Getting out of the Way: How to Invite Growth, Engagement and Collaboration in Others

In a world of increasing complication, great leaders get out of the way. As a result, these leaders invite growth, collaboration and engagement, rather than force their team to behave according to the their values and worldview.

Do you feel life moves too fast? Many of us do. The world is increasingly interconnected, churning out massive amounts of data and limitless, fast-moving competition. Technologies are growing exponentially, meaning what we learn today is destined to be obsolete tomorrow. Our traditional frame of cause-and-effect thinking is breaking down in the face of too many causes and too many effects interacting in a global system. As the world gets harder to manage, do we have the tools to grow in order to meet these new realities, or do we feel increasingly stressed and left behind? As leaders, how can we help our teams develop new frames of mind that will enable us not only to rise to meet these challenges, but to take advantage of them and to enjoy the ride?

For decades, we excelled with a scientific approach to management: a set of practices focused on getting things done. And while getting things done is and will always be an important discipline, accelerating change demands development; if we can’t adapt, we’ll be left behind. As a result, we’re experiencing a need for a shift in emphasis from coordination to coaching; from making things happen to inviting growth. Often, we outsource this capability to executive coaches. How can we bring the ability to ignite growth in-house? How can we embed it in the conversations and meetings we’re already having? It requires a shift in worldview: from getting in the way to getting out of the way.

getting in the way

Getting in the way is an orientation toward others in which I seek to impose my values and worldview on them. This perspective is based on three key assumptions:

  1. My values are right; I know what is best
  2. The most effective means of manifesting my values is to get others to do what I want
  3. The most effective way to get others to do what I want is through incentives

Following these assumptions, I seek to influence others by stating the positive and/or negative consequences of following or not following my preferred path. Then, I seek to enforce those consequences socially through praise and criticism and tangibly through rewards and punishment.

Getting in they way can be done either from a place of selfishness or out of good intentions. In fact, much of our experience with others is their well intentioned “getting in our way.” When our parents encouraged us to become accountants rather than artists, they did so from a place of love, but also with the assumption that they — not we — knew what was best for us.

When I get in the way, I place a box around the other. I don’t free them to reflect on what matters most to them and the integrity of their actions with that vision. I simply manipulate to achieve a desired result. When I do this, I view the other as an object of Newtonian physics: exert the right pressure and the object will move as desired. But treating others as objects ignores, even stifles, their humanity. It attempts to force them to act how they “should,” rather than in alignment with what they value. As a result, they use their willpower to do what I want. Since willpower functions like a finite resource (1), they end up burned out, disengaged and unhappy. While getting in the way may be an effective one-off approach, as a system it is inadequate: it consumes, rather than energizes; wears out, rather than builds; and conforms rather than grows. But is there another way?

getting out of the way

Getting out of the way is a much more effective means of working with other people. Rather than confine, it invites growth. Rather than create stress and burnout, it clears space for deep engagement. Rather than encourage backchanneling and politics, it allows for transparency and trust. Its essence is a shift from imposing what I value on others to helping them to clarify what they value and to live with greater integrity around those values. This approach takes a higher level perspective, moving from thinking at the level of cause-and-effect to thinking in complex systems, from a zero-sum view of life to a synergistic one. This worldview is based on an entirely different set of assumptions:

  1. My values are important, and so are everyone else’s
  2. We most effectively manifest all of our values by each living in accordance with our own values
  3. The most effective way to assist others in living in accordance with their values is through inquiry and feedback

When I am out of the way, I seek to help others clarify their values and provide them with feedback about how I react to their actions. In doing this, I am serving as a mirror to the other, allowing them to work toward an ever more true reflection of him or herself.

“Values” is a term for what matters to people. Values are what make us human; subjects rather than objects (2). To care about another’s values is to care about what they care about. It is to honor and respect them as people, rather than mere supporting characters in your life. To many, when stated this way, it is self-evident that caring about others’ values is one of the most important things we do. It is the essence of relationship.

However, even if I had no interest in deep, authentic relationship, it is still worth creating space for others’ values. Why? Because they are the source of an individual’s’ motivation. It takes a great deal of your finite willpower to do what I want rather than what you want. However, when I help you tap into the well of what matters to you, you’re not drained by action, you’re energized by it. If I can help clarify and understand the values of those around me, I’ll be able to partner with people who are motivated by shared goals and will pursue them independent of external reward and punishment. Employee disengagement isn’t a marker of a lack of “fun” in the workplace. It’s a signal that people aren’t living according to their values.

