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Leaders, Know When to Back Off

A friend relayed a story to me about a senior leader she thought made the wrong decision to postpone a workshop because he viewed his presence at it more important that it was. The time on calendar was secured, the location reserved, and everyone had completed the pre-work.

The purpose of the event was to improve the way the team worked together by building trust and establishing standard processes.

Then, two days prior to the event, the boss had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t attend. He promptly called for the session to be rescheduled, stating how important it was that he be there. He wanted the team to know he supported them during a tumultuous time. They were going through a lot of change.

I agreed, it was the wrong call and resulted in a classic case of a leader getting in the way of their team. He created more work for everyone to reshuffle their schedules and secure the necessities, not to mention delay the work to improve the team.

This happens a lot. Leaders overvalue their presence when many teams need their boss out of the room to get quality work done.

Here’s another example, a colleague of mine was promoted to interim Director after her boss resigned. She had seniority on the team, her teammates (or former peers) were supportive of her new supervisory role and the Vice President was pleased with the transition. Yet, this VP now attends their team meetings in the name of “supporting the team”. My colleague shared that her team doesn’t like the VP there and feels they can’t speak freely with the VP in the room.

Again, this VP is overvaluing their presence and instead is negatively impacting the team dynamic. When teams feels like they can’t speak up, creativity and quality problem-solving are stifled.

An important competency for a leader is knowing when to step away, back off, or let go.

It’s no wonder it’s difficult, though. A wealth of leadership development literature says that the leader is responsible for the team’s success. I often say something similar, “Teams are the product of their leadership.” All true. A leader can make or break a team.

So, with the best of intentions, leaders will overstep and go where they aren’t needed.

It’s a nuanced behavior that leaders take time to pick up...or they never do, remain in the weeds of their team’s work, and settle into micro-management as their leadership style of choice.

If you are a manager, it’s wise to understand the following about team dynamics.

Teams Are Responsible for Accountability, Not the Boss

While it’s true that leaders have a great impact on the team, the boss isn’t solely accountable for performance. Each member of the team is responsible for its success and must hold each other accountable. When everyone recognizes this and takes ownership of teamwork, teams do great things together.

Joseph Grenney studies team performance and writes in Harvard Business Review that teams generally fall into three categories:

  • In the weakest teams, there is no accountability.

  • In mediocre teams, bosses are the source of accountability.

  • In high performance teams, peers manage the vast majority of performance problems with one another.

This means, bosses are not to be the referees of every disagreement or the “hall monitor” making sure everyone gets to meetings on time. Nor are they the sole provider of ideas or the problem-solver. In high-performance, the team is largely responsible for all of it.

To be certain, staff require skills and standard processes to be able to hold each other accountable. For example, members of the team not only need to skills to be able to resolve disagreements productively, but they also need a process for when there is an impasse.

Such as what Grenney offers “…set a policy that 'it takes two to escalate.' In other words, both peers need to agree they can’t resolve it [a disagreement] at their level before they bring it to you together.”

Teams who have clear processes for how to work together and a boss who understands when to stay back, don’t just perform better, they’re more satisfied in their work too.

This is why postponing the workshop, the example at the start of this post, was the wrong call. This team had the goal to improve their work together and were energized to do so but their boss derailed it.

In the second example, the VP is doing the same. Leaders have power and even if a leader is open to hearing any complaint or criticism, people will still be concerned about whether their words will come back to bite them. Instead, they'll shut down or not speak up.

Knowing when you aren’t needed as a leader boils down to trust. Every leader must ask themselves, “Do I trust my team to do the right thing?” If the answer is yes, then back off. If the answer is no, then develop their skills, establish some processes, and then back off. Everyone will benefit from it.

Until next time!

Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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