By Lilian Abrams, PhD, MBA, PCC
What Was the Problem?
In a recent coaching conversation, a senior-level female executive, Angela*, raised the topic of the tension she was experiencing between encouraging a subordinate to be collaborative, and that person’s respect for her authority.
Angela is a senior-level retailer who manages a $900 million business. She is a fast-moving leader who focuses relentlessly on results and expects all her directs and other colleagues to exhibit strategic innovation and agility to help achieve those results. As a leader, she strongly values cross-level collaboration, teamwork, and employee development (ALA page). She expects staff to have and share innovative ideas, for which she gladly recognizes them.
As a good leader, Angela now faced a surprising leadership issue: Her most senior direct report, Marla, was using her gestures of openness and respect, to show disrespect for her as her manager.
How Did It Develop?
Angela had recently inherited Marla as a result of a re-organization. Marla was smart, competent, ambitious, and experienced, and Angela needed her help to make the new structure successful. However, Marla had long wanted and expected to receive Angela’s level, believing she deserved it after many years of service and her elevated status in a prior, parallel structure. Marla had failed to notice the direction of strengthening winds of change, however, and was completely taken by surprise when the company eliminated her prior area and career path.
In the new structure, her former peer Angela, who had been successful elsewhere in the organization, became her new boss. In the months since Angela’s promotion, Marla omitted or was noticeably reluctant to share information or include Angela in key meetings and emails, even when asked directly. In multiple ways, she conveyed that she has not yet come to terms with Angela as her new leader.
How Does Cross-Level Collaboration Normally Work?
Typically, when a senior leader wants to obtain input and collaboration from their staff, they need to make consistent efforts to make subordinates feel safe and comfortable enough to offer their real thoughts and ideas. To some degree, this “equalizes” the relationship, which works beautifully when there is also mutual respect, including for the different roles that each level plays. They need to understand and exhibit mutual personal respect, as well as the subtle ways in which respect for hierarchical authority is conveyed, when appropriate. It also works well when both parties value innovation and believe that collaboration will get the best outcome, and that those outcomes are important to all concerned.
In Marla’s prior structure, there had been a strong emphasis on hierarchy and top-down decision-making, and the process and valued outcomes were different than they were now. She therefore did not naturally share Angela’s expectations and approach. Instead of collaborating with mutual respect, Marla took many of Angela’s openings and equalizing gestures to assert a superior position over her.
What Should Angela Do, To Change Marla’s Disrespect?
From our coaching conversations, Angela realized that the first step was that she had to overcome her own natural qualities, those which had made her so successful to date, to try to bring Marla around and retain this valuable employee. Angela had to restrain her natural fast pace and her feelings of impatience and frustration, to give Marla time to grieve her lost opportunities and relationships and get used to Angela’s new approach. More importantly, Angela had to be careful when emphasizing her value on respectful collaboration. Angela had to learn to feel comfortable asserting her authority, more often and more strongly than she had been used to. We repeatedly discussed ways in which she could manage her own ways of thinking and acting, to support Marla while reframing her outlook, including helping create a new, valuable path for herself in the new organization.
What Was the Result?
Slowly, Angela is beginning to see success from this approach, and retain her needed resource. In their most recent conversation, Marla expressed appreciation for Angela, and acknowledged Angela’s consistent support of her. We also helped Angela discover her boundaries, and a direction in which she can channel and maintain Marla’s ambition and competence, while making clear the lines she cannot cross. While it is not clear that Marla will stay in the organization, the tide is definitely beginning to turn in a positive direction. Stay tuned!
*All names changed to protect confidentiality.
For assistance in navigating your own tricky relationship waters, consult with Lilian on your own situation.