Become a Better Leader: What You Can Learn From the Strangest Question I’ve Ever Been Asked

Someone asked me a question out of nowhere yesterday — in a restroom of all places — that took me aback.

It got me thinking about a very different — and more important — question you need to ask if you’re a manager.

“I Beg Your Pardon?”

As I approached the hotel restroom sink to wash my hands, a man in a suit turned to me and said:

“I know this is a weird question to ask, but … do I smell bad?”

He explained that he had been sweating profusely because of the hot conference room and was worried that he now reeked and would repel others. While this is never a pleasant thought, since this was an event where you wanted to network with others, he was especially concerned about being perceived as a noxious life form.

Since he was being so authentic and genuine, how could I not accommodate his request? I got a bit closer and took a whiff.

“You’re fine. I can’t smell a thing,” I told him.

“Hey thanks,” he replied and then laughingly said “I figured I don’t know you and will never see you again, so what the heck …”

I had to hand it to him: it took guts to ask someone that question, and actually want to hear the cold hard truth.

So What’s This Have to Do With You?

You might be repelling your employees — and therefore diminishing their motivation — without realizing it.

You might be doing things as a manager that annoy, irritate, or just mildly turnoff our employees. These behaviors:

  1. Reduce your own effectiveness and value … because you’re not getting the best out of your team.
  2. Diminish your ability to drive maximum productivity and quality while still maintaining high morale.
  3. Minimize or eliminate your employees’ desire to please you. They’ll do what’s required, but not more.
  4. Diminish your employees’ respect for you.

You Could Be Turning People Off and Not Even Know It

Unless you’re perfect, you’re like the rest of us: you do things and say things that make you less likeable, credible, and persuasive … and you have no idea you’re doing them.

That’s just part of human nature. We all have blind spots. As long as these behaviors remain blind spots, we can’t eradicate them, and unless people are willing to say “You have B.O.” — metaphorically speaking — we will never know.

Because we remain blind to these, we get results far beneath what we’re capable of, both in terms of the quality of our relationships and our ability to get things done through others.

“Who Me? No Way!”

You might be thinking: “What could I possibly be doing or saying as a manager that could turn off my employees without me knowing it?”

To answer that, let me ask you to reflect on your own experiences.

What have managers done and said that have turned you off? What have they done and said that made you respect them less, trust them less, or care less about helping them achieve their goals?

Go ahead, make a list. Then ask yourself “Am I doing any of these?”

I Hear Things

At management seminars, I often ask participants to name the things that their worst bosses did that made the bosses so dreadful. Some of the most frequently mentioned themes include:

  1. Acting like a know it all.
  2. Talking “at” — rather than talking “with” — people.
  3. Not listening, including multi-tasking, or taking calls, while someone is talking to them.
  4. Not being open to ideas … i.e. shooting them down without bothering to explore them.
  5. Interrupting.
  6. Talking down to their subordinates … i.e. using the language and voice tone a school teacher might use with a child.

I Have Unfortunately Seen This One a Lot

I would add to this list something I see a lot from high-energy, extroverted leaders with strong personalities: they talk way too much, for way too long, and they dominate air time, whether one-on-one or in meetings.

A friend just shared with me about her experience with her new boss, and how he “went on and on and on and on” … but never really clearly stated what he wanted from her, nor did he ask her any questions. She left feeling frustrated and more than a little “New Employee Buyer’s Remorse.”

I can recall conversations with senior leaders where there was never a pause in their monologue for me to insert a response or ask a question, and never any interest expressed in my point of view. I would leave these encounters feeling frustrated over feeling stuck listening to something that could have taken a fraction of the time. I would also feel turned off by the person’s disinterest in anything I had to say. I also found myself pitying the people who had to work with these individuals day in and day out.

Are you that person? Research on how power affects people shows that the more power we have, the more likely we are to dominate conversations and interrupt others.

If you’re doing those things, I can guarantee that you’re not just boring others — and therefore reducing your influence and credibility. You’re also annoying them, even though they’re trying to look attentive and engaged.

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I’m Not Trying to Be Negative or Accusatory, But …

I want you to ask others: “What can I do to be a better manager?” and “What can I do to be easier to talk to?”

If you are truly sincere about becoming a better leader, if you truly want to increase your ability to increase productivity, or inspire great customer service, or foster innovation, you must maximize your ability to positively influence others.

The only way you can do that is to get honest feedback as part of your game plan.

Let me give you a protocol for getting honest feedback that was born out of a common fear I heard from managers attending my programs.

