Once upon a time, I’ve got a new manager, let’s call her Bellatrix, who, on her first day, declared that she was our shit umbrella. That her primary job was to shield us from any dung flung in our direction. And she was both serious and, as we soon discovered, absurdly good at it.
I spent the previous year dodging “nonsense” requests, buffering my team from unnecessary changes in direction, and even hiding some critical but unpopular work my team was doing. And here was Bellatrix, telling us our work was vital for the company's success and that she’d shield us from all distractions. Finally, I could focus on work and stop managing the never-ending conflicts. I was ecstatic!
And yet, just a few months later, Bellatrix was let go after all her reports revolted against her. Unfortunately, in that short time, her leadership style caused considerable damage to the trust both within our team and with many of our partner teams.
So, what went wrong?
You see, to protect us from all distractions, like seemingly without purpose shifting priorities, unreasonable requests from stakeholders who didn’t understand the importance of our work and even gossip, Bellatrix had to become our communication gate.
She’d choose which information to pass through, which to make more palatable, and which to stop entirely. In other words, Bellatrix was simultaneously distorting messages, lowering fidelity, introducing delays, and even dropping some communication. Worst of all, she wasn’t an impenetrable shield. Some undesirable communication still leaked through. But now, without context, it was confusing and disorienting.
Of course, this communication reduction act was happening in both directions. The rest of the company was also getting the reduced visibility of what we were up to.
Trust is practically synonymous with transparency and predictability. It’s not difficult to see how reducing transparency leads to decreased trust.
But the problems didn’t stop there. Some undesirable information was, in fact, critical feedback. Shielding folks from critical feedback is like shielding plants from the sun — plants don’t grow in the shade. Humans need feedback to learn and grow and become more resilient as well.
Without timely feedback, we miss out on opportunities. Conflicts get swept under the rug to fester. We never learn the inner workings of our larger org and lose the sense of connection. We don’t get to have a voice. And ultimately, we disengage.
Luckily, the company parted ways with Bellatrix quickly enough, so we avoided the worst of these issues. But we did not escape micromanagement.
We still had to work with our partner teams. But because Bellatrix took it upon herself to shield us from the distractions, she was now in charge of getting the information from our partners and translating it into work.
Have you ever been micromanaged? Then you know how it feels. Work suddenly became very granular, transactional, and lacking context and meaning, leading to misunderstandings, delays, and poor-quality results. We no longer trusted that the company knew what it was doing, and I’m sure the company didn’t trust us.
The worst consequence of Bellatrix’s shit umbrella leadership style was slowly normalizing a toxic adversarial culture. Un-collaborative behavior and low trust were becoming an expectation. Conflicts were being swept under the rug and gossiped about. And if the situation had persisted any longer, our employees would have started to internalize that fighting toxic behavior is pointless. It’s just how things are. They would have stopped raising their concerns, and the trust would have been eradicated.
But what to do if the leadership above you is truly terrible? There are a few options, but don’t repeat a mistake I made in my earlier career. My leadership made a decision I strongly disagreed with. I knew it was sending a dangerous message and making many nervous about their jobs. But instead of taking responsibility, I tried to distance myself from the decision. I thought that by siding with my direct reports, I’d demonstrate solidarity with them.
Here’s a problem. To you, the leadership above you made the decision. To your employees, you are "leadership." When you don’t take responsibility for the decision, in their eyes, you fail to do your job as a leader.
A challenging but essential lesson to learn here is that even if the unfortunate decision is not your fault, you’re still responsible for dealing with the harm it causes your employees.
What to do instead?
Instead of thinking of themselves as a shield and restricting the flow of information, skilled leaders enhance communication. They create and boost new channels and increase the fidelity and throughput of the flow of information by connecting people as directly as possible. When they become aware of a disagreement or a conflict, they bring everybody together and help find a shared understanding and a resolution.
Instead of protecting their teams from politics or difficult feedback, supportive leaders coach their employees to effectively navigate their organization, receive feedback gracefully, and learn from it. To have a voice and advocate for themselves and to influence their organization's culture directly.
Lastly, influential leaders manage up, lean into curiosity if they don’t understand or disagree with a decision, and speak up if their leadership acts inconsistent with their company’s values.