“I walked into the room to find two of my team talking. As they both left I heard one of them sarcastically joking, “I’m going to be the next one fired.”
Recently my client’s organisation decided to terminate several of her team members, a decision she didn’t agree with. However, she had to deliver the news to her team and felt bound to publicly show a level of support for the organisational leadership.
When I first met her she was on the brink of leaving her organisation, feeling isolated and alone. While still passionate about her role and her impact, she seemed to encounter roadblocks within her organisation at every turn. Every initiative was a battle.
I had been working with her for the past several months, helping her open up and build effective working relationships with those around her. She had made real inroads and seen some positive results, however, she was rocked by this comment.
As my client finished recounting this incident, she looked across the table slightly exasperated. “Is there anything I can do to avoid comments like these? Or is it just part of being a manager?”
Thus began an interesting conversation about one of the greatest tensions that leaders and managers face. The tension between being part of the team and yet being apart from the team.
PART OF THE TEAM
Leadership is influence. Influencing a group of people towards a common goal or agreed mission. Modern psychology tells us that central to developing influence with a group of people is that we first have to be seen as part of that group. Secondly, we need to be seen as a champion for that group (for more on this The New Psychology of Leadership by Haslam, Reicher & Platow is a fabulous resource).
As a result effective leaders and managers are intentional about building relationships with those they lead. They find common ground so they can relate to the members of their team. They live by the same standards as is expected of their team. They work alongside their people and help them to achieve their goals. They also go to bat for the team, working to solve problems and overcome challenges the team faces. In essence, they show that they care for the team and the individuals within.
All of these and more allow the leader or manager to identify with and be identified as, part of the team they lead. This fosters a level of trust. Trust enough for the team members to allow the leader to influence them.
APART FROM THE TEAM
Yet the promotion to management or leadership positions comes with a responsibility. One enters into the world of ‘them’. Them being the organisation. A manager represents the organisation and its leadership to the team they lead. They are responsible for ensuring the team moves in the right direction, implements the changes, meets the standards, and carries out the strategy determined by the organisation’s executive.
To carry out these representational responsibilities, managers and leaders are required to stand apart from the team they lead.
THE TENSION BETWEEN
The tension of being part of the team yet also standing apart from the team is one that is difficult for leaders of all levels. Particularly those who are promoted from within the team are now required to lead, as I learned firsthand from my time in the military. It is what Jocko Wilink would call a Dichotomy of Leadership. Two opposite ends of a spectrum a leader is required to occupy.
This can seem like an impossible task, seeing managers pulled in different directions. There are no easy solutions to managing this tension, however, my experience tells me that the ability to do one is found in doing the other.
I mentioned earlier that the main mechanism for influence within a group is trust. When leaders and managers are seen as part of the team they lead, as individuals who champion the team and its goals, the members of that team will trust the leader. The more the team knows who the leader is, the more they will trust them as an individual; trusting they have the team and team member’s best interest at heart.
This is like putting relational credits, or trust credits, in the bank. When managers and leaders are required to stand apart from the team, representing the organisation in a way that holds the team accountable or requires the support of decisions and directions that impose significant impacts on the team, it puts a strain on the relationship between leader and follower. It is in essence a withdrawal of credits from the relational account.
If one doesn’t have enough credit in the bank, they go bankrupt. Trust is eroded and influence disappears. However, if a leader has intentionally invested into being part of the team, in so doing depositing enough relational credits in the bank, the trust they establish will act as a buffer against the relational strain of having to stand apart from the team.
American leader and pastor Andy Stanley writes,
“In leadership, there are always problems to be solved and tensions to be managed. When you try to solve a tension, you create a problem.”
You can solve this tension by deciding to be part of the team or part of the organisational leadership. However in doing so, whichever side you choose, you lose your ability to influence, lead, and do your job well.
There is no way around it. This is a tension we all must learn to manage.