Is my team afraid of me?

Photo taken by Sarah Loetscher

A series of recent conversations with people in my team left me questioning my success in building trusting relationships.

I thought I had created strong relationships with my team, where they felt comfortable to come to me with problems, issues, frustrations, and challenges. I thought my team trusted me to be on their side — to have their back — but three separate conversations within a short space of time left me concerned that wasn’t the case.

These three conversations involved the person communicating something they were struggling with and asking for my advice. They were really productive conversations and I felt like we were able to discuss the problem, unpack goals, explore solutions and formulate a plan. Each team member thanked me for my help and each followed up by saying the thing that shocked me:

“I wasn’t sure whether or not I should tell you about that.”

Why would they feel that way? We’d had similar conversations in the past, with positive results. Maybe they didn’t feel those conversations were as useful, on reflection, as I did? Why wouldn’t they think that they could talk to me? Are there other things they’re struggling with that they don’t feel that they can talk to me about?

Am I a coach or a manager?

I treat these conversations as coaching opportunities, a chance to help my team to learn, grow, and develop their skills. That’s my job and an approach that SEEK has been really active in promoting among the leaders in the business through our Coaching for SEEKcess program. I’ve been trained to help my team to be their best.

The way someone will communicate with a coach is different to the way they might communicate with a manager. A typical dictionary definition of “coach” is: “A tutor who gives private or specialised teaching”. A “manager” is defined as: “A person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company or similar organisation”.

While I might think I’m playing a coaching role, my efforts are hamstrung if I’m perceived to be a manager. Something as simple as the words used within the organisation can have an impact. People don’t ask “who’s your coach?”, rather, “who’s your manager?”. This sets the default context for the relationship.

In our next 1:1 catch ups, I made a point of bringing up these conversations and asked them why they felt unsure about talking to me. I was explicit about my desire to help each person in my team with anything they’re finding challenging — that we all struggle with things from time to time — and that it’s healthy to talk about these things. I reinforced that I want to be able to be there for them.

It turns out that they were afraid that I, as their manager, might see them as weak, incapable, or unprofessional. That I might judge them to be ill-equipped to do their job. Being part of an organisation that is focused on performance and celebrates success, it makes sense that people might be fearful of being seen as weak if they aren’t always ‘winning’. There’s a fear that struggles can be seen as failures if all you ever hear are success stories. We need to get better at sharing, and learning from, our struggles.

Reinforcing that we all have challenges and sharing some of my own was well received and appreciated. Personal challenges — whether they be about process, relationships, or roles & responsibilities — can benefit from a fresh set of eyes or ears. If those challenges can be overcome, then people are more likely to be happy and productive within their teams.

This has been a pretty big leadership lesson for me. Being explicit about the role I want to play with my team is really important. It’s not enough to “just do it”. It’s important for me to set the context of our relationship, our goals, and my role as a leader/coach/manager. For the first time, I have been explicit with everyone in my team about seeing myself as a coach, rather than a manager. While I might have felt like it was implied, it’s been important to be explicit.

People are often afraid of the unknown and affected by past experiences. It’s best to make my intentions understood so that I can be the coach that my team looks to for guidance on how to be awesome at their job.

I need your help

I’d love to hear about your successes or failures in establishing yourself as a coach, the challenges you’ve faced in building relationships where your team is as comfortable to come to you with problems as they are to tell you about their wins, and the ways you’ve succeeded (or failed) to do this.