It starts subtly. You notice that you’re feeling increasingly at odds with the vision your management is pushing down the chain. You don’t outright disagree with it, but it’s certainly not what you would choose to focus your energy on. In fact, you think long-term it’s actually not going to be in the company’s best interests. It’s a slow burn; the crawl toward an increased feeling of being misaligned.
At first, you put on a stiff upper lip. After all, you have people to manage, people who are depending on you to clarify the vision being laid out by your bosses boss. No worries, you think. I can totally sell this to the people underneath me. I just need to toe the party line. I’ll tell my people what they need to hear and I’ll just keep my concerns to myself. That’s what I get paid for, right?
Here’s the sneaky thing though; the part you might have forgotten in your scheme. The folks who work for you are smart. Very smart. They are noticing everything that’s going on even though we often convince ourselves that if we just pretend hard enough, others don’t notice our lack of agreement with what’s going on around us. Hold that Oscar. You’re not that good of an actor. Sure people can act their way out of a lot of things. And when the stakes are small, and we don’t actually feel any tie to something, we’re probably pretty convincing. But human beings do a terrible job of acting when we feel passionately about something. Our cues are obvious to others. Even without knowing what they’re doing, your colleagues and the people you manage are picking up your cues. From the way your eyes change slightly, to the small change in pitch your voice has when you talk about something you don’t really believe in, to the small lines of stress that appear in your forehead. Each and every one of those things is alerting people to your truth. They’re your tells. In short, anyone with a smidge of emotional intelligence will start to notice that things are not quite as pretty as you’re making them out to be.
Your direct reports will definitely start to discuss this amongst themselves. All you need is one direct report with an uncanny amount of emotional intelligence and the gig is up. What happens then is the start of a movement. Let’s say you feel at odds with the new company vision. Your employees do as well. You’re now all on the same page. All of a sudden, it might even be discussed openly. As their desire to bring you into the fold increases, your resistance to toeing the line decreases. It’s like an adult form of peer pressure.
Now you’re at a crossroads. One road leads to a continuing game of pretend, where you shore up your intention to stay mum about your thoughts and choose not to engage with your employees on this topic. The other road has you throwing open the door of common resentments and disbelief. The community tightens and there’s constant discussion during team meetings about how out of touch, incorrect, or simply stupid upper management is. Congratulations, you are now leading a renegade department.
While the initial thrill of having your employees know exactly how you feel (and most likely applaud you for it) can be heady, it quickly turns to discomfort. All of a sudden you feel like you have to hide what’s really going on inside your organization. You go to meetings with your boss and with her boss, and you paste on a smile and pretend. You feel like you’re living in two different worlds: the one you have to pretend in and the one you can be truthful in. But, the truth is coming at a high cost to you personally. Constant anxiety about “being found out”, concern that one of your employees is going to overstep at some point, and a general feeling of being a disrupter in your organization has you growing more and more weary every day. How did you get here? And more importantly, how do you get out of this position?
The answer to the first question is complex, and requires its own article (which shall be forthcoming). The answer to the second question is a bit more direct. Running a renegade department takes a toll on everyone, including your company. When you’re stuck between the two worlds of your employees and your boss(es) it’s a lonely place to be. The divisiveness and disjointed feelings that you’re feeling aren’t unique to you alone. Most of your team is feeling them too. As human beings we have a deep desire for things to be safe. We seek it everywhere we go. And if decisions or processes from up top seem unstable or unsafe, we rebel in the small ways we can. And yet, we still deep down wish that everyone could just get a long.
Your first job as a leaders is to gently and kindly help people feel that they are safe and that things are alright. Your own stable relationship with upper management can go a long way in helping that.
Your next job as a leader is to set boundaries around the constant complaining and disagreement. One way to do this is to call a meeting and be honest. Explain that you realize that things are hard right now, that not everyone, including you, agrees on the direction of things. But the time has come to put away the complaints and the gossip, and get down to work. You will do everything in your power to continue to influence upwards, but if the train is in motion, its time to get on board.
Finally, you will have to set some boundaries. Folks will need to see that you are serious about moving forward. The gossip won’t stop immediately, and the inclination to return to old habit will be strong. It will be up to you to help people feel heard and supported while also making sure they know you’re serious about how the work environment is going to be. This type of leadership empowers people, and helps them feel in control even when they don’t like what’s happening around them.
What do you get out of all this? A more stable team who might not like the direction something is headed in, but can feel supported and stabilized by their own leader. Also, the opportunity to give feedback to your boss without sounding like you’re leading a coup. And finally, the peace of knowing that you can actually have your foot firmly planted in your boss’ world, and your team’s world too.
Susan McCusker is the co-founder of The Circle Up Experience. She and her partner, Beth Killough, offer people the opportunity to interact with horses in order to learn more about themselves, reclaim natural elements of leadership, and transform their human herds.