Values are the pathway to invite individuals to grow as people. Our society is constantly feeding us so much information about how we should be and what we should do that few of us really know what we value. When we know what we care about, we tap into an intrinsic motivation to grow ourselves to meet challenges in our way. Building a great team means helping people clarify and live into their own values, not conform to your worldview.

clarifying values: from advice to inquiry

Helping others clarify values is difficult. Much of our training and instincts push us toward imposing our values, rather than investigating others’. In practice, we get out of the way by shifting from making statements to asking questions. Take a look at the following two conversations and consider, through the eyes of the daughter, how much space you have to clarify what you want and make a decision that’s right for you:

in the way: giving advice

Daughter: Dad, I’ve been researching colleges a bunch and I’m not sure how to decide what’s right for me.

Father: Well, I think you should go to a small, liberal arts college. No real learning goes on a the big schools anyway. Employers want graduates who can think for themselves and write well and you can only get that with liberal arts.

out of the way: asking questions

Daughter: Dad, I’ve been researching colleges a bunch and I’m not sure how to decide what’s right for me.

Father: Well, what are you hoping to get out of your college experience?

When the father is out of the way, he invites the daughter to grow in her understanding of her values, making the path to her inner motivation more direct. The father’s role is to be an interviewer — of the daughter’s values — and in so doing to help the daughter answer her own question. This approach helps others become the authors of their own lives and own worldviews, rather than victims who look outside themselves for what they ‘should’ do. Shifting from making statements to asking questions honors the other by affirming what matters to them. However, it is only half the story.

feedback: from criticism to transparency

Giving transparent feedback is the other half of getting out of the way. Someone who is out of the way doesn’t seek to impose their will on the other, but they do share their perspective so they other can incorporate it with their own. Transparent feedback is a method for sharing my inner experience without imposing it on you. This is in contrast to criticism in which I try to alter and condemn your actions by declaring them incorrect in some way. Consider these two conversations:

in the way: criticism

Daughter: Dad, I know you want me to go to a liberal arts college, but all of my friends are applying to State and I think I want to go there.

Father: Well, that’s really disappointing to hear that you care more about social life than academics, especially when I’m paying so much money for college.

out of the way: transparency

Daughter: Dad, I know you want me to go to a liberal arts college, but all of my friends are applying to State and I think I want to go there.

Father: That’s exciting! It must be fun to feel like you’re starting to have a vision for college. Would you mind if I share my perspective for you to consider along with your own?

Daughter: Ok…

Father: I think your social life is an important part of college. However, I feel a little nervous because I want you to have a great academic experience as well because I think it will be important for building a career you really like. Have you given any thought to how you might accomplish that at State?

In both cases, the father is sharing information about his perspective. But in the second example, the father does so in a way that gives the daughter space to consider and incorporate the feedback into her own process. Five key elements comprise effective, transparent feedback:

  1. Affirm the experience and values of the other: “That’s exciting!” 
    When we affirm others, we continue the conversation from a place of shared understanding. The other person isn’t distracted by trying to figure out how they can get us to understand their point of view.
  2. Ask if you can give feedback: “Would you mind if I share my perspective for you to consider along with your own?” 
    When we ask permission to share our perspective, we invite the listener to get curious about what we have to say rather than become defensive. Of course, if the listener says “no,” we build trust by honoring their response and holding our feedback.
  3. Share your emotional reaction: “I feel a little nervous.” 
    This shifts the conversation from the intangible realm of “should” to an actual human consequence. It shifts the dialog from a moral posture to an empathetic connection between people.
  4. Share your values: “I want you to have a great academic experience as well.”
    Rather than impose your values, this offers them for the other to consider in case they enrich their own.
  5. Share your beliefs: “because I think it will be important for building a career you really like.” 
    Rather than impose your beliefs, this allows the other to test your worldview and see if it enriches their own.

conclusion

Getting in the way has a long history. It is the approach behind most of what we’ve accomplished in collaborative endeavors from business to the arts to science. It is a hard frame of mind to pry ourselves from because it puts us so firmly in the captain’s chair, deftly moving others around the chessboard of life. However, dealing with the world’s increasing complication means interacting with others in a more complex and more effective way: a shift from chess masters to gardeners. Are you willing to do the dirty work — asking questions and giving transparent feedback? Then get out of the way and trust those around you to grow. When they grow, we’ll accomplish much more together, while enjoying rich, collaborative relationships and experiencing deep engagement in our work.

getting out of the way cheat sheet:

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Notes

  1. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that willpower can be depleted, after which some form of recovery is needed to rebuild willpower. Although one recent study suggests that it may be possible to counter willpower depletion through mindset, there is a strong scientific record indicating that willpower depletion often occurs, even if it’s not 100% of the time. See: American Psychological Association, “Is Willpower a Limited Resource?
  2. This definition of “values” is in contrast to how the term is often used, as a substitute for “rules.”

Recommended reading:

  1. Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life
  2. Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work