Leading Leaders: Remove The Backfire of Ambush

High level leaders, do you lead your direct reports with integrity of purpose or ambush them in the face of strong resistance from the employees they lead?

Scapegoating your direct reports is a trust crushing ambush that backfires on you, them, and on bottom line results. If you have second thoughts on any issue, take ownership at your level to reposition all toward a new view and path to success.

Leading Leaders: Remove the Backfire of Ambush Image by:Kenny Moller

Image by: Kevin Moller via Creative Commons License.

A True Story of a Leader Ambushing a Direct Report Leader

Picture an organization where productivity and financial results mean everything. Pat is the high level leader, Lee is a manager who reports to Pat, and Chris reports to Lee. Pat is aware from Lee that Chris is engaging in truly unprofessional behavior, is not focused on work, and is unproductive. Chris spends excessive amounts of time texting friends, fielding personal phone calls, and watching YouTube.

Lee discusses the issues with Chris, clarifies what behaviors are needed, and encourages Chris to ask for any help needed in becoming more focused. Chris continues with the same unacceptable behaviors and even shows great public disrespect for Lee in meetings. Chris also dismisses verbal warnings and written indicators.

At performance review time, Lee shows Pat Chris’ review before sharing it with Chris. Pat comments that the review is accurate and well written and even praises Lee for noting the issues in a professional objective manner.

After Lee gives Chris the performance review, Chris, very upset, goes to Pat and makes accusations against Lee.

Pat meets with Lee and criticizes Lee’s management style and suggests that they all meet with HR to arbitrate between Lee and Chris! Pat openly criticizes Lee in front of Chris and the problems drag on.

Eventually Chris takes a position in another part of the organization. Pat then gives Lee a very low scoring performance review because of what happened and because Chris left.

Pat used Lee as a scapegoat when Chris kicked and screamed about the review. Pat gave Lee every indication of full backing when in truth it was conditional upon Chris’ reaction. In effect, Pat ambushed Lee with a pretense of full support.

Lee learned from that event and in hindsight of another moment that Pat is very averse to conflict. To that end, Pat weakens even in moments where performance, productivity, and financial results are at stake.

Leadership: The Backfire of the Ambush

  1. The ambush is a neon sign advertising the leader’s weakness of character.

    Everyone, even leaders, make mistakes. Yet leaders can recover from mistakes by taking ownership, explaining what they’ve learned, and what they will do to change going forward. Often this builds trust in the leader for its honesty, accountability, and human connection.

    Conversely, the sly nature of an ambush taints any apology the leader makes afterward. Disrespect hovers and affects all those it touches.

  2. The ambush crushes trust.

    High performance organizations need leaders who build and maintain trust. Trust is not necessarily built through happiness. It is built through integrity and honesty about expectations and performance while showing respect for the person.

    Managers who trust that their leader is authentic focus their time and talents on results — not on looking over their shoulders to see if the leader is retreating. Broken trust lingers and effects the bottom line results for a very long time.

  3. The ambush reduces good managers to confused managers.

    No manager is perfect. Yet ambushing very capable, committed, hard working managers confuses their vision and may even kindle self-doubt in their own abilities. There is no value in this. It suffocates talent instead of nurturing it. It impacts current and future organizational success.

  4. The ambush teaches a dangerous principle.

    It says to managers: employees’ happiness is your ultimate responsibility. Certainly managers can play a big role in creating a positive work environment. Yet happiness is something an individual chooses. Sometimes individual employees, like Chris in the example above, create their own happiness at work by simultaneously not producing.

    Does the organization exist to make people happy or to fulfill the financial mission in hopefully a positive work environment? The consequences of the happiness mission on the financial success of an organization can be quite grave.

  5. The ambush punishes instead of teaches.

    There are still leaders who live by the maxim, if my direct reports’ staff come to me instead of going to them, those managers have failed. I hear this mostly from leaders who view their direct reports as buffers. Great leaders in high performing organizations don’t set up roadblocks for personal comfort. They mentor their direct reports in leadership and people-skills to improve the dynamics of the entire organization.

    Certainly if a leader sees a pattern where most staff are coming to complain about one manager, it may indicate a leadership and management style problem. Yet there is no way to stop any one employee from jumping past their manager to speak to a higher level. Labeling that as a manager’s failure is short-sided, premature, and quite risky.

  6. The ambush gives high performance managers reason to leave.

    True high achievers have a low tolerance for misinformation, confusing messages, and negative surprises in their performance reviews. What makes them so valuable is their inner drive to contribute greatness to the organization and to succeed in their careers. They can handle and welcome honest feedback because it is the very fuel that keeps their chances for success alive.

    An ambush represents a betrayal that thwarts their identity and success. Leaders who betray them with an ambush can trust that these high performers will eventually leave. Lose enough of them and the bottom line results suffer.

Leaders, remove the chance of backfire of an ambush. Spend time becoming very self-aware. What motivates you? What frightens you? How good are you as a mentor for your direct reports? How good are you at communicating clearly and giving honest feedback with respect? What is your philosophy about hierarchy, management, and staff interaction? How do you want people to communicate their disagreement with you?

There is much focus today on leaders listening and yes, that is critical. Yet leaders must also speak about their vision and their expectations of all managers and team members. Will you be coaching for high performance and expect your managers to do the same? Will you inspire the entire organization to that vision? Will you be willing to hold a firm but fair line with employees who choose not to perform? Or will you crumble and tolerate apathy — ambushing the managers into mistrust?

Replace the ambush with honesty, integrity, and accountability. Trust soars. Your vision comes to life. Results are amazing! I am your resource and your coach.

From my professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™

Related Post:
Leadership: Fairness is Not Neutrality
Leading Change Within Yourself Changes Everything
Workplace Disharmony vs. Diversity

©2012 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. If you want to re-post or republish this post, please email info@katenasser.com. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on leading change, employee engagement, teamwork, and delivering the ultimate customer service. She turns interaction obstacles into interpersonal success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.

3 Responses to “Leading Leaders: Remove The Backfire of Ambush”

  1. Liz Weber says:

    Run Lee! Run!
    Kate I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a coaching or training client ask: “So what do I do when my boss doesn’t back me up?” My typical response is: “Consider making a lateral move to find one who will.”

    There’s nothing more frustrating in my view than a “leader” who doesn’t have the courage or character to consistently support the needed, correct actions of their managers. And the leaders wonder why their managers are “ineffective”….

    Another great post Kate!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Liz,
      I chuckled immediately when I read your “Run Lee Run!”. It is shocking that leaders have positions when they are that unaware and weak.

      Your latest post, Are You Asking Enough of Your Managers also underscores that a leader’s integrity and communication are critical to org. success.

      Many thanks for your addition to this post.

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