As a Leader, How Do You Make Other People Feel?

A long time ago I worked for someone who made me feel worthless and stupid.

Insignificant, worthless, and stupid.

It wasn’t only me who felt this way – other people in my team also had the same experience when working with this person.

None of us had done anything wrong, and we certainly didn’t deserve the treatment she dished out.  It was just how she treated people.  Her management style included making ‘snarky’ remarks about people while they were in earshot, criticising just about every piece of work that anyone completed, and randomly choosing people to ignore and exclude from conversations and meetings for the day, only to include them again the next day.

It was awful.  Really awful.  And as you’d expect, extremely demotivating.  Needless to say, I found another job and got out of there as quickly as I could.

“People never forget how you make them feel.”

I was reminded of this situation a few weeks’ ago when I heard someone refer to the quote made famous by civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who said “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

At the precise moment of hearing those words, I was reflecting on a recent coaching conversation with a senior leader – let’s call him John – in which we’d spent a lot of time talking about his impact on other people. 

John had recently received some negative feedback from a group of key stakeholders in a 360 degree feedback survey about his abrasive nature and apparent tendency to ‘rub people the wrong way’.

To cut a long story short, this wasn’t news to John – he’d received this kind of feedback before. In the past he hadn’t really cared about others’ perceptions of him.  Instead, he had always believed that outcomes were more important than relationships.  As long as he achieved the required results, he felt that it didn’t really matter what other people thought of him.  This had been his attitude for a long time, resulting in others describing him as someone who tended to ‘alienate’ those around him.

However, over time things had changed. John had realised about 18 months ago that his ability to effectively deliver results as a senior leader was now being impacted by his past behaviour.  Specifically, because as he’d moved up through the ranks his success had become much more dependent on delivering through other people, rather than just doing the work himself.

But his previous attitude – which wasn’t particularly people-focused – had resulted in him having fewer ‘allies’ and a much weaker network of contacts than many other senior leaders within the organisation.  Put simply, a lot of people didn’t like him, which meant that he had trouble getting things done when he was relying upon others for help.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Since having this ‘light bulb’ moment, John had been actively working to change his approach and shift others’ perceptions of him, spending a lot more time building and maintaining relationships and adapting his style to become more open, tolerant, and considerate of others’ views and opinions.  He was genuinely interested in trying to undo the damage caused by his previous attitude, and after a lot of self-reflection had realised the error of his ways.

The problem?  This change in behaviour and attitude wasn’t being reflected in his 360 degree survey results.  To his credit, his direct reports and manager had noticed the change – in fact, their ratings and comments regarding his leadership style were generally okay, suggesting that his efforts weren’t entirely in vain.

However, it was a completely different story when it came to anyone he hadn’t worked with for some time.  Their perceptions reflected the ‘old’ John, and how he’d made them feel when they’d worked together.  In fact, the emotions and feelings experienced by these people were very clearly reflected in the words they chose to use when providing him with this feedback.  They described him as “confrontational”, “abrasive”, and “aggressive”.

Even after all this time, these people still remembered how John had made them feel.

Lasting impressions of leadership

The key message here?

As a leader, your actions, words, and behaviour often have a profound impact on how other people feel, whether you realise it or not.  The more influential or ‘senior’ you become, the more others look to you for guidance, support, encouragement, and inspiration – resulting in even the smallest of your actions potentially having a very significant impact on other people’s feelings and emotions.

As internationally acclaimed psychologist and Emotional Intelligence expert Daniel Goleman says in this article“For employees, how a leader makes them feel plays a large role in their level of motivation and commitment, and even drives their brain in (or out of) the best zone for marshalling whatever cognitive abilities and skills they bring to the job. And for customers and clients, how they feel about their interactions with the people in your organisation determines how they feel about the company as a whole.”

So ask yourself this – as a leader, how do you make other people feel?  What kinds of words, phrases, and stories will your employees, colleagues and customers share with others when talking about you, and describing your leadership style?

If the answers to those questions worry or concern you, then here’s my next question…

What will you do about it?

As for my own early experience, with that awful manager…?  Well, it’s easy for me to look back at that situation now and understand that the issue was really about her, and not me.  She was someone who needed to feel powerful by making others feel worthless.

But despite having this knowledge now, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that experience.  Her name is forever etched in my memory and I still shudder when I think about it.

I’ll never forget how she made me feel.