Leaders: Do you pass the sniff test?

sniffMany leaders I work with are interested in increasing employee engagement. In HR press we read about the high levels of cynicism in the workplace, and as leaders we fret about how to get our teams motivated and interested in the next round of transformational change. But did you know that you might unwittingly be the cause of cynicism? 

Lately I was told about a workplace practice which is much like the sniff test (when we sniff food in the fridge to decide if it’s still good enough to ingest). Leaders are subjected to a form of “sniff tests” every day by their employees. How does it work? In one form, a company states publicly what it stands for – the values and the mission. The cynical employee doesn’t believe that his/her leaders will act in alignment, so they conduct a test. By asking a seemingly innocent, rhetorical question, the employee is testing the leader. Another form of the test is to wait until a leader makes a statement about how they lead, and then request something that puts their statements to a test. So, for example, a leader who says they are supportive is tested in terms of their actual level of support. This testing is especially common when a person first joins the organization, as many grandiose and compelling statements, worth testing, are heard in interviews and orientation programs. 

Have you ever been guilty of one of the following?  You say you have an open-door policy– but your employees find you’re too busy for them, or away in meetings all day. Or you ask your team for feedback on a project or proposal, and then don’t change a thing. Unfortunately, you may underestimate the long-term impact of failing the sniff test. Trust, once lost, is difficult to regain. Worse, you may not even know you’ve failed, losing your chance at recovery and adding to the level of cynicism on your team. 

What can leaders do to ensure they pass a sniff test? 

  1. Never dismiss even simple requests or questions from employees. Often leaders are too busy and they rush through emails. A test might be worded purposely to look benign. Give messages from your staff the same attention you would give one from your boss, or your boss’s boss. Pay attention to what you say.
  2. Have more conversations face-to-face. It’s easier to interpret body language and tells you a lot about what the other person is really wondering about. It also allows you to register their disappointment or disbelief when the answer you gave falls short. Then you can say, “This isn’t what you were hoping for. What did you think would happen?”
  3. Match curiousity with curiousity. When you are asked what seems to be an innocent question, be curious. Spend time finding out the context for the question. Ask: “Why is this coming up for you now?” or even “What is it that you are hoping to hear from me?”  Explore the thought process behind the question. Be bold enough to ask: “Are you wondering if we will stand behind our value of commitment to development?”
  4. Avoid sweeping statements about what you believe and your style of leading. Differentiate between intention (what we think of as the spirit of the law) and what is actually possible. Tell specific stories that demonstrate in real-life how you, on behalf of the organization, interpret policies and use the values. This means you have to proactively reflect on what you have done, lately, to live the values and mandates.
  5. One easy way to prepare your stories is to have conversations with your peers about this. If there are no formal leaders’ forums, then have lunch or coffee with a colleague. Ask them how they demonstrate the values, and discuss the issue of cynicism when employees have high expectations. Work together to deliver consistent leadership. Employees appreciate the stability of leadership practices and behaviours that are reliable and consistent across the company.
  6. When there is a corporate proclamation, ensure you understand the intent behind the words. Your actions must be congruent with publicly stated corporate intentions if you want to be trusted. Ask your senior leaders or the HR team for specific examples of how leaders should be standard-bearers. If you disagree, do so with the policymakers and your senior team, not by complaining to your directs. If the policy is put in place, your job as a leader is to support it unequivocally – or leave.
  7. Be on the look-out for culture gaps – places where what is said publicly is not demonstrated. Most companies have them, in some places they are looming. As a leader you have the power and influence to make change. Start with the places where you feel a certain disappointment. And, if your employees trust you to step up, they will tell you openly where the company falls short.
  8. Finally, invite criticism from your direct reports. Tell them to let you know immediately if they perceive a lapse of integrity in your words or actions. Encourage the skill of giving diplomatic and constructive feedback, and model it yourself with your own leader.

2 thoughts on “Leaders: Do you pass the sniff test?


  1. Jill, what a terrific post! Such keen insights and practical advice. Thank you for bringing your work forward in this way.


  2. Great post from an experienced coach of executives, I have passed it along for other people to read this.

    Often enough leaders are afraid to invite criticism and surround themselves with people who can only tell them great things. The courageous leaders are one that have “rebellious” employees who can keep them on their toes.

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