The “You Know I Went to a Management Seminar” Talk

Years ago, when I first started giving management seminars, I would often have someone raise their hand at the end and say something like this:

“This stuff really makes sense and I agree with it …”

Then their voice inflection would go up, signaling a “but…” was about to follow.

“…but…I’m afraid that if I start doing these things, my people will think I’m just doing them because I heard you were supposed to do them at this seminar.” They were afraid to be “caught in the act” of using something they had learned, and then get labeled as being phony.

So, to combat this fear, I came up with a simple process they could use to both let their team know they would be trying out new behaviors and to ask for feedback. That way, they didn’t have to worry about “getting caught in the act.” It would be clear that of course they would be applying what they had learned, and therefore acting differently in some ways.

I also started giving people language for how to introduce to their employees what they learned and what they plan to do differently based on the seminar. I also suggested they ask their employees for feedback on what areas they think they, the manager, should work on.

I call this the “You Know I Went to The Management Seminar” Talk. So for instance, part of the conversation would go like this:

You know I went to a management seminar yesterday. Well, one of the things we did was talk about things managers do that drive employees crazy as well as things that great managers do to bring out the best in people. As part of that, we were asked to look at what negative things we might be doing and to ask our direct reports to give us feedback on both the things we do they wish we wouldn’t, as well as the good things we do, and should keep on doing.

So first, some of the negative practices I recognized in myself were … not being really encouraging of ideas from you and the others on the team, and not being a great listener.

I would really appreciate your thoughts about those two negatives, and also what other things I might want to look at and change …

Now …How About Having a “Hey, I Read This Article Talk” With Your Employees Today?

You can do a version of the “You Know I Went To The Management Seminar” Talk by having a “Hey, I Read this Article” talk with your employees. Give your team this article and then ask them individually for feedback, or … give this article to a couple of colleagues you trust and respect and then ask them for feedback.

You might not get any feedback at first, especially if you have a strong personality or have been remote in the past, but with coaching, you can come up with a strategy and accompanying language for making it safe for your direct reports to give you feedback. You can also do an anonymous survey, use a 360° feedback instrument, or have someone conduct interviews with your direct reports and give you the aggregate results.

Hey, if that man can ask if he smells bad, you can ask how you can be a better manager, a better team member, a better communicator, or even a better parent or partner. I have. You will be surprised what you’ll hear, and how beneficial it can be to both of you.


David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at


10 Comments on “Become a Better Leader: What You Can Learn From the Strangest Question I’ve Ever Been Asked

  1. David the problem is that in many cases, the bad manager’s behavior is encouraged structurally, and in those cases, its not safe for employees to provide feedback or do much more than kiss ass all day, and thats a LOT of workplaces. Its scary and dangerous for upper managers to allow the inmates to lead very far, so they keep them in line with middle managers/petty tyrants. It’s as old as the first human settlements, I imagine….

  2. I strikes me that the essence of this is whether or not one is the kind of manager who is self-analytical and open to knowing what direct-reports think of them. If that sort of atmosphere has already been created it isn’t difficult to get critical feedback; if it hasn’t I suspect it’s an uphill climb.

  3. I believe that good managers do a lot more listening.

    Employers often promote their best production people into management roles, but neglect to train them.

    What to some of these new managers do? They tend to tell the people who work for them what it was that made them good in a production role, and come off as the “know-it-all with poor listening skills.”

    Different skill sets are required to be a good manager, and companies that invest the time in management training, improve their chances at having successful managers in place.

  4. @ Martin: Well said (as usual).


    @ Everybody: 9 Types of Bosses – from Work Is Hell, Matt Groening

    1. The Angry Behemoth
    aka The Ape, Mr Tantrum, Grumpy, The Grouch…
    Quote: “I don’t pay you to think. I pay you to cringe while I scream and rant.”

    2. The Robot from Planet X
    aka The Bureaucrat, The Watcher, The Living Dead, Zombie…
    Quote: “Your 10-minute break is over in 5 minutes”

    3. Mr Softy
    aka Whatsitsname, Squishy, The Pushover, Jellyfish
    Quote: “Gosh, I don’t know about that. I’ll just have to think about it for a while. I just…”

    4. The Slipper Eel
    aka The Manipulator, The Liar, The Sneak, The Genius
    Quote: “Just keep quiet and do you job and 12-24 months from now I think you’re due for a surprise – No promises.”

