smiley, neutral and frowny face icons

Leadership User Experience: 5 Tips For Managing Your Impact

This post first appeared on

Are you user friendly? What is it like for people to work with you?

All leaders have a user experience (UX). For a product—say an app—the UX includes the interface, ease of use, features, etc. of the product. Some products are “user friendly”—intuitive, responsive, satisfying; others, not so much. For a leader or manager, UX is the experience of working with them, how easy or difficult it is to interact with them, and what is their impact. Do they leave people feeling motivated? Trusted? Frustrated? Confused? Empowered? Included? Is their experience consistent or unpredictable? Effective leaders and managers are aware of and intentional about their leadership brand, a significant part of which is their user experience.

Sergei*, a partner in a personal services firm, was told by his managing partner that his colleagues found him “not user friendly.” Brilliant but brusque, his partners and junior employees alike reported that their interactions with him made them feel as if he thought they were idiots. Needless to say, they were not enthusiastic about working with him. He needed to learn to acknowledge their work and ideas, frame his critiques more constructively and soften his tone.

Sarah*, commercial leader in a large pharmaceutical company, discovered from 360 feedback that while colleagues liked her personally and enjoyed 1:1 interactions and brainstorming sessions, they were very frustrated in team settings where she had a tendency to dive into the details and go down “rabbit holes,” derailing meetings. Her failure to read the needs of the situation and calibrate her presence was leading to a bumpy experience for her colleagues and limiting her ability to be influential when it really counted. The solution was straightforward: understand the context and clarify what her colleagues needed from her, and exercise more self-control in large meetings.

User experience design is a process aimed at creating or improving useful, meaningful and rewarding experiences for users. It is also a helpful metaphor for being more intentional about your leadership style, collaboration and communication. 

  1. Start with empathy. A key component of creating a powerful and positive UX is empathy. Product designers seek to understand and empathize with the needs, expectations and pain-points of their customers so that they can design a product experience that meets the customer’s needs. So, too, leaders need to understand the needs of their team, colleagues and other stakeholders and be intentional about their behavior and their impact on others. Whether you are presenting, delegating, or collaborating, take time to understand the requirements, concerns and goals of your “users.” 
  2. Be consistent. Your team and stakeholders count on you, so it is important to set clear expectations about your priorities and behavior standards and to act in accordance with those expectations. Just as the user of a product wants to know that the product will respond in a consistent manner, your stakeholders count on their interactions with you being reasonably consistent, not capricious or wildly unpredictable. Practice self-awareness and self-management so that you don’t take out your stress on your co-workers. Modeling consistency helps set the tone and increases the stability and safety of a team.
  3. Be situationally aware and adapt. Being consistent doesn’t mean always being the same. Effective leadership meets the context and moment. There are a range of leadership styles, each of which is characterized by particular behaviors and each has its pros and cons. Chances are, you have a preferred approach, but you can cultivate other approaches and tools in your toolkit. Leaders who are overly focused on “authentic leadership” sometimes miss the point that leadership is highly situational. Those who emphasize authenticity and being “true to self” can fall into inflexibility, failing to take the expectations and needs of their constituents or the overall context into account. Emotionally intelligent leaders have the self-awareness to identify their tendencies and the self-control to be intentional about how they show up. They are situationally aware and strategic in their communication approach in service of supporting the team, making space for diversity of thought, and achieving results.
  4. Stay grounded in your values. As a leader what do you stand for? Unlike a product designer whose prime objective is to delight users, you are a human being with a job to do that requires making hard choices and taking stands that may not be popular. It is important to know what principles guide your behavior and decision-making and to communicate that to your various constituencies. Values will help you prioritize and make tradeoffs as well as communicate to others the reasons behind your decisions. You can’t please all the people all the time. Commit to being grounded in your values and working to ensure that your behavior is congruent with your values and goals.
  5. Seek ongoing feedback. We all have blind spots. Just as product teams conduct research and focus groups to find out what is working or not in a product, so can you ask the folks you interact with about their experience with you. For example, ask your direct reports or cross-functional partners, “What is one thing I am doing that works well for you and what is one area that I could improve?” Remember that you are not required to act on their feedback. Thank them for their input and reflect on whether you want to make any changes.

To be sure, a leader’s user experience is just one facet of leadership brand. Steve Jobs was famously unpleasant to many on his team but was very effective by many measures. Nonetheless, as Maya Angelou is credited with saying, people will forget what you said and did, “but will never forget how you made them feel.” In the world of innovation and collaboration, savvy leaders as well as individual contributors, should be self-aware enough to pay attention to and be intentional about the impact they have on others.

*not their real names.