Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A manager hears frustration from her team. Another group is not delivering on time. Or vendor communication is confusing. Or deadlines are shifting. Really any of the many troubles that constitute the day-to-day life of any worker in any company. So the manager listens to her team and strikes out to “make things right.”

    And that was her second mistake. (We”ll go into the first in a moment.) But the mistake most managers make is being the parent who is going to defend their brood. When, in fact, the best thing a manager can do when team members complain is to step back and ask questions:

    • What are you frustrated about exactly and what do you want?
    • Did you directly ask for what you want?
    • What is confusing? What were you given and what did you need?
    • Did you communicate what you needed in advance?
    • Do you understand why deadlines have shifted?
    • What do you believe is in your control and what is in the “others” control?
    • How can you get what you need from your partners?

    While not in every case, many times managers rush to intercede when they should challenge their team to advocate on their own. When team members see their own advocacy as unwelcome they turn to their manager. Then they expect their managers to do that “dirty work”. It is exactly that kind of thinking that undermines an associate’s respect and leadership skills. Managers should not shoulder the responsibility to communicate clearly and regularly. That is the job of the team. They should manage their communications. They can look to their leader for guidance about how to communicate. When. And with whom. They can expect their manager to help coach the messaging or be a gut-check on reasonability. But managers should not be the skirt to run behind when the going gets tough. When managers consent to that role, their career is stymied by an underdeveloped team.

    If you have heard that you cannot continue your own career because you do not have an adequate backfill, ask yourself if you are shielding your team too much. Once other leaders recognize that you have capable lieutenants on staff who regularly handle difficult or delicate matters, you will be seen as having the potential to move along in your career.

    Oh – and that manager’s first mistake?

    The manager trained her team to believe they could run to her and she would fight their battles. Don’t believe me? You teach people how to treat you. This manager taught her team that they could look upon her as their personal enforcer. Which led to careers stalled out for everyone involved.