Inspirational Leadership Doesn’t Matter If You Don’t Fix This Issue

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Jul 14, 2021

Virtually every leader wants to be inspiring, to motivate, coach, and stir employees’ passions to achieve breakthrough performance. It’s therefore no surprise that Inspiration and motivation are among the most common leadership training topics. Just think about how many inspirational posters you’ve seen of a leader motivating their team to summit a mountain with smiling faces all around.

The problem with such an intense focus on inspiration is that we often neglect a basic human truth: It’s hard to get inspired when you’re feeling frustrated.

Imagine that you have to attend an inefficient weekly meeting that has no relevance to you. Or that every morning you get conflicting assignments from three different bosses. Or that your big project is stuck because another department won’t send you the necessary spreadsheet. Or that tech support won’t fix your account login so you can update a bunch of records.

When these types of roadblocks occur with sufficient frequency and intensity, even the most inspired employee can burn out and become demoralized. And yet, a majority of leaders aren’t doing enough to identify and fix the myriad roadblocks afflicting their people.

The Connection Between Inspiration and Roadblocks

In the Leadership IQ study, “The State of Leadership Development,” we discovered that only 16% of employees say that their leader always removes the roadblocks to their success. By contrast, 26% of employees say that their leader never or rarely removes those roadblocks.

As bad as that sounds intuitively, a multiple regression analysis discovered that 31% of an employee’s inspiration to give their best effort at work is driven by whether their boss removes their roadblocks. In other words, the more a leader removes employees’ roadblocks, the more inspired that employee will be. 

Clearly, there’s a lot of upside to solving or eliminating the roadblocks that frustrate employees. But how can leaders get started?

Overcoming Roadblocks to Removing Roadblocks

Sometimes roadblocks are the result of haphazard or convoluted technology, processes, or corporate structures. And, of course, those systemic roadblocks are going to be tough to fix quickly. But many roadblocks are the result of inattention, mistakes, or lack of awareness. Those are pretty simple to fix.

The first step is to identify a few of the more frustrating roadblocks by saying the following to each employee: 

“I’d like to do better at reducing some of the roadblocks you may be facing. To that end, in the past 30 days, what are some of the frustrating roadblocks that you’ve experienced? They could be anything, from unclear direction from me, to inefficient meetings, to a lack of resources, to something broken, or whatever.”

You can tweak the language to match more closely how you naturally speak, as long as you make it abundantly clear that you really do want to learn about the roadblocks your people have experienced. There’s a chance that some of your employees’ roadblocks were caused by you, and ironically, those are the best roadblocks to discover. While you might not be able to fix a companywide software problem, you can likely change your behavior immediately without any budget or approval.

Once you’ve identified some of your employees’ top roadblocks, pick one of the easiest and quickest to fix and get going. It’s critical that employees see their leader responding well and quickly to this conversation, so it’s better to decisively fix a simple roadblock than to spend months attacking a bigger one with middling results. 

You’ll eventually tackle the bigger and more challenging roadblocks, but in the aftermath of this initial conversation, speed is critical.

It’s really not that complicated. The gating factor for leaders seems to be twofold. First, many leaders have never been taught how to engage employees in a heart-to-heart conversation about what’s getting in their way. So much of leadership development these days is focused on being inspirational and visionary that we often neglect to tackle the frustrating reality of most workplaces.  

Second, it can be a bit shocking when an employee says that you’re the biggest cause of their roadblocks. But any leader who’s willing to push through that discomfort will immediately see immeasurable increases in employee engagement, inspiration, trust, and more.

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