feelings of a team member and preffered not to give any harsh feedback. I preffered the soft way and pieces of honest feedback sandwiched as comfortable as possible. I think this stressed my team member a great deal more and induced insecurity and confusion regarding my actual feedback. The greatest disadvantage of not giving honest feedback for fear that it may be too harsh is that you create distrust – your team members will feel that your opinion is different from what you actually say, they will feel that you are hiding your opinion from them and they will suspect the worst, all this leading to more and more communication problems between you two.

I was saying a few weeks ago that I believe a leader’s role is that of motivating his team and removing obstacles from their path when in his power to do so. Another role of the leader is that of challenging his team and setting higher and higher goals every day. I believe the leader is a mix of driving and enhancing abilities – he should at the same time show concern for his team and empower them, but at the same time set high standards and ensure his team is on the road to higher and higher standards. This balance is exactly what I call tough love. 

Tough love – striking a balance between tough and love

Tough love means hard and soft at the same time. It’s a combination of honest feedback, setting challenging objectives and standards and at the same time encouraging and empowering. The term “love” is in no way connected to romance in the workplace, but to the desire to have your team succeed. You always here the idea that a manager should be critical of his team in private and supportive in public. A team member will always appreciate a leader who is hard on him the whole year long but then gives him a great yearly evaluation and a bonus. He will not be so thrilled to have a leader who is always encouraging and laissez-faire who then fires him after a whole year of positive feedback.

Giving critical feedback can be tough especially to charismatic persons, who would preffer to avoid conflict and shy away from creating negative emotions in the workplace. However tough love is the fastest way to building trust and getting results. Leaders have responsibility for the growth and development of their teams. Therefore setting high demands while still being supportive – raising the bar, challenging each of your colleagues – that is they way to achieve goals and team performance.

Being tough doesn’t mean being demanding or aggressive, it just means being confrontational and getting results, being assertive and confronting tough problems head-on. Your colleagues will rise to the occasion and will soon see that your intentions are the best possible. If your intentions are good people will be willing to accept your constructive criticism and probably do the same for you.

A friend of mine was comparing tough love with empowerement and was telling me that she would always preffer empowerement to tough love and someone who has deep confidence in her that she would succeed. But that is exactly what tough love means – tough love actually includes empowerement and includes your conviction that that person can actually change, can perform better. Being soft on someone includes a hidden message that you know that person can’t do better.

6 quick rules of tough love leadership 

  • Judge the behavior, not the person behaving – In order for your colleagues to take the criticism in a constructive way, you need to judge the behavior, not the behaver. Don’t give personal feedback and it will not be taken personally.
  • Parenting without patronizing – The “boss” concept is long gone and those too blind to realise this will suffer at some point. Being the leader or manager is a job itself, it has nothing to do with superiority. The leader’s role is that of guiding the time, just like a parent. Patronizing the team members is really not part of the job description.
  • Set high but realistic goals – Goals must be challenging, but in order for your team to consider those objectives challenging they must also be attainable. Remember Peter Drucker’s smart goals setting? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-related. The A and R are part of being smart as a leader.
  • Be clear about the goal but flexible about the wayMicromanagers obsess about detail-planning their teams and evaluating the means to reach a certain goal. Leaders set challenging objectives and make sure the team understand the team’s and company’s values, but afterwards they just encourage their teams to reach those goals rather than guard them each step of the way.
  • Once the goals are obvious to your team, communicate rather than detail plan – Coach your team, listen, raise the bar, empower, encourage, support, be there. That’s your role as a leader. That and to remind the goals and make sure your team is heading the right way.
  • Tough love goes both ways – If you give honest feedback, you should also be ready to accept the same from your team members. Otherwise it is plain hipocrisy and it will take you nowhere.

It’s already 8:00 am and I am heading to the gym for a new swimming session, but would love to hear any thoughts you have on tough love leadership.

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