Have you heard these inspiring quotes for leaders before: “Hire great people and get out of the way” or “Management is nothing more than motivating people”?

A very powerful learning I’ve made is to allow (yes, allow!) my team to work well by interfering less with their ability to do their job.

Since I first discussed this with my Executive Coach around five years ago, I’ve worked in-depth with dozens of organizations on team performance (both non-profit and businesses) and often get reminded of two principles of management he helped me understand.

Let’s start with the “Theory of the two jobs”

The theory says that each employee has two jobs they do at work: One is the job you hired them for (you know: sales, marketing, product development, customer service…) and the other job is to take care of themselves (protecting their self-image, their financial future, the image they want others to have of them).

Unfortunately, every person can only do one of these two jobs at a time. Also, switching between the jobs isn’t done easily, because it takes some time to change between the outfits.



Between these two guys:

Who do you want in your team?



In the emerging market career jungle, your team members may be inclined to wear the self-defense outfit while in the office due to many reasons:

  • They may feel ill-equipped to handle the high demands of their job, due to gaps in skills, knowledge or networks.
  • They are the first point of contact to clients, users, beneficiaries, suppliers or partners – and often handle a whole lot of negativity during their working days.
  • If they lose their job, they may have no financial safety net to fall back on. And there are many signs that their job might be at risk: negative client reviews, doubts about the organization’s financial situation, a raised eyebrow in the wrong moment, a vague but negative feedback in passing, aggressive comments etc
  • In teams where the office fun seems artificially separated from the work. When the boss orders pizza and beer, but is otherwise aggressive and stressed, it looks like a trap.
  • They may have taken a leap of faith joining your start-up or organization in the first place or their family and friends may not be 100% behind their career choice.
  • When they see a large stick. Which leads us to…

The Theory of the “size of the stick”  

Every manager carries a stick around with them. All the time. They can’t get rid of it, it’s glued to their hand.  The stick symbolizes the power they have based on the position they hold.

As an employee my boss has the power to change my role to be more/less suitable for me, include/exclude me in interesting meetings and projects, underwrite/overwrite my decisions – in summary to make my life in this organization heaven or hell.urmensch

Now, as if this stick isn’t already large enough, in the eyes of the employee the size of the stick is multiplied by the size of the personality of the person carrying it.


If your people find you caring, even-tempered, fair and open-minded, then your power over them doesn’t feel so threatening. Your stick looks small, with some flowers on it that would cushion a potential blow.

With a boss who holds such a small stick, many people are able to voice their opinions, admit failures, ask questions and, simply: focus on doing what they love and getting work done.

If your people find you emotional, unpredictable, self-centered or secretive, then the stick looks more like a rocket launcher, with scary poisonous spikes.  (You may even remind them of how their angry parent, their unfair teacher or their unsupportive uncle looked like.)

It makes people close down, argue back at you over details, swallow their questions and opinions, mince their words, give vague answers, avoid the big topics and speak in hushed tones.

If you are serious about wanting your organization to grow then you can’t afford your people acting like this!

Be consistent and approachable! Over time, the team will feel the need to protect themselves less and less.

Some thoughts on how:

  • First of all, be self-aware about your emotional attention span. If you can truly only be attentive and caring for 30 minutes a day, then only spend 30 minutes in conversations, where your staff need you to be attentive and caring. If you truly don’t like dealing with people, get someone in between you and all your staff.
  • Be transparent about the organization’s progress. Give regular updates and answer questions honestly, so that people know where they are at. Once you get “real questions” you will know that the team has gained confidence in you being transparent.
  • Encourage people to contradict or challenge you, whether in public or private. Make sure that people see that you change your opinion when relevant facts are presented. Admit when you were wrong, don’t sugarcoat it or get defensive around it. Praise those who proved you wrong.
  • Listen to people’s worries, whether personal or work-related – take them serious. Make time to interact with them as humans. When going for lunch, coffee, dinners or outings, avoid feeling pressure that you have to “host” or entertain people. Just relax and listen more than you talk.
  • Have a conversation on ego and how defensiveness negatively affects teamwork, results and innovation. Ideally this would be run by an external team coach. Lead by example and lay bare your own defensiveness and ego triggers. If your team thinks you’re not taking the workshop as a serious opportunity for you personally to develop and transform your ego, it will backfire.
  • Be extremely conscious to give specific and relevant feedback. If positive feedback is perceived as “fake” it leads to people protecting themselves just as much as when negative feedback is perceived as vague. It’s often worse than not giving any.
  • Define a clear disciplinary process, launch it in writing and follow it every single time. Random firings and untransparent consequences such as demotions kill the spirit (and pose a legal threat).

Action-oriented questions:

  • Do I deliver my decisions and feedback to my team in a way that truly displays my level of care about them as humans? If not, what may I have destroyed that I need to rebuild?
  • What habits do I want to develop to make myself more approachable to my staff?
  • When receiving feedback from my team, how will I avoid getting defensive and show that I am listening?
  • How can I make myself more predictable and moderate as a leader, so that people fear me less?

Talk to us if you’re interested in exploring the above!

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