There's confusion amongst your peers. No one is clear what their role is on a project. The communications weren't clear from above yet your boss thinks everything is going forward smoothly. The team is paralyzed. They see you as someone “in the know” so they're coming to you for direction.
Have you experienced something like this?
Or maybe you’ve been in this position:
Your boss is preoccupied. No one is quite sure why. Is she working on some big secret project? Is there something going on that is not transparent? She's never in her office or she's not available. The team is getting nervous because they sense change afoot. You feel the tension and want to help minimize it.
When leaders fail to lead, it leaves a void. Where there is a void, there is a natural tendency to fill it with something.
As women, we are natural nurturers. If people are in an uncomfortable situation and we think we can help, we can find ourselves wanting to step in and take care of it. Our tendency to feel that we need to “do it all” makes us natural leaders in uncertain situations. But it can also make us vulnerable and cause us to try to solve a problem that is not ours to solve.
I was prompted to write this article when I observed a situation where there was a leadership void amongst a group of women on a trip. Instead of letting the leader take her role, another woman stepped into her shoes. She stepped in at the wrong time, in the wrong situation with the wrong approach. What happened after that was chaos, conflict and confusion.
Let’s take a look when it is ok to step into another leader’s shoes, and when you should leave it alone.
When is it ok to step in and fill a leadership void?
- When the success of the mission depends on it in the short term. If people are unclear and the mission is failing, giving guidance may save the day. If the issue can wait…leave it alone.
- When the team is restless and morale is sinking. It’s ok to step in and offer support, just be careful not to overstep what you know. Often, people just want to hear from someone they perceive is in a leadership role.
- When you’re not setting direction, but bringing clarity or calm to a situation. Leave direction setting to the person formally in charge.
How do I step in effectively?
If you are the one being approached by the team, it may be because you have more seniority, experience, they trust you or you have a personal relationship with them or the boss. In any case you've been effectively nominated to step up. Or maybe you just nominated yourself. (See cautions below.)
- Become a point person, but don't take over. This means that you're not exercising someone else's authority but you are informally becoming a source of information and guidance. Don't make decisions outside your authority.
- Become an ally to your boss. Gently inquire. Without accusing your boss of being in absentia, let her know that you can help pick up some slack if she's got other things going on.
- Become an information channel to the official leader. Let her know that the team needs guidance and would appreciate communication on the issues at hand. Seek her out and get answers to the questions that the team needs.
- Work behind the scenes. I’m not saying work covertly. Just don't start having team meetings or sending out team communications without your boss’s approval.
If you've nominated yourself to step in...beware....
Do others see you as the natural leader or are you just taking over because you know something has to be done?
- This can lead to confusion because others may not be paying attention to your guidance, even if it did come indirectly through you from your boss.
- It can also create resentment, frustration or anger among the team if you're acting out of your own need to control the situation.
Sometimes you should just leave a situation alone. When?
- When you're not recognized by others as the natural alternative to the leader.
- When you're acting out of your own self- interest without considering the bigger picture of the business and the team. In that case, take care of what you need but don't try to control the whole thing.
- When the leadership need is something visionary/ big picture.
As women, we often feel the need to “take care of it” – whatever “it” is. In the situation above with the women on the trip, I was approached by a participant and asked to step in and “mediate”. This was a bigger issue and the leader needed to step up. I decided to stay out of it.
There are times when it’s best for all that we just leave it alone.