Support or Collusion? Leaders Don’t Let Leaders Off the Hook

iStock_000010820542XSmallBy LeeAnn Mallorie

You know the moment.

A colleague walks into your office, looks at you across the room, raises an eyebrow and says, “Got a minute?” You reply, “What’s up?” They close the door and begin, “Well, you’ll never believe what happened…” and launch into a compelling story of incompetence, betrayal and injustice that has you sitting on the edge of your seat. As they pause for a breath, you think, “How can I help?” More than likely, if you’re a get-it-done type of leader, you dive in with them: “The idiots!” Or, let’s say you’re more of a “people-person”. Your reply may sound something like, “Yeah, that’s really bad. You don’t deserve to be treated like that.” In other words, you’re on their side, and you want them to know it. Right?

It’s human nature.

Unfortunately, the story is never quite so simple. For example, perhaps your colleague forgot to mention that the wayward client only went to another vendor after three failed attempts to get your colleague to review the proposal and submit a revision. He can’t admit to you that he played a part in the unfolding drama. And you, despite your high integrity and genuine desire to help, can’t ask him to talk about it.

Why do we fail to provide powerful support like this in the workplace? How do we step in so we can help elevate the game of those around us in a bold and inspiring way?

The Breakdown

Giving genuine support is an act of grace, but it takes courage to do it well. Every powerful intervention begins with a point of choice: do I go the easy route and take their side … or do I mirror the delicate-yet-powerful place of leverage in the situation at the risk of “blaming the victim”? All too often we end up colluding with them in their pain. In so doing, we make matters worse, and miss a potentially powerful opportunity to shed some light on the subject.

Why? Because the tension in that choice point is nearly unbearable.

Our urge to go with the flow is strong, and so we do. Here are a few examples of common scenarios you may confront at work:

Scenario 1: The camouflage. Your primary collaborator is preoccupied. So preoccupied, in fact, that when you bring up a difficult strategic challenge, she spends a few moments on it then jots it down on the agenda for a future meeting. Weeks later, several meetings have been cancelled and the topic has still not been addressed. You decide to let it go for now. She’s just so busy, clearly she’s got more important things on her mind.

Scenario 2: The hidden skill gap. Every time you delegate a particular kind of task to your direct report, he fails to deliver. The email gets lost, the deadline forgotten, the ball dropped. In your mind you decide, “He’s just lazy. He’s clearly not interested in being an A player.” You decide to do it yourself, or delegate to someone you know will finish the job.

Scenario 3: The Us vs. Them conflict. As in the opening story, your colleague approaches you about a conflict between two sides. We did all this right, they did all that wrong. Now we’re stuck and it’s their fault. You relate to their complaint, and you feel angry too. You decide to go with them on their rant and subtly (or not so subtly) tear down the integrity of those on the other side.

Any of these sound familiar? In all three scenarios, you are faced with a moment of choice. As you imagine yourself in each one, can you sense the tension that arises at the choice point? Can you also imagine a different — though difficult — conclusion? What would it have taken for you to go a different route?

Elevating the Game

In my work as an executive coach at Learning as Leadership, I support leaders to capitalize on these choice points as a way of elevating their own game, while calling everyone around them in their organization to rise to their next level. Making the right move in any one of these scenarios can lead to a game-changing upward spiral of learning, creativity and co-problem solving. The trick is to identify the fear that keeps you driving down the comfortable, familiar road toward collusion, courageously let it go, and boldly turn the wheel.

One way to muster up that courage is to find a goal that is bigger, truer and more important to you than your fear.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself when confronted with an opportunity to provide powerful support:

  1. What is the cost? Let’s say you don’t turn the wheel. What predictable negative outcomes are likely to occur? Why is that a problem?
  2. What is their next level? Whether they are your direct report, your peer or even your boss, what do you know to be their weaknesses? How do you want to see them grow to their most powerful next level?
  3. What is the potential benefit for the business? Why is it worth taking the risk? If your powerful support led to a breakthrough for this person, what could be gained in this situation?
  4. What is your next level? Why are you committed to growing in your skill as a mentor?

How will taking this risk help you learn to provide powerful support?

In the end, neither the questions nor the answers need be exactly “right”. The point is to simply connect with your own motivation to take action. Sometimes the least rational, most unexpected reason is the one that creates the greatest spark.

Finding the motivation may not be easy in the beginning, but I have found it’s like building a muscle: with practice, it gets easier over time. The sooner you start, the sooner you move through the wall of hesitation toward impact. As long as you genuinely care about the success and well-being of your colleague on the receiving end, even an imperfect intervention can be received as powerful support.

In fact, I challenge you to start this week: Take one risk you would generally avoid. Tell one truth where you’d typically collude.

We’d love to hear about your challenges and success stories: How is having the courage to provide powerful support to your colleagues changing the game in your workplace?


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