Birds of a Feather

by Steven Cerri

Sooner or later, every CEO or high level manager makes the same request…”I want my team to take on more of my responsibilities, more of the tasks of leading and directing the organization, rather than waiting for me to tell them what to do. And they just can’t seem to do it.” Or I hear something like this; “I’ve been leading this team for too long now. I’m going to step back and see who steps up to take the leadership role.” Or I hear the following; “The people on my staff are ‘doers’ and I want planners and thinkers as well as doers. I want my staff to think strategically not just act tactically.”

At some point in the growth of a successful team, organization, or company, the leader wants the team to be more than originally envisioned. This is often the case because the leader wants to do other things like build a new organization, a new company, take on new tasks, or just do less day-to-day directing. Most CEOs, leaders, and managers, select their direct reports because the direct reports can be expected to “get things done”. The leader wants a team that can be counted on to “execute”. However, it is inevitable that once the tasks to be accomplished are achieved and the organization is functionally smoothly, the leader may well ask the “doers” to become the “thinkers and planners of future work.”

Why won’t they do it?

And more often than not, the frustrated leader ultimately asks; “Why won’t my staff step up to the plate and think strategically?” In order to answer this question we must first understand how people function and how the relationship between the leader and the direct reports is structured and maintained.

Tolerance for Push Back

Every leader has a specific tolerance for what I call “push-back”. Push-back is the level of honesty, openness, disagreement, “contrary-ness”, and independence that he or she is willing to tolerate from a direct report or staff member. If the direct report exhibits a level of push-back that is greater than the manager’s upper boundary level of tolerance for push-back, the direct report will be seen as uncooperative, not a team player, or even rude. If, on the other hand, the direct report shows a level of push-back that is less than the manager’s lower limit of tolerance, then the staff member will be seen as a “yes person”, too easy, and not really contributing to the organization. Like their managers, direct reports also have an upper and lower limit of push-back they are willing TO GIVE to their manager. For an employee to feel comfortable in their work environment their comfort zone for push-back must be within the push-back zone of the manger. For a team to function well the upper and lower limits of the leader should bound the upper and lower limits of the direct reports. If the limits of push-back are significantly higher for the leader than the direct reports, the leader will seem a tyrant. If lower than that of the direct reports, the leader will be seen as weak.

The desire for push-back equilibrium is a constant process and as long as the relative equilibrium is in place, all is well. In fact, the leader often picks people who are “doers” and have a tolerance for independence, openness, and rancor similar to that of the leader.

(Remember the old phrase; “Birds of a feather flock together”.)

A more significant way to say this is that the leader establishes the boundaries within which it is “safe” for the direct reports to push-back against the leader. This concept of safety is critical to this discussion, because the employees, the direct reports, clearly understand, usually at an unconscious level, what is “safe” behavior and what is not.

What happens when a change is needed?

At some point, the leader decides that he or she wants the staff to be more strategically oriented and that usually means more independent. All of a sudden the leader is asking the direct reports to behave differently than they have in the past. Put another way, the leader often is asking the direct reports to behave in a way that in the past was not considered safe.

Now most leaders are completely unaware of the dynamics they are setting in motion. They believe that they are asking for something very reasonable.

From the employees point of view the leader is asking for a new behavior that just recently was considered out of bounds, unsafe, and one for which they may consider themselves completely unsuited for.

If the leader does not do something to change the level of safety, the employees will not venture into this new territory. Furthermore, even if the leader makes it clear that the new behavior is safe, some employees may not feel comfortable displaying this new level of independence and push-back. It was never anything they signed up for in the first place, and it may not be something they are willing to sign up for now. Generally, the typical leader goes through the following steps, usually unconsciously:

1. At the outset, the leader sets a “norm” of safe and acceptable behavior with the team

2. The leader changes the requested behavior without changing the level of safety

3. The employees don’t step up to the plate to exhibit the new requested behaviors

4. The leader gets frustrated and steps back into the direction-giving role and either confirms that the new requested behavior was not safe, or takes over and indicates by behavior that the new requested behavior was never intended to be tolerated anyway

So what is a leader to do?

It is certainly possible for a leader to have the same group of people as the “doers” in the early stages of the organization, and as the doers, thinkers, and strategists at later stages. In order to achieve these conditions however, the leader must be a good communicator and must be disciplined.

Leaders must be good communicators in order to convey, in unambiguous terms, the behaviors required at all stages and the safety commensurate with those behaviors. They must be disciplined because there will be times when they will want to revert back to their early behaviors and levels of safety. This slide back must be avoided at all cost. For the leaders’ requested behaviors to produce results the direct reports must see consistency in the leader’s behaviors. The leader must ask for the new behaviors and provide a safe environment for those behaviors to show up. If the leader does anything to show that the environment is not safe, the newly requested behaviors will disappear. Finally, the leader must expect that some people will not be able to tolerate the new requested behaviors nor will they be comfortable with the new level of safety. They will ultimately leave the organization and once it is clear how they feel, they should be encouraged to leave and made comfortable to do so.

The failure of this form of leadership and management is so common as to occur in nearly every organization at some point in time. It’s time to consciously choose to handle it successfully.

The solution

In order for a high-level executive to pull back so that his or her direct reports can take on more of the strategic processes, it is important for the executive to understand the following five factors. They must understand:

1.    How their behavior impacts the behavior of their direct reports.

2.    Exactly what behaviors they want from their direct reports.

3.    How to manage and guide their direct reports to the desired behavior. (The idea that “I’ll just back off and see who steps up to the plate is ridiculous and doesn’t work).

4.    This is a long-term process and they must stick with the change process long enough to make it happen.

5.    That some of the direct reports won’t make the transition and that is OK.

6.    With certainty that they want to step back and decide how much control they are willing to give up.

For further information regarding STCerri International, our training and coaching programs, check out the website or call me, Steven, directly at 925-735-9500.

Be well,