    5. The Great Unknown
    aka The Lurking Unknown, The Creeping unknown….

    6. The Spitting Cobra
    aka The Snapping Turtle, Poison Ivy…
    Quote: “Good Morning” “What an ugly shirt” “It figures” “Oh Cheer Up”

    7. The Horny Toad
    aka Sleazebucket, slimeball, scumbag..
    Quote: “Let’s forget about work and just relax” “How about a little drink”

    8. Wonder Boss
    aka I don’t believe it, God, Perfection…
    Quote: “Good news everyone, because of a great year of fun and profits, I have hefty bonuses…”
    Warning: Could be the slippery eel in disguise.

    9. The Psychotic Boss – Monster from Hell”
    aka The Rampaging Beast-thing, Here Comes Trouble, Yessir Right Away Sir…
    Quote: “How dare you duck when I throw things at you!!”


    Steve Carell has quoted Ricky Gervais as saying:
    “If you don’t know a Michael Scott, then you are a Michael Scott.”


  5. Great piece, David.

    I found myself guiltily recognising some of my own behaviour under the “I hear things” section and know all too well that I ‘like the sound of my own voice’ a bit too much sometimes. Timely reminder to be aware of that and to consciously use my two ears and 1 mouth in closer proportion.

    Thasnk for posting.

  6. Malcolm, thanks for your honest posting. Your response is exactly my hope with this article: that people are willing to look in the mirror.

    We all can benefit from increasing our self-awareness…especially when we have power.


  7. Those that most could benefit from this article are those least likely to see it applying to themselves…


  8. @David,

    Becoming a better leader…good stuff, but I can’t resist…Your intro story. I was distracted by it.

    Didn’t your mom ever teach you not to talk to strangers, especially in restrooms? Particularly with a pickup line like, “Do I smell bad to you? That sounds pretty disarming, I guess, especially if he was wearing a business suit. Wasn’t there a senator or congressman busted not too long ago for such bathroom banter between strangers?

    Did you resist at first, or was the business suit enough for you to lower your guard and cast caution to the wind? Depending on how close you had to get to make a realistic judgement–I’m impressed that you could distinguish between his bodily odor and the odor coming from the swirl of fecal & urine mist, passed gas, bad breath and faded industrial cleansers and urinal cakes typical to most public restrooms. Places where you really don’t want to rest, much less speak to strangers. But I digress.

    I agree with you, Keith, David and Michael Jackson to be sensitive about what others can see, hear and smell (as well) about you. Look within and change for the better a la:
    “You Know-I’ve Got To Get
    That Man, That Man . . .
    (Man In The Mirror)
    You’ve Got To
    You’ve Got To Move! Come
    On! Come On!
    You Got To . . .
    Stand Up! Stand Up!
    Stand Up!
    (Yeah-Make That Change)
    Stand Up And Lift
    Yourself, Now!
    (Man In The Mirror)
    Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!
    (Lyrics from: Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror)

  9. Re: Doug Munro’s observation:

    “It strikes me that the essence of this is whether or not one is the kind of manager who is self-analytical and open to knowing what direct-reports think of them. If that sort of atmosphere has already been created it isn’t difficult to get critical feedback; if it hasn’t I suspect it’s an uphill climb.”

    Thanks Doug for your perspective. While I definitely agree with the latter part of your observation– the “uphill climb” when there isn’t an atmosphere of emotional safety–I don’t believe it is safe to assume that it’s easy to give one’s manager feedback even in a “positive” culture of respect.

    Given the inherent power difference and the fact that most people have little or no positive experiences of giving their boss feedback from previous jobs, it’s important, I believe, for any person in power to practice ongoing mindfulness and knowing how to make it safe for people to speak candidly.

    I think it’s easy when we’re in a position of power–whether a manager or a parent–to not be aware of the impact our power can have, because we think of ourselves as “I’m just a regular person, why would they be afraid to bring up something?”

    Whether we think of ourselves as a “Person in a Position of Power” or not, we are and it has an effect.

    Even without the “power issue” in play, it’s important to practice being mindful and practice making it safe for others to give us feedback. Forget the workplace and managers for a moment.

    Think of how often you (as in anybody reading this…and me included) have NOT brought up something that really bothered you in your personal life, because you were concerned about the potential emotional and relationship repercussions.

    I would venture to say that few people have many experiences of bringing up difficult issues with others that ended well. So they avoid them.

    So…I think it’s wise to never assume employees will speak up if you’re doing something unproductive, but rather to practice being mindful of how you come across, ask for feedback, and continually improve your ability to make it safe for people to speak honestly and openly with you.

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