In my last post, I shared a story about a strained relationship with a co-worker and how it changed dramatically when I dared to discuss an undiscussable with her. Instead of avoiding one another, we developed a deep - and mutual - respect for one another that endures 18 years later.
Today, I'll share my recent experience with a client. He's a physician-leader who, early in our coaching, described a team member who routinely confounds the work of the team and frustrates other members. My client expressed a belief that "I like her a lot and think she could be a good leader". When I challenged him on this a few weeks later, "Thomas" confessed - with a hint of relief in his voice - a dislike for how she behaves and a belief that she could be a good subject matter expert (SME) or project manager but not a leader of people.
When I asked if he'd shared this with her, "Thomas" said he hadn't. I asked whether he could. He acknowledged that he needed to but didn't know how. We played with this for a bit, and I asked what he wants for her. He said he cares about her and wants to see her do well. Suddenly, Thomas got a "I could say that to her!" look in his eyes. He recognized that he could build trust with her by saying he cares and (I helped with this next part) then sharing that her behaviors often seem at odds with what leadership requires. At this point, he could say he sometimes wonders whether she even wants to be responsible for other people.
By sharing this, "Thomas" would be demonstrating his concern for her wellbeing while giving her tacit permission to acknowledge that leadership wasn't actually a dream of hers. Of course, we were speculating that she may not want to lead other people...that she might believe she had to become a leader in order to be viewed as a success. It did make sense that she may be trying to fulfill someone else's expectations of her.
Within a week, "Thomas" had a conversation with this team member that was different than any of their previous interactions. "Thomas" made a huge deposit in the emotional bank account of their relationship by expressing his commitment to her and her professional development. When he made it safe for her to describe her interests, she quickly dove into the details of a project and never once mentioned leading anyone.
It seemed clear to "Thomas" that they'd broken through to a core truth about this teammate's interests. While she said she wants to be a leader, her passions really are with the important details of managing projects and creating better systems. Unsurprisingly, she would be happiest as a SME and maybe miserably ineffective as a leader. And "Thomas" now is much more able to help his employee achieve her potential.
Last week, I had my final coaching session with "Thomas". As we reflected on the ground we'd covered, he recalled the breakthrough conversation with the team member in this story. I heard him say something that I hadn't heard - but which made perfect sense. He said, "I had her trust and then lost it somewhere along the way. I re-gained it when I stepped up and discussed the undiscussable [to lead or not to lead] with her."
As I write, it's important to say the dynamic between "Thomas" and his employee is ever unfolding. The last time he talked to her, they seemed at such an impasse that he called a time out. He said that she deserved to be heard, and he wasn't doing a good job of it. After a short break, they returned to a more productive and less emotionally charged conversation. They didn't resolve everything, but the mutual trust was evident. So they have a new problem to solve, and that's a good thing! In fact, the single greatest reason for us to discuss - and resolve - undiscussables is to create space for the next challenge to emerge.
If you are grappling with the challenges of leadership and want things to be better, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-598-3470.