Tips on Being a Better Leader in 2016

10 New Year's Resolutions That Will Make You a Better Leader

By George Dickson

New Year's Eve is coming soon. As it approaches, many of us are thinking about how we can make 2016 the best year of both our personal and professional lives. Sometimes the greatest challenge is knowing what it's going to take to make that desire a reality.

Here are ten ideas to get you started. Sticking to even one of these resolutions in 2016 will make you a better leader, but you might be surprised how valuable they'll be outside the workplace.

1. Understand accountability

Accountability is an oft-misunderstood concept. The common misconception is that accountability is something someone must be "held to," but in its truest form, accountability is something to be embraced.

Why is it important?
As a manager, you can only hold someone accountable as long as you're willing to expend the effort into doing that. The moment you lift the pressure off, accountability disappears. This technique works, but it's neither efficient or sustainable.

How to improve?
Make 2016 the year of embracing accountability and better leadership by giving your team the autonomy they need to approach problems in a way that they feel they can take genuine ownership over them. Watch them transition into happily accepting accountability for their responsibilities, and leave the managerial pressure back in 2015. It's not healthy for anyone.

2. Build trust

Trust is absolutely vital to the success of any relationship, and it is a two-way street. You need to know you can trust your employees to do their best every day, and they need to trust the decisions you make are in the best interest of the team.

Why is it important?
In order to give employees the autonomy they require to truly embrace accountability, and experience the joy of a dedicated, engaged team, you're going to have to trust them. Before your team can truly dedicate themselves and engage in your organization, they need to trust you.

How to improve?
Start by analyzing the work environment — not just the physical environment (although that is definitely a factor) but the overall environment. Policies and procedures are just as much a part of the work environment as the walls and desks. What types of things is this environment implicitly and explicitly stating about trust within your organizational culture?

Identify architecture, actions, policies, and procedures that don't connote trust, and consider whether they're truly necessary.

3. Be a facilitator

The best leaders are facilitators. They don't tell an employee what to do; they give employees the tools (and sometimes constraints) they need to do their absolute best work.

Why is it important?
For employees to reach the stage of self-actualization, or reaching the pinnacle of their abilities, is hardly ever possible without support. A great orchestra needs a great conductor, not because the conductor cellos for the cellist, shows a flautist how to flute. The conductor facilitates the pace, direction, and harmony of an already extremely talented group, and something extraordinary comes from it.

How to improve?
Take a step back and think about situations where you might better serve your team by facilitating the work they're already doing, and the efforts they're already expending. They'll thank you for it, you'll eliminate a center for stress in your job, and your plate will be less full in the long run.

4. Be a better communicator

You can't be a good facilitator if you're not a good listener, and any great director must express themselves clearly.

Why is it important?
Communication is everything. Whether it's communication between you and your significant other, or your team, you'll never achieve your most ambitious goals without healthy communication.

How to improve?
It's crucial to understand that communication is not only bi-directional, but unlike trust you'll be better served by understanding that it's more like a one-lane road.

Two trucks can't cross paths in opposite directions on the same road, and two people can't effectively express themselves and listen at the same time. So make it a point to pull over regularly, and give others a chance to pass before heading around the next bend.

5. Break down barriers

All kinds of barriers exist in the workplace. Physical barriers like walls and distance combine with less physical, but still very real barriers like time, hierarchy, technology, communication, and culture. 2016 can be the year of the sledgehammer — breaking down barriers wherever they stand, and becoming a better leader because of it.

Why is it important?
Have you ever heard anyone express their gratitude for having run up against a series of silos or other pointless barriers in a task they were working on? When was the last time someone exclaimed I love communicating and sharing documents exclusively through reply-all email chains! or Good thing I wasn't able to share my new marketing initiative directly with the members of the sales team who would benefit most from it!

If you have, I'm sorry to be that guy, but someone's got to tell you: they were being sarcastic.

How to improve?
Although it seems like a challenge, this one's a piece of cake. Once you make a resolution to break down barriers in your organization, you'll be addicted — and nobody's going to schedule an intervention  in fact, people will thank you for it.

Some things you can immediately do are:

  • Think about the tools you and your colleagues use. Are they creating an unnecessary barrier to communication or collaboration? There are some great modern alternatives out there.
  • Seek out silos and consider whether they're truly necessary (they're probably not)
  • Plan time to build community within your organization  it's important 

6. Recognize all contributions, large and small

Frequent recognition is one of the most important steps to becoming a better leader. Your team needs to know that you value their contributions — this goes for everyone on the team, from the intern to the senior executives.

