When Robert Frost wrote that “good fences make good neighbors” he may not have realized how much this applies at work. If you have a manager who likes to step in when you don’t want them to, keep reading. We’ll cover the costs of these situations and some tools for getting your manager to stay out of your work when they want to “help.”
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
In a recent session, a leader we’ll call Jill mentioned that her manager “Amy” (a VP) was “helping” a lot with a particular type of project. Amy has a lot of experience doing the kind of work involved in this project and really enjoyed getting into the details. Jill was frustrated because this kind of “help” was more disruptive than supportive.
Breaking Down the Costs
Some people may think it’s great that Amy wants to help…though it actually is creating some significant problems. Here’s what’s really happening in situations like this:
- Amy isn’t working at her level as a VP…she is inserting herself without being asked into technical work that Jill and her team are capable of doing, and not focusing her strategic responsibilities.
- Amy is slowing down the project since team members aren’t comfortable challenging her recommendations or inputs.
- Jill and other team members aren’t learning and solving problems for themselves since Amy is there, providing too many answers and too much input.
Here are a few ways to help managers and leaders contribute in ways that actually help. It may not feel comfortable initially to have these conversations. Just like most things, the more you do this, the easier it gets.
- Express appreciation for their intent to help, and acknowledge their expertise. They may be eager to support the team or this project, especially if it’s something they enjoy or are really good at.
- Remind them of their role and how this tactical work is something that is outside their responsibility, and who is responsible for this.
- Talk about what you’re wanting to accomplish as you (and possibly team members) work through the project. You may have a goal of helping yourself or a team member with problem solving, or writing documentation. Describe that goal and how important it is for you and others to learn through doing the work yourselves, even if it’s somewhat difficult.
- Define how they can help and the best way or time for that to happen. You may say something like “Amy, it would be really helpful if you would quickly review progress with us once a month”, or “Amy we’d love to get you to review chapter 4, since we’re really confident in the other areas and would like your time dedicated to that section.”
- Clarify what you don’t want them to do so they are exactly tracking your intent and how they might accidentally up-end that. This gives them a better sense of what you want them to stay away from, and the reasons for it.
When leaders speak up for themselves and their teams in a healthy way, they can create a stronger relationship with their manager. Far from creating mistrust or disappointment, the senior leader gets a better sense of how they can help. So many of us want to help and be of service, and sometimes we press ahead with a path that actually isn’t as helpful as it could be.
Before any of us jump in to assist, ask others what help you can provide that will be most effective. That helps reduce assumptions, creates safety for others to guide you, and keeps you from wandering into someone else’s party!