What Stories Are in Your Bedrock?

by Jennifer Miller on September 2, 2009

in Leadership, Personal Effectiveness

In a recent blog post, Mary Jo Asmus asked, “What are the stories we tell ourselves?”  It was a simple question, yet one rich with possibility.  In my years of creating leadership development programs, one of the “stories” that continually surfaces with leaders is the story of “I need to do X for my direct reports, because they are not yet ready/willing/able to do it for themselves.”  At first blush, this story seems to be about delegating.  And, for some leaders tasked with leading inexperienced employees, perhaps this story is true.  One of the ongoing dilemmas of leadership is determining when to turn over a decision or task to an employee.  Questions to consider range from, “is this person ready to accept responsibility?” to “what happens if this person drops the ball?”

I believe there’s yet another story—one that lies deeper within the psyche of the leader.  This is the story of, “What happens if I relinquish control?”  This story is much tougher to tell, because “command and control” type leading is out of fashion these days.  Still, leaders must be willing to listen to the “story” playing in their heads.  Often, this story is buried beneath a series of other stories.  It’s like the varied strata of rock, burrowed deeply beneath the topsoil:  The stories at the surface are: “It’s so much faster if I just do it”. .  “They don’t understand the political landscape like I do”. . . “This project is too high-visibility to allow for missteps.” Deeper down, the stories might be: “They’ll lose respect for me” . . . “If I delegate everything, then my job will be deemed expendable” . . . and, “What if they’re better at it than me?”

Getting to that bedrock foundation—fear of losing control, can be unnerving. I often counsel leaders to play the “What if?” game with me.  “So, if X did happen, then what would happen?”  The leader replies, then I say, “And if that happened, then what would happen?”  We continue on, until finally, we come to the point where I say—“So if these things happen, how bad would that be?”  Usually, the leader comes to realize that the perceived drawback has been blown out of proportion.  Or, that at the least, we discover ways to deal with any downsides of handing over some measure of control to the employee.

I also point out to leaders that if the feared outcome is “but the person might fail”, I reply “Exactly! That’s how people learn.”  We then explore the consequences of failure.  Is this the right project to support some miscalculations? Can we build in some coaching time to allow for those invariable “oops” moments?  The reality is that even seasoned workers will make mistakes.  Trying to avoid every possible detour simply isn’t possible.

If you are a leader, struggling with the challenge of too much to do (and who isn’t?) create  a 3-part list:

  1. Thing I already delegate.
  2. Things I might consider delegating.
  3. Things I can’t delegate.

Review the list.  For the items listed in points #2 and #3—ask yourself: Why not?  Then, level with yourself.  For every reason listed under “why not”—push yourself to consider the “stories” you’re telling yourself.  Perhaps you’ll uncover some undiscovered fallacy under the bedrock that can be brought to light and dispensed.

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