Guardians in Hell: How to Stop Killing Their Potential

*This second post in a four-part series is about a Guardian (one of four Business Chemistry types), how the wrong work environment kills her potential, and what could be done about it. Read posts one, three, and four of the series, about a Pioneer, a Driver and an Integrator, respectively (which are tagged #BCstories).

Once a Guardian named Gwendolyn was given one month to coordinate the creation of a website illustrating her organization’s vision and how they were living it. This was a high-profile project dreamt up by the board, and one that lots of stakeholders deeply cared about. Was Gwen an expert on websites with a deep understanding of the vision? Did she have a broad network of connections to draw upon? Did she thrive in the role of herding cats? Not at all. She was highly skilled in other areas, but she got this particular project because she happened to be standing nearby when it was assigned. From her Guardian lens, this wasn’t a fairytale about being handed a golden opportunity. It was a horror story.

The good news was that because of the tight time frame, there were lots of resources (also known as people) assigned to the project. This was also bad news—lots of people to coordinate, and every one of them with strong opinions, hellbent on expressing them energetically, and all at the same time. Everyone was looking to her to make quick decisions but Gwen could barely think straight in their presence. And they seemed to be present all the time.

Gwen and her team were provided the “gift” of a dedicated section of their open-space work environment in which to collaborate. Because so many important people had a stake in the project, the team was expected to be visibly working together on site as much as possible. But that meant constant interruptions and no quiet place to think or to focus on the heads-down, detailed work that she, as a Guardian, typically excelled at. When she pointed this out to leadership they told her to stop being so inflexible—this is how innovative work gets done.

And the necessity of face time was the only expectation of the project that was clear. Beyond that the whole thing was totally open-ended, with no structure or plan, and no definition of success, except that it was imperative it get done on time and that it be brilliant. But what did that even mean? Whenever she tried to get more clarity she felt pushed aside, the underlying message being that she should be able to figure it out for herself. When she pointed out inconsistencies, errors, or potentially problematic future implications of current decisions, she was answered with eye-rolls and the suggestion that she stop nit-picking.

And the vision? Well that wasn’t quite set in stone yet either. Every other day it seemed that the language around the vision was changed, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. It represented a moving target, and yet the deadline didn’t move along with it, and no one seemed to understand that each time the vision was tweaked, there was a domino effect on all the other detailed elements of the project. At the same time, various members of the board and the leadership team kept dropping in spontaneously and expecting updates, which Gwen was never given time to prepare for. When they asked her to present at the leadership meeting, without prior notice, she balked, but they couldn’t understand the problem.

It wasn’t long before Gwen started to feel that her strengths and her way of working weren’t valued by her organization. She had started the project with a commitment to give it her all and produce a stellar product, but soon she was just hoping that this whole thing was some kind of nightmare that she’d wake up from. As her level of engagement started to wane, she gradually pulled back from actively working to make the project the best it could be. She overlooked inconsistencies and let them stand. She let little errors slip by. She stopped pointing out potential risks. She let go of the idea that she’d feel pride in her work and in the end, her goal became just to get through the project.

Gwen’s story is an excerpt from our book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships (Wiley, 2018), in which my co-author, Kim Christfort and I have an in-depth, back-and-forth discussion about the strategies leaders and managers can use to create environments where Guardians like Gwen can lean into their strengths and thrive.

Among those strategies are the following:

  • Provide pre-work, data, and information in advance of a discussion or decision
  • Share an agenda prior to meetings
  • When a change is required, acknowledge the potential domino effect on the details Guardians care about and explain why the change is needed
  • Provide clear expectations including what success looks like
  • Offer workspaces that provide permission to be alone, control over the environment, sensory balance, and psychological safety
  • Acknowledge the value of the Guardians’ work, which often involves more invisible tasks that keep the trains running on time
  • Pipe down and listen up so Guardians have a chance to process and don’t need to fight to enter the discussion
  • Ask Guardians to help solve any potential problems they identify

Stay tuned for the next post in this series. Subscribe so you don’t miss it!

Dr. Suz

This is an excerpt from our book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships (Wiley, 2018).

Suzanne Vickberg, PhD (aka Dr. Suz) is the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience group’s very own social-personality psychologist, which means she studies how people’s thoughts, behaviors and preferences are influenced by both who they are and the situations they’re in. She uses Business Chemistry to help leaders and teams explore how the mix of perspectives brought by their individual members influences their work together. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @DrSuzBizChem

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