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Protective leadership

If you’re leading a team in a tough workplace, it can be tempting to resort to protective leadership. That is, to try to shelter your team so they can avoid trouble and do their best work.

However, protective leadership can have serious consequences when taken too far. Shielding your team from every problem may feel like the right thing to do. However, when protective leadership persists, you may run into trouble in the long run.

In this post, I’m going to look at some of the common protective leadership behaviours and how they may impact your team.

Being a Protective Leader Can Hamper the Growth of Your Team

A common misconception that some leaders have is that they always need to be the “buffer” between outside forces and their team. It’s true that in some cases, this can be a good thing.

Damaging developmentHowever, when taken to the extreme, we may see a sheltered team that is disconnected from the workplace around them. We may also be depriving the team of opportunities to step up and solve challenges that would help them develop and grow.

While it’s important to stop your team from being bombarded by problems that you should be dealing with, it can be a mistake to try to take all their troubles away.

One of the best ways that team members grow in confidence and skill is by solving their own problems. Without the opportunity to do this, they may be missing a golden opportunity to develop.

Over time, this can damage their career prospects as they sit safely inside their comfort zone, without needing to stretch.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #47: Why Building Your Team’s Confidence Should Be a Priority.

Common Reasons for Protective Leadership

Protective leadership can arise for several reasons. Here are some of the common ones I’ve experienced and also observed with some of my coaching clients:

  • Lack of trust: If you lack trust in your team, you’ll probably feel like they can’t handle their own problems. You’ll likely feel tempted to step in at every opportunity.
  • Wanting to feel like a valuable leader: Some leaders are desperate to feel valuable and needed, especially if they lead a competent team. One way to feel valuable is to protect your team, and leaders who need this may resort to protective leadership.
  • Underestimating team member capability: If you don’t quite think your team members are ready, you’ll be more likely to protect them. However, this protection may just be stopping them from gaining the skills they need.

When a leader protects her team, she is more likely to reduce opportunities for team members to grow and thrive. When a leader protects his team, he is likely to keep the team firmly in their comfort zone.

Unfortunately, outside the comfort zone is often where the magic happens!

Learn More:  How to Get Comfortable Without Controlling Leadership.

Protective Leadership Behaviours That Can Stifle Your Team

We’ve looked at some of the consequences of protective leadership. Now, let’s take a look at some of the situations where it commonly occurs.

If some of these are familiar to you, it might be time to step back and let your team solve their own problems!

1. Stopping Your Team From Dealing With Difficult People

You’ll find difficult people in every workplace in the world. You’ll know them because they’ll frustrate you, scare you or make you feel otherwise uncomfortable.

Attacked by sharkDifficult people are a natural part of the workplace, and learning to deal with them is a valuable step in the development of many team members.

I’ve worked with leaders who try to protect their teams from these difficult people.

While sometimes this might be necessary, doing it all the time could mean your people won’t learn how to stand up for themselves.

We often see this behaviour when a leader makes sure they are invited to every meeting with the difficult person. They make themselves the central point of contact, so that the difficult person doesn’t go to anyone else.

This might seem like a good idea for your team, but how will they ever learn if they never fight their own battles?

Learn More:  The #1 Way That Leaders Damage Team Trust.

2. Solving Problems For Your Team

When your team members come to you for help, what do you do?

Well, there are a few common options:

  1. You tell them to go away and come to you with solutions, not problems
  2. You coach them to help them develop options and choose a solution that will work; or
  3. You jump in and solve the problem for them because “it’s quicker when you do it”.

If you often use option 3, you might be letting your team members down. After all, they won’t learn anything if they don’t struggle and sometimes even fail.

Being scared of failure is often a key reason for leaders jumping in and solving problems for their team members. But we all know by now that failing is a great way to learn.

3. Being the Central Point of Contact for Everything

Some leaders like to make themselves the central point of contact, so they receive all incoming communication for the team. This means they can filter the information out as needed and coordinate the work of the team effectively.

Now, this sounds like a great idea on the surface. However, when we do this, we run the risk of team members being closed off from the workplace around them.

Our intention is to be able to coordinate and manage the work and communication, so that we don’t overwhelm our teams. We may also do this so we only tell the team what they “need to know”.

However, when team members are always taking their communication and direction from their manager, it can make them feel disconnected from the workplace. Team members like to be involved in what is happening, and you may be stopping messages getting through that they are interested in.

Empowering your team members to manage their own workloads and decide what information is important for them is extremely powerful.

You might worry that they’ll go off track, or work on the wrong things. Usually, we can solve this by holding people accountable and providing suitable oversight to the work of the team.

Learn More:  Why You Need Your Team to Speak Up (and How to Make it Happen).

4. Failing to Involve Team Members In Key Forums

Another way in which I see leaders try to protect their teams is by attending key meetings or discussion forums by themselves, instead of involving their team members.

Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to invite team members to every meeting. However, if you exclude your team members from discussions where the outcome may impact their work, you may be heading for trouble.

Let’s look at a simple example.

Sarah works in your team. She’s heading up a small project to improve a key process between your team and a team managed by one of your colleagues.

Instead of inviting Sarah to the meeting, you meet with your colleague and pass on the details of what was discussed. You’re filtering the message and communicating just what Sarah “needs to know”.

The intention is for Sarah to focus on the important aspects, and not need to be bothered about all the other conversation that occurred in the meeting.

In this example, it’s quite likely that Sarah will find it difficult to step up and take on accountability for the project, because you’re getting yourself involved. She’ll find it hard to feel in control and confident of the outcome.

You may think that excluding Sarah is a time saver for her. You’re stopping her from unnecessary interruptions. In reality, it could be causing much more work in the long run, and reducing her confidence to step up and take on accountability for the project.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #89: How You Might Be Reducing Accountability in Your Team.

5. Withholding Constructive Feedback

Sometimes, your team members may do some work that isn’t of the highest quality. This might mean that some constructive feedback may be in order, whether it’s from you or somebody else.

Leaders often withhold feedback because it makes them uncomfortable. They may be concerned about how the feedback will be received or feel like they are being unkind.

It’s important to be able to identify feedback that would be useful for your team members. Then, you need to be able to communicate it in a way that helps them to improve.

You may feel like you’re being helpful, protecting your team from negative opinions, but sometimes that feedback might make the difference between improving or just staying the same.

Learn More:  10 Simple and Effective Tips For Giving Feedback.

Protective leadership can stifle the growth and development of your team. At the same time, it may make you feel like you’re being valuable.

However, it’s important to strike the right balance between being protective, and letting your people take on challenges for themselves.

Have you struggled with protective leadership? What did you do about it? Let me and the other Thoughtful Leaders know in the comments below!

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