Early in his career, Nathan was lucky enough to have a line manager who was also a valuable mentor. Nathan’s boss took a particular interest in his progress, giving careful feedback and delegating work. Under this boss, Nathan’s skills developed quickly and he made rapid progress through his organisation.
Nathan welcomed this support. He was eager to learn and ambitious, too. Professionally, the relationship was everything he could wish for. Personally, Nathan noticed how his line manager became a father figure to him, too. This was not unwelcome. Nathan’s father had died when he was just sixteen years old. What’s more, Nathan was the first person in his family to gain a university degree so that he lacked professional role models to look to within his family. For a while, the match between Nathan’s needs and what his boss had to offer meant that both of them thrived in the relationship.
Ten years later, however, the relationship was in difficulty. Nathan felt frustrated at the way his former manager continued to treat him; as if Nathan were inexperienced and in need of guidance and as if he, James, had all the answers. Nathan also felt increasingly concerned at the quality of James’s decision-making. James, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly vocal around the business. It was as if every relationship he had was a battle to prove he was right.
As much as he cared for his former manager, Nathan started to wonder if he needed to move organisations in order to be taken seriously. He was painfully aware that his former mentor and champion continued to talk about him around the business as if he were young, inexperienced and in need of James’s guidance. He also wondered if James was setting himself up for a fall. As frustrated as he felt with his former boss and mentor, this was something he didn’t want to witness.
Are you convinced you’re always right – or telling yourself that you should be?
Maybe you find yourself making judgements about your staff (“Am I the only one around here who can make sound decisions?” “What a terrible way to do things!” “Do I have to baby-sit every decision my team makes?”) Perhaps you feel frustrated with your staff and, although you ask for their suggestions, you usually end up going with the ideas you put forward yourself.
Maybe you’re telling yourself that, the more senior you become, the more it’s your job to make the right decision and the more decision-making is down to you. Maybe you feel anxious about the decisions you have to make and still, you see it as your job to make them. Even when you lack confidence and don’t know what to do for the best, you put on a brave face and champion a decision – any decision – with the aim of creating a clear sense of direction for your team and inspiring confidence.
Either way, the more you make the decisions for your team, the more you experience some of the challenges faced by Nathan’s boss and his team. `
What Nathan’s boss didn’t know
In his quest to be “right” and to be seen to be “right”, Nathan’s boss was making a common mistake and with common repercussions. As much as he complained about the team, it was James who was holding back the team’s performance.
What was it that James didn’t understand?
Firstly, without input from his team, James was rarely “right” in his decision-making.
Because James didn’t value the input of his team members, he tended to overlook the amount of information they could bring to the table to which he wasn’t party. Because he didn’t ask for the information (and because he was so dismissive towards members of his team) nobody gave it to him. He was making decisions based on limited information when he could have made decisions that were more fully informed.
What’s more, because he didn’t ask his team members for their views (or asked for and then dismissed them) he didn’t test his own thinking for potential flaws or seek out ideas from his team that, potentially, were more compelling than his own. He was drawing on his own brainpower rather than benefitting from the combined brainpower of all his team members.
Regrettably, his thinking was stagnating as a result.
There was something else James didn’t understand about being “right”: it was proving highly divisive.
Some of his team members, like Nathan, were confident in their own thinking but, increasingly, frustrated by the quality of decisions being made within the team. Some of them had given James clear feedback about their concerns. Occasionally James had even acknowledged the legitimacy of their concerns. However, because James was doing nothing to change his behaviour, the most capable members of James’s team were quietly considering their options.
On the other hand, even though his team comprised some of the most senior leaders in the business, by putting himself in the right, James repeatedly put others in the wrong. Even without this, James’s team members faced a challenging business environment: they had to make tough decisions with only partial information. This was already stretching them. Add to this challenge the dripping tap of James’s feedback and some of them were starting to doubt themselves. How could they be so wrong? Increasingly, they lacked confidence and felt disempowered.
There was a third repercussion of James’s quest to be “right”.
The more James promoted his own ideas and decisions over anyone else’s, the more his team-members recognised the futility of trying to make their own decisions. Some felt frustrated. Some felt anxious. All of them started to delegate decisions – upwards.
Instead of looking at what he needed to do differently to coach, nurture and empower his team, James focussed his attention on blaming his team members for their incompetence – and making decisions himself on behalf of his team.
The result was a vicious downward spiral.
Simple steps to empower your team
Nathan’s boss needed to do two things differently.
Firstly, James needed to get curious about each member of his team and to understand their needs. What coaching and support was needed for each member of his team to make progress in his or her confidence and decision-making? Yes, it might be true that one team member, new to the job, needed to learn more about this area of the business or about the kind of decisions that came with his or her new job. But this was not true of every team member.
James needed to develop his understanding of the needs of each team member and to respond appropriately. He also needed to adjust his approach as each person matured in the job and as his or her needs changed.
Secondly, James needed to let go of the idea that he even needed to be “right”. As much as, at times, he needed to provide support and coaching for new members of his team, he also needed to recognise those team members whose thinking, knowledge or other abilities matched and even exceeded his own. He needed to know when it was time to let go of being a father figure and to stand shoulder to shoulder with those he was responsible for leading.
Getting out of your own way
In case you’re wondering, James is not a real person.
At least, he is, but not just one. James is one, two, three, four… any number of men and women I have interviewed for jobs, met on leadership development workshops or worked with in coaching partnership. He is the boss of friends and family members. He is even a friend or family member. He’s me. He’s you.
Nothing I’ve said so far will help James, though it may help those who work for James or for someone like him. No. For James to change, he needs to understand what’s stopping him from letting go of his need to be “right”. He needs to recognise that putting himself in the right is his (or her) way of meeting a need.
Perhaps he wanted to command the respect of his team or, by securing his position, to maintain a sense of purpose, meaning or empowerment.
Perhaps his need was to find acceptance amongst his team members when he could not find acceptance within himself or was losing his sense of self-worth. Perhaps he yearned for love and reassurance, thinking that if he positioned himself as a father-figure, people would be grateful towards him and like him.
Perhaps he was trying to maintain his most fundamental needs – for physical security, shelter, food and drink – by seeking to persuade those around him that he had something to offer the business.
Sometimes, though, we try to meet our needs in ways which only plaster over the cracks.
When we do this, our sense that our needs are met depends on a growing blindness to the reality of our situation. What’s more, it depends on a near-willful blindness to the experience of others. We become increasingly tense. We become increasingly stressed. We become increasingly alienated from the reality of our situation and experience.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
In practice, you might be like James. You could hold tightly to being “right” and view every situation through the lens of your intention. You want to prove to yourself – and to others – that your thinking is sound.
You could, though, choose a different path.
Nathan, for example, chose to understand what needs he was trying to meet in his career that, increasingly could not be met whilst still working with James. He realised he wanted choose his own path, to live in integrity according to his own values, which included values about how he wanted to work with and support others. Getting clear about his aspirations made it easy for him to choose to leave his organisation.
He cared for James. He was grateful to James. He was concerned for James given the path he had chosen. And still, he knew it was for James to chose his path and to live with the consequences of his choices.
Just as it was for Nathan.