My colleague Chris and I were facilitating a “mastermind group” for leaders this week. In our experience, this is one of the best ways for an organization to improve collaboration and leadership: Invite small groups of leaders to reflect regularly on how they lead, on difficulties that may arise. In the “mastermind groups” the leaders share their knowledge and experience and everybody learns from everybody within the context that they are all in. You may also know this format as “reflecting team” or “action learning”.
One of the issues raised by a young and energetic leader was his frustration with new direct report who was questioning everything. She was giving pushback on each and every thing she was asked to do and was also threatening to go to the leader’s superior if she did not get her way. Chris and I know the leader who raised the issue as a really thoughtful, helpful and supportive leader so we were a bit surprised at the behavior of the direct report – as was the rest of the group. Our young leader really wanted to figure out what he could do to create a productive relationship with the direct report in order to be able to retain her. We were so impressed! If I were in his shoes, I am not sure if I could have mustered the patience.
When I heard the description of the case, I was reminded of a program for children (I don’t know why…. *see me looking into the air innocently*) designed by Ben Furman and Tapani Ahola. It is called “Kids Skills” and works mainly by helping children and their parents turn “problems” into “skills to be learned”. You can find a detailed introduction when you click on the above link.
The main challenge here, seemed to be to step out of the “if I insist, you will resist” or “yes, but” game. Since the “game” is mainly initiated by the direct report, it is a bit harder for the leader to step out of it, but it is possible:
Step out of the game
If the leader is in “reactive mode” and driven by his frustration, he won’t be able to step out. So whatever he can do to calm down, look at the situation in an uninvolved matter — do that! He might think of himself observing the situation like a fly on the wall or take 3 deep breaths or have a conversation with a friend or write the mantra: “It is not about ME — I am not part of the problem, but I can be part of the solution” or whatever helps him to calm down and think.
Define what the direct report needs to learn
I am usually all for being collaborative and having conversations with people — in this case, it seemed like this was not working. So maybe a little pre-planning is in order. What does the direct report have to learn? When we talked in our mastermind group the term “being bossable” came up. So — our leader’s direct report probably needs to make a decision: does she want to learn to be “bossable” and collaborate with her boss or not? If not, maybe she should go and found her own company.
Have a meeting so share the expectations on what needs to be learned
The leader might meet with the direct report and share his expectations clearly: “I need you to collaborate with me and what I will be seeing if we collaborate better is …. (in a descriptive way: what will you be noticing, what will others notice?). He should share the benefits this will bring for the direct report and stay away from being belligerent (stay out of the game) but simply clear: clarify, don’t justify. He might then ask the direct report if she would like to learn how to collaborate?
After the meeting our leader should give the direct report some time to mull over it. Does she actually want to learn how to collaborate? It’s better to not ask for a decision right away.
Have another meeting to discuss ways forward
Should the direct report want to learn to collaborate, he can now start planning how to do that. Best to start small and list some of the behaviors that would change. Maybe offer the direct report a mentor or coach. Having a senior female mentor or coach might be a good idea. Again, the more specific this discussion is (what will you see that’s different) the easier to implement. This discussion can be very collaborative and concrete: “When I give you a task, I would like you to ask questions about the content, and if this is not something within your scope or expertise, we can also discuss who else might do it. I don’t want you to say “no” right away.”
Should the direct report not want to learn how to collaborate — well, I don’t think this will work out. Working together with your bosses, I guess, is a non-negotiable skill when you are trying to do stuff together.
Follow up regularly
Our leader should have regular calibration meetings to see how it is going. What’s really important is to continue observing himself to prevent falling back into the “game”.
I hope these musings were somewhat helpful to all the leaders and coaches supporting leaders out there. If you want to bring your own cases (either coaching or leadership), do come to our free meetups and exchanges: