As leaders we are responsible for getting things done through people. But in our rush to see results, we risk becoming our own worst enemy. If we are not careful, our well-meaning actions can breed frustration, cause discontent, and undermine trust. Today we’ll talk about leader patience and when to apply it in a way that will strengthen your team instead of strangling it.
I could tell right away that the fire was going to go out. We were at camp and a Scout was trying to get some flames going in time to cook dinner. He had taken the fire-building class and he was doing all the steps correctly.
But he didn’t have nearly enough tinder to get the flame started. The paper food wrapper fished out of the trash bag was going to burn out before any of the sticks he had piled on top had caught the flame. It was going to be a while before they’d be ready to cook. My stomach gave an involuntary grumble.
Next to me, one of the other adults was about to step in and tell the Scout what he was doing wrong, but I interrupted him by telling him about Patience Pills.
Patience Pills were the fictitious little blue pills I claimed to take before every outing. They gave me the strength to keep my mouth shut, exercise some leader patience, and allow events to develop under the direction of the boys, even if I knew things were going off the rails.
As leaders we will see situations all around us that seem to beg for our intervention. And we are practically hard-wired to seek out what is not going right and immediately step in and fix it. But jumping in right away is not always the best idea and can often be counter-productive.
Butting in disrupts their opportunity to learn, gain experience, develop confidence in themselves, and become leaders in their own right.
I can think of at least four times when it would be better to stop ourselves, and show some leader patience. Even though it might be a little painful in the short run, it can be immensely beneficial in the long run.
4 Times to Stop Yourself
1. Daily (Micro) Management
Of course you want the project to go well, and as a good leader you are always engaged and aware of what’s going on. So why wouldn’t you reach over the cubicle wall to tell someone they forgot to capitalize a proper noun?
All that time spent peering over people’s shoulders has some large down-sides to be aware of.
First, it signals distrust. Your constant meddling is telling your teammate that you don’t trust them to do the job right. On the heels of that comes frustration; they might be thinking, “If you want to be so involved, why not do it yourself?”
Second, don’t you have something better to do? People tend to gravitate to their comfort zone, and for the leader, that can often mean the job they used to do. The thing is, they are paying someone else to do that now.
Before you give in to the temptation to butt in and “help” someone choose a font or tell them which way to turn the wrench, ask yourself if this is the best use of time as the leader. Usually it’s not.
Instead, think about whether your team has all the support and resources they need, if processes are running smoothly, if anything needs your attention before it breaks, or if you have developed an adequate support network.
Maybe go do some of that. When you are focused on the bigger picture as you should be, you will all be better off.
You’ve chosen the right teammate, given them the right task, and provided necessary resources and guidance – your delegation plan is off to a good start. But then you see them going at the task differently from the way you would have handled it.
You want to jump in and “fix” things.
Once you have delegated, your job is to get out of the way and let them get on with it. Every time you butt in with a direction change, countermand a decision, or adjust the guidance, you are liable to cause damage.
If they are leading a team, the initial impact may be to weaken people’s confidence in them. If the changes keep happening, it will start to erode people’s confidence in you.
How much less confident will they be with your instructions if they seem to be as random as dandelion seeds scattered on the wind?
Finally, with all your involvement in the task, you lose the benefit of delegating it in the first place.
As Patton once said, “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”
Instead, use your time to think more carefully about the guidance you will give and the feedback loops to have in place, and try to get it right the first time.
When they can trust your guidance and believe they have the authority to act, you are teaching them to lead.
Five minutes into the session, one team member blurts out an idea that’s about as dumb as taking a bath with a toaster.
You want to say, “That’s a stupid idea,” because it is.
When you butt in and trash someone’s input, it puts negative energy into the process and adds another filter to everyone’s thinking. People are less willing to speak up and the whole process can stutter to an unproductive halt.
Instead, show some leader patience, keep your mouth shut and be sure not to roll your eyes, either. If you say anything, it should be to encourage more input and ideas, not shut them down.
You want to let ideas build upon each other. You want people’s brains focused on developing new approaches and ideas to solve the problem. Sometimes it’s the “dumb” ideas that trigger the really good ones.
Give them the confidence to speak up and they’ll be a more productive member of the team.
You are talking through a work issue with one of your teammates. She’s pretty passionate about her point of view, but all you can think about is the fact that the clock is ticking and there’s work to be done.
You come up with a short list of all the reasons you think she’s wrong, and get ready to interrupt her.
Communication is a critically important leadership skill. Yet too often, while one person is talking, we are just thinking about our counter argument and waiting for our turn to speak.
That’s not communication; we’re not really listening.
When we jump in with a response before patiently listening to what others have to say, we miss the opportunity to really connect and gain the value of their perspective.
People know when they haven’t been heard. If they are truly teammates, not listening is disrespectful. Trust suffers.
Instead of butting in, let them finish what they are saying. Focus on their message and try to understand their perspective. Confirm what you heard and demonstrate that you get it by repeating or rephrasing their words back to them.
Then respond thoughtfully. Look for points of agreement. Even if you don’t fully agree with them, the fact that you made the effort to genuinely listen helps to build up the bonds of mutual respect and trust, rather than erode them.
Caveats – Of course there are times you must absolutely intervene. Safety issues, emergencies, illegal actions, disrespect, or violations of company policies come to mind.
And if there is a significant change outside your control that impacts your team, you should let them know. Barring those things, it’s often better to keep quiet and let them learn.
Leader Patience – The Takeaway
As leaders, we all want to jump in and fix things immediately, but that’s not always the best approach.
The more you meddle and butt in, the more you demonstrate that you really don’t trust them. Frustration and resentment can build, and you miss an opportunity to make your team stronger in the process.
Back at camp, the fire had sputtered out as expected, and the Scout’s face reflected his disappointment for a moment. I was about to step in and ask him what he thought he could do differently for his next attempt, but he suddenly stood up and ran over to his backpack.
In a moment he returned with a large ball of dryer lint he had brought from home. Resetting his twigs and sticks on top of it, soon they were all engulfed in flame, bright enough to highlight his huge smile. Dinner would be on time after all.
It was a lesson he’ll remember because he had a chance to learn it himself.
In any leadership situation, two things are going on. The first is the effort to do what needs to be done with your team. The second, and arguably the more important one, is the effort to grow. With every action, you are either weakening or strengthening the team and its members.
If your goal is to build a strong team with committed, experienced members and future leaders, keep this second part in mind.
And the next time one of these situations arises, think about popping a few “Patience Pills,” exercise some leadership patience, and let your team get on with the job of doing and the job of growing.