Shoulder to Shoulder

I am most happy when I play even a small part in someone’s success. The challenge for me, as a manager, is how to go about helping someone reach their own goals (and in some cases, figuring out what those goals are). The vast majority of people need very little to be great. In fact, the more effort I exert, the more likely I am to actually slow down their journey to greatness.

To be clear, I’m a believer that having someone who can provide focus, encouragement, and course correction is critical. But it’s less about leading and more about supporting.

Let’s say there are two people hiking down a trail. There are really only two ways to do this: you can have someone leading or you can be walking shoulder to shoulder. When one person is following another, that person tends to be focused only on one thing: the leader. When walking side-by-side, both tend to be more alert and looking down the trail and imagining where it could go next.

In other words: When being led, you learn to follow. When walking together, you learn to lead.

The Shoulder to Shoulder approach has a few benefits that we can briefly discuss:

  • It gives people the confidence to make their own decisions.
  • It creates an environment where diversity of thought is valued.
  • It creates a space where failure is accepted and even expected.

I’ve always said that a manager’s job is to make himself or herself mostly obsolete. One way to do that is to let people have the confidence to make decisions without fearing the reactions of others. If a person can focus on the consequences of the action and not other people’s reactions to that decision, then you could say that their decision is pure.

Here’s a fun little exercise. Think about a few decisions you’ve made in the last year. How many of them have been untouched by the opinions of others? If the answer is ZERO, then I’m in awe of you. The truth of the matter is that every decision is influenced by the expectations of others. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just a matter of degree.

Diversity of Thought

When a person’s decisions are overly dependent on the perceived opinions of others, they are no longer having their own thoughts. Their thoughts are tainted by the decisions of others. Again, this is inevitable. After all, if you respect someone - let’s call her Jane - then you can’t help but wonder What Would Jane Do? I mean, that’s what mentorship is all about.

The trick is figuring out how to let yourself into the mix. You were hired for a reason, and hopefully, that reason wasn’t to create a duplicate of Jane.

Freedom to Make Mistakes

It is so hard to make your own decisions if there is a perception of negative consequences when a bad decision is made. There are two types of consequences - objective and subjective. The objective consequences are the ones that are truly a direct result of the decision being made. For example, you’re in a car alone heading to Point B and you decide to turn left. Unfortunately, turning right would have gotten you to Point B much more quickly. The delay in getting to your destination is an objective consequence.

Now let’s say you’re in a car with someone in the passenger seat. The same situation and you decide to turn right while the navigator says to turn left. Objectively, you made the right decision. Subjectively, your navigator - at least briefly - thinks you made a bad decision. The subjective consequence for the driver is that the navigator will be unhappy with your decision.

So in this example, the driver was right and the navigator (the manager) was wrong. It could have been the other way around, of course. But, if the subjective consequences of being wrong are severe, then it doesn’t matter how confident the driver is - they will always choose what they think the navigator wants.

Manager’s Role

The manager’s role in all this is to be available to support decision making but not be such an overwhelming leader that your employees won’t have the skills they need to function independently. Among other things, this gives your employees more space to make the decision - and to be wrong. The great thing is that you, the manager, are right there by their side and can advise and support if things go sideways. Because, let’s face it, if the wrong decision is made - it’s the manager who is ultimately left holding the bucket.

It’s probably this last fact that can encourage managers to take a more prominent role in decision making. But this is a truly short-term way of thinking that really does not scale across all your reports. Trying to influence the decisions of everyone who reports to you will do a couple of things:

  1. Drive you crazy
  2. Drive your employees crazy
  3. Lead to really bad decisions.