We stood in a room that looked more like a cozy living room than the office of a growing startup. We were chatting after grabbing hot drinks — chai for me, coffee for them. I was mentoring a group of leaders, many of them in their first role. We were talking about the role of a leader.
“The biggest part of my job is protecting the team. I’m like a bouncer.” one of them said with absolute certainty. Others nodded their head.
I remember where I was standing. I remember breathing deeply, assessing how to respond. I understood the instinct. I also saw complexity in this behavior.
Many managers and leaders, especially when new, see a big part of their role as protecting others. I understand the impulse. The intentions are well-meaning. It can have also unintended consequences or come from a less than healthy place. It’s not that leaders want to cause harm — it’s the opposite. We see protecting the team as a way to help, of eliminating harm. While it seems like we’re using our power to help, it can actually unconsciously demean or disempower. There is a place for protecting the team — we just need to be aware of why we’re doing it and the unintentional second order effects that may result.
There are three common reasons leaders get into protection mode. All three can have second order effects to varying degrees. The reason for protecting in two of these situations can be helpful though needs to be modulated. The third situation can be harmful, even though often done unconsciously.
Routing most contact through the leader
While those in charge are responsible for a team, often serving as the main contact, those in protection mode put stricter boundaries making themselves the bouncer. Having to go through the lead can protect the team’s time and reduce distractions so goals are more easily reached. Protecting the priorities of the team can also support their ability to meet objectives. These are ways leaders’ protective boundaries can buoy the team. This is the most benign and potentially helpful form of protection.
However, even in these cases sheltering the team may not always be the right choice, especially when done persistently. Learning how decide priorities, set boundaries and collaborate are important skills for everyone to learn — not just leaders. While we might be tempted to leave the team out of meetings to protect time, there might be some they should attend. Certain meetings can give them context, allow them to be part of the decision and expose them to others in the organization which can help build relationships. When leads ensure most of the communication and work goes through them, we unintentionally limit the career growth of others. The trick is to find ways to shield the team while increasing their capacity in these key areas. It’s a matter of degrees.
Sometimes leads are lured to protect because the company isn’t operating in a smooth manner. This can makes obstacles to collaboration and getting work done. Sometimes speed bumps turn into impenetrable walls.
Leaders have to discern the difference between organizational friction and toxic dysfunction. Organizational friction is common, especially when there’s change. As capacity, roles and responsibilities shift, the parts bump up against each other. New roles are added, teams reshuffled and work flows adjust — changing how we work together. This is a normal part of business life, especially in scaling startups. When thrust into the firehose of change, protecting the team is a natural instinct. Still, knowing how to navigate the uncertainty, ambiguity and upheaval inherent in organizational change are important skills. Protecting in this environment can accidentally limit others growth and even their careers. Leader’s can increase the team’s skill handling change by giving them some exposure to the friction. This allows us to model ways to navigate change.
However, constantly having to protect the team from another leader or area of the company is a sign of dysfunction. In toxic environments protecting the team is a natural instinct. While it might address the symptom, it doesn’t resolve the real problem. There are real roadblocks in the team’s way of collaborating and getting work done. It’s not just goals at stake, the team’s well-being is at risk.
Sometimes we protect rather than solve the problem because even as the person managing the work we feel disempowered. It might be our own confidence or it might be a sign of deeper disorder at the highest levels of the company. Whatever the cause, the impulse to protect should be examined. Instead of just relieving the symptom, focus on resolving the deeper problem. It needs to be addressed with a leader’s peers.
Unintentional ego concerns
When we move to protect others there can be a hidden assumption that they’re not capable of taking care of themselves. This assumption makes us less likely to give the team challenging work and can turn into a form of micromanaging. It can turn into rescuing. This form of protecting others is often ego driven.
Leaders can unintentionally make themselves the hero. Protecting others can make us feel strong. It can also make others feel weak or incapable, even when we don’t intend it. Protecting others from an ego driven place is almost always done unconsciously. Those who exhibit this behavior are trying to do the right thing. We truly care about the team — it’s why many took the role. Instead of being a multiplier, they accidentally fall into diminishing behavior. If we understood the second order effects, most would shift our behavior immediately.
Thankfully this form of protecting is much rarer than the other two types. Most leaders are able to catch themselves before this happens. This is why having the space and support to be introspective is essential for leaders. It allows us to reflect on their behavior so we can moderate unintentional behavior. A good mentor or coach can also help us process the stress we ’re under and find healthy ways to deal with it.
There is a role for protecting the team. Clearing a path forward for the team can be one of the most powerful things a leader can do. We need to be aware of the potential downsides and thoughtful in how we employ it.
I’m Suzan Bond, a leadership consultant and executive coach. I’m fascinated with human nature and that place where the individual and organizations meet. I write about emotions and the intangible parts of work life because we don’t talk about them enough. https://www.suzanbond.com/