I was coaching a client several days ago who shared an experience he had at work that demonstrated his courage as a leader. To protect his identity and that of his employer, I’ll call him Robert (not his real name). Robert recently switched to leading a new project team for a well-known aerospace industry company. He confided in me that one of the engineers on the project seemed very hostile, distant, and defensive around him. The engineer used body language that clearly signaled he was mistrustful of Robert. The thing that really baffled my client is that he had only worked with this engineer for about two months, and Robert could not think of any time when he might have offended the engineer in a way that would have caused the defensiveness.
A day or two before the Christmas holidays this aerospace company was set to shut-down for the annual nearly two week break that is common in that industry during this time of year. Robert was trying to contact several members of the project team; however, he ran into a problem when he found most of the team members had already left early for the day (before noon). Robert found the engineer who had always acted defensively and asked where everyone was. The engineer reacted as expected – defensively – and reminded Robert that they had received permission from higher up the chain of command to check out by noon and charge the rest of the day to “overhead” versus to their project, so everyone was just following orders.
As they spoke, Robert showed vulnerability along with his frustration and confided in the engineer that he had never charged any time to “overhead” and had no idea how to do that. Suddenly the engineer’s eyes lit up, he smiled, and apparently realized that my demanding client didn’t know everything and could use his help. The engineer was happy to assist Robert in logging into the timekeeping system and showing him how to find the correct overhead charge account numbers. Robert didn’t realize it at the time but this show of vulnerability and needing the help of the engineer ended up melting some of that defensiveness. It was evident when after the holiday shut-down break, Robert was working with the engineer and found him to be much more open to sharing his thoughts, ideas, opinions and solutions to the project they were working on. The defensiveness seemed to be gone, and the tipping point to improving the relationship was simply that my client asked for help instead of issuing demands and edicts. After sharing this story, Robert and I discussed the fact that most people want to contribute their best work and may feel stifled if the project lead seems to have all the answers and never needs them to think critically, innovatively, and solve problems. Especially most engineers I know love to solve problems. Robert plans to ask more questions and wait for the answers in the future, even if it means being vulnerable and showing his team that he doesn’t know everything. This is a mark of leadership. As Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with saying “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”