Teach the ‘Invisible Lines’ When You Onboard Your Executives

“My marriage keeps getting better and better and I never have to work at it.”

That’s not a statement you hear often. Instead, we hear that “building a successful marriage takes work.”

Building a leadership team that works well together and achieves desired outcomes involves more people than a marriage does, but leaders often approach these relationships like a newlywed: “We had an amazing courtship; we share so much in common; we want the same things; we’re always going to be great together.” After the interview and courtship process ends, there is an assumption that both people are on the same page and are headed in the same direction, and that by working under the same roof they will maintain alignment forever.

In a marriage, sharing a home does not guarantee a married couple will align their actions and decisions to build a successful marriage. Instead, while the remnants of wedding cake are still in the freezer, both of the newlyweds learn about each other’s annoying habits and start to make decisions about how to spend the partnership’s resources. This often leads to friction. The same happens with leadership teams. When the newly hired team member arrives, his or her habits and decisions are often not as idyllic as were assumed during the interview process. How this inevitable friction is handled is critical for building a successful leadership team.

For a married couple, the friction can result in silent fuming or emotional outbursts. It often takes time to find the third way to alleviate the friction: providing constructive feedback so both partners better understand the situation, why it is an issue and what to do about it.

Don’t Assume They’ll “Get It”

Constructive feedback is also essential in building a successful leadership team. It is a high-risk assumption, that people will “get it” when they join a new company; that they will make decisions aligned with the company’s objectives, and not do things that are outside accepted company norms.

For the business leader, silently fuming that the newly hired employee is violating a cultural norm or making misaligned decisions rarely improves the situation. Equally unproductive in building a trusting leadership team are emotional outbursts conveying frustration to the newly hired for not realizing the seemingly obvious. Instead, the third option of providing constructive feedback to the new hire is more likely to produce the desired results.

Providing constructive feedback takes time. Doing it on the fly, through email or with biting humor can make the situation worse. Thoughtful and specific feedback that helps the receiver understand why something is a problem is more likely to alleviate the misalignment. Often,  people will provide broad feedback, such as, “You need to be more careful,” instead of taking the time to provide unambiguous details such as, “The document that went to the client had errors that hurt the company’s credibility and value proposition. We had a similar instance 10 years ago; therefore, we implemented this proofing process for any document sent to a client to prevent it from happening again.”

Teach the “Invisible Lines”

Constructive feedback is helpful, but when there is a constant need to give feedback it is often a sign that many important things are undefined and not clear to the newly hired. There are “invisible lines” the leader must communicate to the newly hired regardless of their extensive experience or expertise. Every company has invisible lines, the same way every marriage does — the fatal assumption is assuming every party knows where the lines are and knowing if they’ve crossed them. Most new husbands find out early on there are a lot of invisible lines in a marriage especially when it comes to bathrooms and dirty dishes. When invisible lines are not defined beforehand, there will be frustration. The line crosser gets tired of constantly being reprimanded while the line enforcer resents the need to police the other party.

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Throughout the years, I have witnessed an issue that arises over the holidays. In many closely held companies, the day after Thanksgiving is not a paid holiday, and the founder expects people to be on the job as usual. However, often the new executive hire has spent his entire career in corporate America and has always had the Friday off, so he wrongly assumes this company does as well. When his subordinates ask, he assumes it is a paid holiday, and he unknowingly crosses an invisible line. The founder will fume, but this could have been easily avoided if the founder pointed out the invisible line and the reason why it existed before it was crossed.

We rarely hear of people discussing how their fulfilling marriages were a piece of cake that didn’t require dealing with friction in a constructive way and letting their partner know what invisible lines were important to them and why. The same is true for building a leadership team. It helps to realize the amazing feelings of the courtship will not automatically continue simply because you work under the same roof. Providing constructive feedback and letting new team members know about the “invisible lines” to watch for is more likely to produce the desired results and a successful leadership team.