How to Lead a Subordinate to Become a Partner – Part 3

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In a continuing series on the power of creating partnerships – including with those who are “below” us.

Recap:  For the past two weeks I have been writing about how it’s possible to turn (nearly every) top-down relationship into a partnership, and that doing so generates greater substantive and relational results for both people. I have been sharing how for many years I generated conflict with my oldest daughter. Last week I began to write what I’ve learned that is prescriptively relevant for parenting, but every bit as much for managing direct reports. The first two takeaways from last week were: (1) never forget that your subordinate always see you through the lens that you have higher status, and (2) be aware of the danger of  taking “rebellion” personally. It’s not personal.

If you aspire to have tremendous partnerships, the most powerful thing you can do is constantly esteem the other as being as great — or if you can muster it — greater than you.  Needless to say I blew this one with Kate.  But let me talk about being boss not parent (where I’ve also blown it).  A young manager told me over the weekend how frustrated they were with a senior manager, who seemed to be driven by the belief that they always had to teach the manager.  There’s a teaching role here, to be sure. When we’re named senior manager, the person who promoted us ipso facto believes we have some special knowledge to manage.  Duh (Dan)!

In intellectual honesty, we must move away from this simple notion:  All managers are smarter/more effective than all who report to them.  No?  Isn’t it factually true that when we’re NOT named to our boss’ position, we frequently believe we should have or could have been.  Isn’t it true that on average half of us probably are “smarter” than our bosses. And isn’t it slam dunk true that we are smarter in at least some way?  There are after all LOTS of intelligences at work:  emotional, cognitive, experiential, discerning, completing, abstracting, concretizing, imagining, etc.*  My young manager’s senior manager apparently acted as we all are wont to:  speaking to the subordinate as though the boss was better on all of these measures — or certainly most, or certainly the ones that mattered.  As a result, the young manager felt wholly demeaned by this manager, whose emotional intelligence and awareness of others was clearly not their strong suit yet they acted as though the manager must seize on every piece of coaching they were offering the subordinate.

If you want to be a great partner to a subordinate, vest them with enormous respect (and grow in honest acceptance of where you have shortcomings).  When you do this, they become potentially as great or greater an asset to you, as you are to them.  I routinely and actively defer to my teaching assistants, Neyat and Harneet and say, “Please don’t ask me about this logistical matter, because your judgment is better and quicker than mine will ever be.”   It’s good for them to know my weaknesses because they can keep me out of trouble. It’s good for them to know their strengths, because they feel honored and they act proactively and responsibly.

If I circle back in closing to the story of Kate from weeks past, I must again confess that my deep disposition was like that of the senior manager I’ve just described:  I almost purely thought it was my job to teach her. I adopted, without knowing it, a superior attitude.  In our latest recurrence of argumentation, Kate referred to it the next day in a text message to me, as us falling into “the habitual dance steps that are really just muscle memory.”  They were power dance moves, efforts to prove something, to reassert a position, to gain control or superiority.  If you don’t want that, here are some simple ways to begin to break such patterns or open up in new ways to your subordinates or children, to move towards partnership:

  1. Ask them:  Teach me something!
  2. Ask them: What are you passionate about getting done?
  3. Tell them: You seem really good at x or y or z.
  4. Tell them: I’m not great at this. I’d love your help getting better at it.
  5. Tell them: It bugs me when people seem to not take me or my ideas seriously.  Then ask them: Tell me about a time when I might have made you feel this way (yes, assume you’ve done this, so it’s safe for them to tell the truth about it).

Most of all:  See if you can look at every relationship this week — up, down or across — as potentially a partnership.  Empower them as a partner in your mind in order to

Lead with your best self.

*John Gardner of Harvard wrote about 7 discernibly different intelligences.  I would argue there are many more.