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Where I failed to lead (Markus Gärtner)

On March 12, 2014, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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There is a lot to say about leadership. Personally, I consider it a skill that needs to be honed – and developed. There are lots of bosses in the companies out there that don’t have a clue about leadership – neither do I. I attended a couple of courses on leadership. It started off with a course called “From colleague to boss”, and I attended the Problem-solving Leadership course with Jerry Weinberg, Esther Derby, and Johanna Rothman. Most of them only made me aware about the things that I didn’t know, and the possible directions that I needed to learn more about. Let’s see where I have failed on leading dramatically in my past.

Empathy

The hardest lesson I ever learned was a few years back. I had been appointed a group leader position, took the training, and considered myself a good leader. I tried to listen to my colleagues since they knew where the action was. I knew we needed to change something. I was aware that I needed their help to derive a solution that was well understood. I also knew that I needed to align all of my group for the direction. Only then were we able to follow-up on the same path.

That’s why I included my colleagues into all of our discussions regarding the direction that we were going to follow.

In remember one lively discussion where I felt like I awakened from a terrible dream. “You are trying to direct us for your own opinion. You are playing the boss card.”

What?

I was totally unaware of that. What happened? I considered myself part of the solution. Therefore I considered myself part of the discussion, and wanted to be convinced. Seems that the outside impression in my colleagues was different. They thought I was trying to influence them based upon my appointed position, rather than trying to be on the same level as my colleagues.

I thought we were discussing on the same level, while my colleagues didn’t think so. Huh. I clearly lacked the empathy to understand that my colleagues saw me in a different position, and considered my weight in my arguments than I assumed. My outside perception didn’t match with my inside perception. That totally got me confused. Even worse, I failed to notice that my empathy filters shut me down from the imagination of that situation.

That stroke me.

What I learned from that situation is that from time to time, leaders need to slow down, and listen to the ones that are following them. With listening I mean actively listening rather than rushing to conclusions about what they perceive.

Partisanship

Another time, I was working a lot with one of my colleagues. Most of my team considered him the worst of us five. I wanted to make sure that he can follow along with the pace that the others were setting up.

I remember that we went out for lunch often, we talked a lot about work, family, and all that stuff. We discussed situations back at work, how to solve them, providing each other feedback, and thinking difficult situations ahead of time.

When I came back to propose all the awesome ideas that we could have ended up with, I noticed resistance. It took me some time to realize where this resistance came from, and it was partisanship.

Since I spent so much time with one of my colleagues, the other colleagues felt abandoned. Since we discussed lots of situations back at work, our thoughts even lost contact to their reality. They couldn’t understand how we derived at the point where we ended up at. That resulted in a disconnection between our proposal and their current struggles.

They had to resist our brilliant ideas since they couldn’t understand the problem that we were trying to solve. Even worse, they couldn’t imagine there was a problem – nor that that problem was the most important one to solve.

And it got worse. Since I talked on a more personal level with one of my colleagues, the others felt downgraded and abandoned. They were not only resisting our idea on the content level, but also on the personal level. That made the whole situation worse. In order to help them understand our points, I had to reach out to them on a personal level plus on the content level. That made experimenting worse, and dragged our innovation power down.

What I learned from that situation is that I shouldn’t take about work life when engaging with a colleague beyond work. That may ruin your whole team – especially if you are a leader.

Asynchronous communication

In other situations, I tried to make my colleagues aware that we had a problem. My personal introversion preferences, and my writing skill makes me write a lot in order to reflect, and make sense of all the various thoughts that jump up and down in my head.

I learned the hard way that writing emails, or blog entries is a terrible idea to create a sense of urgency.

Written communication lacks multiple feedback channels. What each of us writes down is ambiguous on multiple levels. When we engage with persons face to face then we broaden the feedback channels. There is lots of information that we take in during direct synchronous communication. It’s the gestures, the mimics, and we may ask clarifying questions. All these factors make direct face to face communication more effective and efficient than remote, asynchronous communication.

So, rather than creating a sense of urgency, or reaching anyone, I figured I created the opposite reaction. Everyone was fighting my ideas, close to no one was following up on the stuff that I had written down since no one could follow it. Everyone was thinking that I annoyed them, and I was the last to see that.

If you want to create a sense of urgency, make sure everyone can “listen” to your ideas, and ask clarifying questions. The best way I know of to make that happen is direct face to face communication.

Lessons learned

There are a couple of lessons I learned over the various years on leadership. If you want to lead people, either by being the appointed leader or the “natural leader”, you probably want to be aware of these different levels.

Before you try to “lead”, make sure how you are perceived by your colleagues. If your outside picture does not match your inside picture you might find out that there is a problem that no one will tell you about. Some people avoid the confrontation with their bosses. Get the delegation level for decisions clear.

Avoid personal friends. Everyone should have the feel that they have the same contribution to make. Avoid the trap where a colleague that you commute with often takes on too much influence. You will do a disservice to your other colleagues just because they live in a different part of the city, and can’t commute with you that often.

Finally, synchronous face to face communication trumps anything else when you try to create a sense of urgency. Things can get worse if you make the impression that you are giving out orders for your colleagues’ behavior just because they think you are the boss, and you have to follow up on your words. If they feel invited by direct communication, they will feel more invited to following you. As a leader it’s your job to be receptive for that kind of feedback – positive and negative.

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