When a leader tries to be collaborative rather than directive with her team, they fail to step up. How can she get them to do what is needed?


The issue

Fast-paced change creates uncertainty and often leads to changing priorities and competing objectives. In the desire to be collaborative, leaders often don’t want to be too directive because they associate direction with being too command and control.

One senior leader believed the team members knew the direction the team needed to head in but that there was a lack of clarity in terms of the finer detail. Additionally, the leader felt that her team members were competent at their jobs but weren’t really stepping up, and weren’t taking responsibility for decision-making and results.

Workloads felt chaotic and unmanageable, and the team members were getting frustrated with each other. The team members weren’t aligned and weren’t resolving differences of opinion. Instead, they were trying to be polite and collaborative whilst secretly blaming and criticising each other.

This dynamic led to the team members not trusting each other and not communicating effectively, not discussing differing views openly. Although the team members thought they had good relationships, there was an unspoken culture of not being transparent about what each person wanted and needed.

As a result, the senior leader felt she was being dragged into the detail of everything and was becoming stressed and overwhelmed with the volume of her own workload.

Without being overly directive, the leader wondered, how do I get people to do what I need them to do?


The interventions

Jude Jennison
Director, Leaders by Nature

work with a herd of horses to reveal the non-verbal behaviour of leaders and teams. It’s an experiential way of exploring the impact that leaders have on others. Horses want clarity of direction, a strong relationship based on trust and respect, and free will to choose whether they engage or not. People also want clarity, relationship and free will.

The issue described is a common one, which would benefit from the client leading a horse so we could understand her impact. I recall a client in a similar position choosing to lead Kalle, a female horse with strong opinions and the leader of the herd.

The client stood facing the horse, stroking her neck. Kalle was relaxed.

The client turned to me and asked why Kalle wasn’t moving. I asked her where she wanted to go. The client realised she was waiting for the horse to decide. She recognised that in her desire to be collaborative with her team and not put them under pressure, the team lacked clarity of direction. Although team members were engaged and willing, they lacked alignment and had competing objectives.

The client looked away from the horse and focused on where she was going and Kalle went with her instantly. She realised she had strong relationships and needed to focus more on providing a clear vision and objectives for her team.

Since working with me and the horses, the client reported that whenever the team wasn’t doing what she needed them to do, she’d stop interfering and trying to be collaborative. Instead, she re-articulated the priorities and left the team to work out how they achieved their objectives together. The team reported increased trust and an ability to resolve differences of opinion without the leader of the team making all the decisions. As a result, workloads were more manageable as less time was wasted going round in circles.


Rebecca Mander
Executive/leadership coach

This is a common issue. I’m reminded of a particular client – a leader in the legal sector. When I asked for more details this client told me his team members were demotivated and he had been accused of “micro managing”.

As is common in the field, my client felt he needed to get involved in the detail in order to prevent costly mistakes, sharing his knowledge.

Many leaders fall into the trap of thinking they need to get into the detail and how something is delivered in case it isn’t done well. Often a fixed mindset gets in the way of allowing teams to grow.

When we fail, we learn, and building psychological safety in our teams empowers them to develop and take responsibility. As leaders when we purport to have all the answers, we’re encouraging fixed mindset as our own learning is not apparent.

I asked my client to tell me about a time early on in his career when a leader had asked for their help and ideas. He told me how proud he’d felt, how respected, and stretched by the challenge he’d been. In a period of silence following his response, he realised this is how he wanted his team to feel.

When leaders ask versus tell, we allow our colleagues to use their brain’s seeking system, the instinctive need to hunt for survival. My client’s team were falling into learned helplessness, completing tasks in accordance with his detailed directions without the ability to engage their seeking system. In short, they were bored!

I asked my client how he could empower people the way his old leader had. He realised that he can share the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ and within parameters allow the team to seek out the ‘how’ themselves, resulting in significantly more empowered and motivated people.