Susan,* a client of Luis’ and a mentee of Kristin’s, managed her team with a fundamental belief that it was her job to “protect” them. Her belief was grounded in good intentions. She wanted her team to be happy and successful in a highly demanding and fast-moving organization. However, her approach constantly put her in the position of intercepting challenges, wanting to become a shield for her team.
Perhaps this behavior endeared Susan to her team initially, but it had other unintended consequences, especially as the team’s scope of responsibilities grew. Her peers and cross-functional colleagues didn’t see her as collaborative, partly because she was often perceived as a blocker. Her behavior led her team to adopt a disempowered stance, and they became dependent on her to fight their battles. Worse, it put a lot of pressure on her to be present in all major decisions. As her overwhelm mounted, her performance slipped, both in terms of her ability to stay on top of key projects and to show up at meetings with a calm, clear perspective. Ultimately, the behavior caused senior leadership to view her as volatile and not in control.
We call leaders who engage in this kind of behavior “umbrella managers”: well-intentioned leaders who want to protect their teams from all inclement organizational weather. But this type of leadership comes with a heavy price for the manager, the team, and the organization:
- The umbrella manager feels personally responsible for every decision. Their ability to stay on top of all details is unrealistic; managers can’t do it all. And their sense of overwhelm rapidly increases. As a result, the team becomes passive and complacent in their decision making. The manager becomes a bottleneck, slowing decisions and frustrating would-be collaborators.
- Team members don’t benefit from learning to navigate the storm themselves, resulting in reduced employee development. They’re not positioned to form strong cross-functional relationships and therefore miss out on having higher organizational visibility and impact.
- With team members’ inability to navigate independently, the organization experiences reduced productivity and innovation capability from the team. The capacity to be nimble and adapt to changing circumstances in these organizations becomes almost impossible, resulting in the team rigidly holding onto outdated plans, wasting precious time and resources.
In our experience, this behavior is not uncommon in emerging leaders. Many individuals leading highly sophisticated teams for the first time need help to figure out the balance between supporting their teams and delegating effectively.
Shift your thinking
We recently caught up with Susan and asked about the “lightbulb” moment that led her to stop protecting her employees and start supporting them:
As I progressed in my career and began to manage more senior staff, it became increasingly clear that I needed to put away my umbrella and look for more effective and scalable ways of helping the managers on my team navigate challenges. I let go of the need to protect my employees and adopted a different mental model that more closely resembles handing out rain ponchos than opening an umbrella. Instead of putting myself between my reports and difficulty, I now support them by providing the tools they need to navigate these challenges independently.
To move from protecting your employees to supporting them, you need to make a few key mental shifts:
Face your fears directly.
The first step is understanding what beliefs underpin your current behavior. Where does your instinct to “protect” come from? Do you worry your employees will crumble under pressure and, as a result, make you look bad? Do you believe that their wrong decisions will compromise project outcomes and jeopardize their own success? Are you concerned that your value to your team depends on your ability to represent all aspects of their work fully? Ask yourself if other leaders in the organization are operating under the same assumptions. Challenge yourself to figure out what would need to be true in order for you to let go of this underlying belief. Additionally, ask yourself how your current approach might be harming your team.
Assume your employee can solve the problem.
By empowering your employees to solve their own problems, you can demonstrate your trust and confidence in the team’s abilities. For example, when people raise a challenge, they often don’t need help finding the solution — they either have one already or can come up with one by talking the challenge through with a trusted partner. You can turn yourself into that partner to improve your leadership effectiveness and avoid offering solutions too quickly. Doing so also encourages team members to think independently and come up with creative solutions to issues. To help them identify workable solutions and pick the right course of action, consider asking, “What options do you have?”
Embrace short-term stumbles for long-term gains.
Short-term stumbles provide learning experiences and opportunities; they can uncover weaknesses, areas of opportunity, and improvement. Allowing your team to “fail” (and learn) independently is a faster path to growth and long-term success than ensuring the short-term outcomes are well controlled.
For Susan, this realization was central to her realization that she was stifling her team. As she put it:
Early in my career, I thought the objective as a manager was to ensure a good outcome for every situation, large or small. However, when I moved to manage a larger organization, I had to get clear on what the truly high-stakes decisions were and help myself and the team build capabilities around recovering from small setbacks or missteps. This perspective allowed me to let go of many of the decisions I had been making, which gave me more time to coach emerging leaders on the team and for higher-level strategic thinking.
Lean more on your leadership strengths.
As leaders grow and their scope of responsibilities expands, their functional knowledge becomes less relevant as leadership skills take priority. Many managers struggle with this identity shift. They worry that if they’re not personally on top of all the details, they’ll be perceived as ineffective when in fact the opposite is true.
Stop chasing down every detail and free up time for activities like figuring out which decisions are critical, clarifying “what good looks like,” and getting alignment with your peers and other parts of the organization.
Empower your team
Once you’ve adjusted your mindset about how you support your employees, you can start to take action:
Provide your team support and tools for navigating challenges.
Whether the issue is technical or interpersonal, your job is to help your team develop options for handling the situation now and in the future. When an employee brings up a challenge, ask what kind of support would be helpful, but avoid putting yourself at the center of the challenge. Sometimes information and context gaps need to be closed, and the solution can be as simple as directing your team member to the right person to talk to.
Other times, you might find yourself carrying around a huge amount of company- or domain-specific knowledge that needs to be transferred. In these cases, there’s no way around spending the time it takes to bring your team member up to speed. However, when you couple this time investment with the additional expectation that your team member will create reference documentation for future members, you reinforce learning and build a stronger knowledge base for your team.
That’s not to say that you should never play a role in navigating challenges; in fact, managers are often better positioned to see the systematic forces creating the challenge. If a systems-level challenge is best addressed at a higher level in the organization, you must work with your leadership and/or peers to find solutions at a systems level. For example, a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities can cause persistent friction between teams, and misaligned goals can unnecessarily bring different parts of the organization into conflict and create power struggles. In these cases, the leader has an essential role to play in removing ambiguity, finding alignment, and prioritizing solutions.
Help your team embrace discomfort and maintain perspective.
It’s never comfortable to navigate new challenges — even the most emotionally resilient among us still have moments of insecurity when stepping outside our comfort zone. However, you can provide a few mental models to support your team and encourage them to tackle difficult situations. For example:
- Create a “safe-to-try” team environment and embrace a growth mindset
- Model approaching situations with curiosity instead of fear
- Reduce guesswork by clearly communicating assumptions and needs
When things go wrong, model a solutions-oriented, optimistic mindset.
Leaders who model optimism set a positive tone in the workplace, empowering team members to recover from setbacks. If you want your team to navigate challenges independently, the worst thing you can do in the face of a setback is look for who to blame. Developing the organizational muscle to pull together to overcome setbacks is crucial. And while blame is not helpful, team retrospectives can help the team collectively get better at anticipating and avoiding similar setbacks in the future, creating a sense of shared accountability.
. . .
For Susan, transitioning from protecting to supporting her team was transformational. Reframing the value you bring to the organization, shifting from doing to coaching, and focusing on creating the right team environment and processes instead of concentrating solely on individual outcomes are all foundational to this transition. Getting out of the middle makes space for the perspective needed to see organizational context more clearly and spend the requisite energy on addressing systems-level challenges. Putting away the managerial umbrella and fitting your organization with ponchos is not easy, but the payoff is worth it.
* Name has been changed for privacy.
Leave a Reply