Leadership Coaching: A Call for Interdependence

  • 7 mins read

Today’s business leaders face incredible pressure to anticipate, adapt, and produce. Unfortunately, ongoing uncertainty and increasing demands cause many to fall into the trap of over-management. And it’s not uncommon: when a system crumbles and a new one is not yet in place, there is a lot of chaos and confusion.

Figuring out what’s next is not easy for business and organizational leaders. What questions do they need to ask to find clarity? How do they find a new vision when there is ongoing uncertainty about any return to former norms?

Leaders need a balance of independence and interdependence. They must focus on economics and management issues and respond to social, technological, cultural, political, environmental, and religious issues. Childcare, education, and working remotely tremendously impact how they do business. Meeting after meeting leaves workers with very little time actually to do the work and complete assignments as agreed.

We must rethink our previous assumptions about how we do business and where we are going. What we have known about the past and assumed about the present is no longer sufficient to prepare for the future. Effective leadership requires a balance of interdependence and independence.

Interdependence versus Independence

Is your attitude about individualism based on your social class?

According to research published in 2017 by the Harvard Business Review, yes. But your geography may also shape it.

Colin Woodward, author of American Nations (Penguin Group, 2011), writes that our attitudes about interdependence and independence stem from eleven distinct regional cultures in North America.

Today, most business organizations elevate independence as the corporate culture ideal. Certainly, workplaces that support self-assertion, individual expression, and new ways of thinking/being are to be applauded, but what happens when this is valued greater than collaboration, or worse, greater than the common good?

Consider this: in Descent of Man, Darwin proposed that we humans succeeded because of our empathy and compassion. He wrote, “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

While there is a place for independence in every organization, effective interdependence will sustain an organization and allow it to thrive.

Toward Better Interdependence

In the November-December 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review, behavioral scientist, professor, and author Francesco Gino pointed to three attitudes for effective interdependence:

1️⃣ Respect for contributions from others

2️⃣ Openness to experiment with ideas from others

3️⃣ Sensitivity and self-awareness of personal actions that affect others and impact toward goals and objectives.

These three attitudes allow for true collaboration and forward progress, the hallmarks of innovation. However, in business, support is almost always highly conditional:

🗨 “I’ll support you as long as I know where this idea is going.”

🗨 “I’ll support you as long as success is guaranteed.”

🗨 “I’ll support you as long as there’s something in it for me.”

Yet surprising innovations happen only when we trust enough to allow something to unfold. Leaders aim to manage ego, model a growth mindset, and foster trust.

Lead with a Better Attitude

1️⃣ Manage ego and model effective listening:

Express empathy and curiosity. Right now, expressing empathy can be more challenging for leaders: Studies have found that in an attempt to manage their own stress and anxiety, people will cognitively turn off empathy and compassion when they feel like they can’t help someone.

2️⃣ Practice constructive feedback:

▶ Ensure expectations are effectively communicated. (If not, own it.)

▶ Engage in a dialog that points out what worked and what needs improvement.

▶ Discuss feedback on feedback; acknowledge natural human tendencies to resist or avoid feedback.

Better Team Interdependence Doesn’t Just Happen

If your team has transitioned to remote work and management (and/or leadership) believes that more interdependence and management are required, but team members believe otherwise, tension will be common. Employees push back when asked to attend meetings, participate in decision-making, and do work. They often complain of micro-management.

Conversely, if your team members believe they need to be more interdependent, and management or other team members do not, complaints of lack of support and help are common. Either way, better management is required.

Team Interdependence: One Size Does Not Fit All

Sociologist and organizational theorist James D. Thompson identified three types of interdependence many teams use today: pooled, sequential, and reciprocal. Because team members may have different (and/or limited) experiences with each type of interdependence, their expectations may vary.

For example, let’s say your business is to make widgets. You offer standard widgets as well as customized widgets. Your business is made up of production teams to reach standard widget goals and deliver quality custom widgets.

Level 1 interdependence pools standardized independent actions into a team effort. Each person creates a standard widget. This is referred to as pooled interdependence.

Level 2 interdependence requires a known sequence of standardized and modified actions in a team effort. Each person completes a portion of the process to produce a widget; an assembly line. This is referred to as sequential interdependence.

Level 3 interdependence is based on known and unknown sequences of known and unknown standardized and modified actions combined into a team effort. This is referred to as reciprocal interdependence.

The level of interdependence, also referred to as the degree of interdependence, determines the type of management or amount of coordination needed.

Shift Your Management for Success

Higher degrees of interdependence reflect greater complexity and require different types, or degrees, of management:

Level 1 management: Standardization management, including reporting and communications, is efficient when all team members are trained on and adhere to standardized processes and actions.

Level 2 management: Planning management is required for sequential interdependence. This allows managers to coordinate goals with the actions needed, including process analysis, for successful outcomes. Team members may be asked to provide additional information and shift actions as needed.

Level 3 management: When any team member introduces new information that affects reciprocal independence, increased communication, changes, and coordination are required. This calls for mutual adjustment management.

Great leaders help their team members understand and move through different levels of interdependence. They shift their management and coordination relative to the degree of complexity for improved productivity and efficiency. If your team members are complaining about the amount of meetings (or a lack of information), examine your management level. It may require adjustment.

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Leadership Coaching Team Interdependence and Peak Performance in a Virtual World

Leadership coaching team interdependence and peak performance in a virtual world have their advantages. It allows you to plan, reflect, prepare, implement, and follow up your discussions. But it’s not without its challenges. Avoid the risk of meeting burnout with these tips and best practices:

Explore what and why. Before you begin the conversation, explore your own expectations and attitudes about the employee. What is the expected outcome of their efforts? If there is a gap, review your communications. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding, extenuating circumstances, or your employee is privy to information that is not on your radar. Open the conversation with an attitude of curiosity rather than judgment.

▶ Segue into exploring their goals, both business and personal. Ask about the challenges and obstacles they are facing. Most workers do their best to manage increased pressure and stress; many are hesitant to share this. In some cases, it may be childcare or eldercare. Alternatively, they could lack the energy and creativity they found in their previous work environment.

Collaborate on the next steps. For example, if there is a misunderstanding, identify an effective communication process that works for both of you. This could be as simple and specific as not interrupting during a virtual meeting or asking for clarification. If skill was the issue, identify an effective training process, including mentoring and/or online learning. For those who miss the office environment, explore how employees might be able to connect virtually for water-cooler hangouts. The key is not to jump to solutions; rather, coach them to find insights and solutions they will implement.

Follow-up as agreed. Be as specific as possible in your feedback, and link behavior to outcome. Use the 3:1 ratio whenever possible: for every negative critique, share three positive observations. To reinforce lessons learned, ask how it will help them achieve their goals. Use open questions to encourage self-discovery and avoid micromanaging. And remember: level 3 management is reciprocal management. Your feedback should be a dialog where you are open to improving as a leader, manager, and interdependent team player.

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