Why is it important?
Each contribution someone makes to the team is valuable, and taking time to express that value can have an amazing impact on engagement and retention. Employees who are putting in their best effort need to be recognized for that effort, otherwise you're denying them an incentive that is on par with their salary.

Think about it this way: salary is 100% fungible  your salary dollars are wholly replaceable with your competitor's salary dollars. What's not replaceable? The way an employee feels about the work they do, and the people they do it for.

How to improve?
Recognizing every contribution might seem like a Sisyphean task, but it's not. It's more of a Herculean task. Bear with me now:

Sisyphus was forced to push an enormous stone up a massive hill, only to watch it roll back down, then rinse and repeat for eternity. There was no respite for him.

Hercules was charged with a similarly enormous task. Eurystheus charged Hercules with the unthinkably large task of cleaning up the stables of King Augeas, who owned more cattle than anyone, in a single day. Instead of grabbing a pitchfork and shovel and digging into the manure, Hercules dug channels into the ground near the river, diverting it through the stables and flushing them clean in one day.

Think like Hercules, and make recognition easy. Avoid the head-on approach by using tools like peer recognition. Peer-to-peer recognition enables your team to recognize one another, and be recognized for, all the great work and contributions that happen on a day-to-day basis. The people employees work most closely with are more likely to see and feel the impact of those contributions.

7. Embrace and reward small improvements

New Year's resolutions are all about celebrating and facilitating growth, whether that's personal, professional, or otherwise. But why limit that mindset to once a year?

Why is it important?
Growth is incalculably valuable, and it doesn't happen overnight. It's important to take time to reward and recognize even small, but positive steps forward. After all, those small steps are what add up to impact.

How to improve?
Make sure you're not only recognizing growth, but facilitating it.

That could come in many forms, from providing professional development opportunities, lunch-and-learns, certification courses, mentorship programs  really, the list is endless and it's only limited by your creativity and imagination.

The most important thing to do is consistently ask yourself, "What kind of growth opportunities am I providing my team, how can I improve on those, and how can I make sure we're celebrating the steps my colleagues take toward being more awesome?"

8. Do one thing that scares you

Speaking of growth and improvement, 2016 is the perfect time to step out of your comfort zone, and try something new. But not just something new, something you're a bit afraid to do.

Why is it important?
Once you've done something you're afraid of (and assumedly lived through the process) you'll have less to fear. Although danger is real, fear is a mental construct and it's usually unwarranted. Facing your fears will make you a stronger, better leader, and will help you to confidently guide others through the similar situations.

The more times you face your fears, the more you'll realize that

How to improve?
There's only one way to improve here: just go and do it.

Find that one thing you've been avoiding and tackle it  don't give up until you walk away victorious. It can, but doesn't have to be work-related  the confidence you gain will translate either way. Maybe it's changing the serpentine belt in your car by yourself, sleeping without a night light, or doing your taxes. Whatever it is, go do it, then find the next challenge.

9. Stay true

This is so important. Stay true to yourself, true to your colleagues, and true to your organization's goals. When those things don't align, it's incredibly difficult for anyone to thrive.

Why is it important?
Your team needs a solid leader to rally around. If you're flip-flopping on decisions, and regularly changing your tune on issues, it's going to be corrosive to that trusting relationship you've worked so hard to build.

How to improve?
Be that strong foundation your team can build from. This doesn't mean sticking to your decisions even when you realize they're bad decisions. It's more about upholding a positive and unwavering standard that others can look to.

10. Have more fun

If you're never having fun at work, you're in the wrong profession. Yes, work isn't always going to be a laugh a minute  that's one of the reasons you get paid to do it  but it's important to have fun, and if it seems there's none to be had, make some.

Why is it important?
If you're not having fun, there's a good chance that's going to be the same experience others are having. Enjoying work is a major factor in how long employees be willing to do it, and how much they'll demand in return for sticking around.

How to improve?
You don't have to install a pinball machine and hold office flip cup championships, but it's got to be there in some form or another. You might find it in the unlikeliest of places. The most important thing to do is look for it. If you find it, share it. If it's not there, create it.

2016 is almost here, and it's the perfect chance to resolve to become a better leader, and better colleague. Try any of these suggestions  or all of them  and let me know how it goes.

Written by George Dickson

George Dickson

George is dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures with thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition. George formerly managed content and community at Bonusly.

Originally published on December 30, 2015 → Last updated August 24, 2017