The Pressure of Expertise
I was really looking forward to this cup of coffee. Three months into a new job at KLC, I was meeting two friends and members of the team I managed at the organization where I had spent more than a decade. After the initial catch up on each other’s lives, one of them looked at me, sighed, and said, “We really miss you!” I was touched and immediately let them know the feeling was mutual. But their reply told me I was missing the deeper point. “No, you don’t understand,” she said, “Now that you’re gone, there’s nobody left on our team who can have the tough conversations we need to have. You were so good at that.”
My heart sank. In our leadership language, she was saying the rest of the team didn’t know how to raise the heat. Admittedly, I had no problem doing that. Raising the heat was within my comfort zone. And years of KLC engagements had helped me understand the difference between creating discomfort for a purpose with progress as the goal and simply making people uncomfortable because I believed I was right! That said, it all hit me in that moment that I had failed to give the work back to my team when it mattered most.
Leadership is as much about what we’re not doing as what we are doing. The story I had told myself was by taking on difficult conversations, I was protecting my employees. In actuality, by failing to give some of that work back to them, I was limiting their opportunities to grow and manage conflict.
Giving the work back is not the same as delegating. Delegating tasks is an important role when your goal is efficiency. A good manger knows when to hand off tasks to the team with clear direction. Giving the work back is about shared responsibility. When you’re doing adaptive work, your purpose is often increased engagement and increased learning. And that’s where I had let my team down.
Unlike technical problems, adaptive challenges cannot be solved by authority alone.
- Tough challenges demand many perspectives. You can’t rely on authority to represent everyone.
- Engaging others encourages those differing views to surface.
- It stimulates commitment and creativity and makes it more likely that a collective vision will emerge.
- It creates buy-in from people authentically engaged in the process.
Imagine challenges being broken down into three phases of work.
- Problem Identification: What’s the issue? What’s going on?
- Solution identification: Of all the things we could do, what should we do?
- Solution implementation: Who will do what, by when?
There is pressure baked into our roles and titles … a pressure to double down on our expertise. It’s often an unspoken pressure that lives subconsciously below the surface. It’s that story that it’s “my responsibility” to tackle this problem. And because of that, we traditionally don’t “give the work back” until we reach phase three: solution implementation. By that point, it’s just delegation; telling others what to do.
However, adaptive work requires engaged stakeholders. We can’t hold on to the phase one and phase two work for ourselves or a select few. Giving the work back looks like inviting others into the challenge earlier: to get curious about what the challenge really is, to make tough interpretations about what potential solutions might look like, and then supporting those stakeholders to experiment.
Imagine if I hadn’t kept all the heat raising to myself. What if I had invited my team to understand and work the challenge and then leave them to do some heat raising of their own … with a purpose and with some protection and direction from me as their boss. Giving that work back could have had lasting impacts for the growth of two people I cared about deeply.