Years ago, I was at an outdoor retreat with members our leadership team, and the individual leading our team-building activities asked that all 8 or 9 of us stand on a small plastic table cloth. The object of the activity was to flip the table cloth over without any of us stepping off the plastic. As you can imagine with that many leaders on a single small square, there were a variety of suggestions of how to accomplish the task. We squished. We wiggled. We debated. And finally, when it seemed we were making no progress, I decided it was time to get into the weeds. (Have I mentioned that patience is not my strong suit?!?)
I squatted down amongst everyone’s feet to get a better look at the options and then came up with a strategy. One-by-one, I would grab a foot, pick it up, flip a corner of the tablecloth, and put the foot back down. Although there were a few times I was pretty sure I was going to end up with someone landing on my head, we eventually managed to completely flip the table cloth without anyone’s feet moving off the plastic.
Some months later, one of my colleagues on the team commented that the activity was a good example of how I lead . . . when I couldn’t figure out a solution from where I was standing, I got down closer to the action. Yes, there was a risk that I would be stepped on, but I knew that was the best way to move the team forward. To this day, I consider that one of the best compliments I have ever received regarding my leadership style.
Sometimes, you simply have to get into the weeds to help your team find a solution, or so you can gain a dose of reality from the troops on the ground. How many times have you received an edict, or directive from “on high” (be that an external regulator, a state agency, fill in the blank) that probably made a lot of sense to the individual sitting in some distant office writing it, but was impossible to implement because of a variable that was not considered? Hitting a little closer to home, what is the likelihood that you have been the author of such an grand plan (written from the comfort of your office) and your staff were the ones shaking their heads because of something that was obvious to them, but you neglected to account for? Guilty as charged. But hopefully I’ve learned.
Seriously, how hard is it to take the time to look at a project from the perspective of those who will be impacted by it? They are likely to have insights that you will never have. We have tried to do this through Process Review Committees, where the staff closest to an issue make recommendations for a solution, with director level staff considering the recommendations, but not creating them. We’ve had “What in the World Were They Thinking” meetings, where staff could ask questions about a parts of a change initiative that didn’t make sense to them. We’ve held focus groups prior to making tough decisions that would affect staff, to get their input on things they would like us to consider when making the decisions.
Do we get it right every time? Of course not . . . but one thing I’ve learned . . . when staff recognize that you are trying to consider an issue from all angles, they are much more likely to give you a measure of grace when you miss something. They are much more likely to let you grab their foot and move it to a different place on the plastic square, if they are confident that you have their best interests in mind. And they don’t gain that confidence by what you say. They gain it when they occasionally see you hanging out in the weeds.