I’ve been thinking lately about “vertical collaboration.” Vertical collaboration is what happens between people when there is a reporting relationship of some kind and a power differential. Collaboration is often associated with equal power and status, a “peer group” of some kind. But collaboration is also a skill preeminently to be mastered between the layers in organizations, as well. What I know about this area is that there are many unique ways to fail, while the way to succeed looks pretty consistent. And since my interest is in leaders, I devote this discussion to the way the person with more power can fail or succeed.
Success actually is fairly easy to describe: two people in an open, trust-based, adult-to-adult discussion of operations, improvements, and projects that they both have a stake in. They work together (the formal meaning of collaboration) to decide how to address both technical issues and people issues.
While this image is easy to describe, it can be hard to live out in the real world. Where it works well, it offers a mechanism for effective delegation and ownership of the work, frequently known as accountability. It is the basis of a versatile partnership and model for working together among other members of a team. It can be best actualized through regular meetings between boss and employee that are devoted to helping one another be as effective as possible rather than perpetuating that evaluative tone used commonly by both sides to privately assess how well the other is performing. In this positive relationship between two people, there is no one formulaic way to do things: some tasks are appropriately delegated, some are appropriately not, depending on the task and the person. The leader may flexibly offer non-directive coaching one day, more directive the next, by virtue of the issue at hand and the employees’ needs. It is my sense that many people experience productive relationships of this kind, but when it fails, or a part of it fails, it is a conspicuous cause of lousy morale and poor work, and often becomes a trigger for mistrust.
So here are the ways it fails:
The diagram suggests that the leader can fail in at least four different ways linked to personal style. There are two dimensions to consider: level of directiveness, and level of delegation. A leader who is too non-directive may be great at asking questions, teaching using a Socratic method, and encouraging others to think for themselves, but if this is overdone, employees feel they are simply not getting their questions answered. This is the classic routine about the employee asking the boss what time it is only to be questioned in return, “Well, what time do you think it is?” On the other side of the coin is the leader who is too directive. Even when the employee knows the answer to his/her own question, the boss is ready to step in with a solution. This generally promotes people not thinking for themselves and reinforces the ancient notion that the job of employees is to ask questions and the boss’s job is to answer them all from an expert standpoint.
As to level of delegation, a leader who holds on to too many tasks may be reserving his or her power to make all the key decisions, but pretty much ensures that he/she will be overwhelmed while wondering why others are not picking up on their responsibilities. And the leader who delegates everything away has little chance to engage in an level of guidance and appropriate problem-solving that actively helps people get their jobs done.
The intersection of these dimensions creates four common patterns: leaders who block, abandon, micromanage, or dictate. The diagram defines a common trait for each. Here are some (over-simplified) descriptions of each type.
Blockers fundamentally delay the decision-making process by reserving the decision for themselves but then not making it. This can involve people who are, for example, highly analytical and need a great deal of data in order to feel good about proceeding. It can also involve people who are new or insecure in their jobs or more experienced people who are perfectionists of one kind or another. Blockers can be very well intentioned and have a powerful sense of personal responsibility for outcomes while being deeply concerned about wrong or sub-optimal choices.
Abandoners are leaders who operate from the concept that the best bosses empower people by giving away all of their decisions and guidance. responsibilities. These can be people who really believe in others as a core value, but also might include people who don’t know what to do themselves or don’t actually wish to take responsibility for the performance of those who report to them. Abandoners may have better things to do with their time — at least in their own minds — and may be very hard on people without meaning to be. They may also be very surprised when internal problems finally get their attention because at core what they learned to do is ignore what’s happening.
Micro-managers are leaders who may capably delegate but too often focus on the flaws in their employees’ work. Highly evaluative, they may offer praise but nevertheless discourage people with an improper balance of criticism to positive comments. These are folks who like people who think like them and do things as they would do them and feel it is their duty to tell people how far off they are from their own ideals, no matter how small that difference might be. The underlying message is usually, “You’re not doing it as well as I could do it, so maybe I should be doing it for you — afterall, your work is really just a reflection of me.”
Finally, Dictators hold onto their tasks and simply direct people when they want something done. This assumes employees are incapable of thinking for themselves and need someone to tell them just what to do. Except for brand new employees who are on their first few days of a job or under dire conditions of an emergency this approach usually creates significant resentment. The Dictator treats work as a demand, however subtly defined, that requires little independence and great control.
The antidote to every one of these failures is true engagement between the two parties, one of whom may have a lot more formal power. Each of the ways to fail represents an avoidance of genuine relating between two complex human beings. Each, in its way, represents a failure of trust and mutual feedback and an avoidance of immediate contact. That organizational leaders often find it more comfortable to avoid feedback from employees, and employees find it safer not to offer it, makes it easy to slide off the pinnacle known as true partnership. This is a delicate point. It isn’t that a leader who is a Blocker should become more of a Micro-manager, or an Abandoner should become more like a Dictator. The goal simply represents a different category of human interaction. And what is that “different category?” If I had to give one word for it, it would be intimate. It’s a more intimate place where genuine, full connection exists, where there may be conflict or deeply shared purpose, tension or alignment, mistrust or mutual respect. You won’t know what it is until you are in it. Can you control all that? Make the good stuff happen just because you want to? Of course not. It will always take two to tango. But a leader can improve by knowing where he/she typically falls off the pinnacle — where the old pattern is and especially how that pattern plays out under stress — and by moving, instead, toward the blessings and realities of true relationship.