When your skill set becomes your enemy

Pink Link Member blog Maura Jackson of Backup NW

You don’t have to be the leader to use your leadership skills

I’ve spent 30 years working in social care; housing, homelessness, criminal justice and have specialised in more recent years (11) in domestic abuse and then homelessness. Part of the reason for that is my personality. It’s no coincidence that I am and have always been independent, confident and resilient from a very early age and these characteristics support my role as a leader. But I have not always had to be “the” leader, to use my leadership skills.   

As a front line worker I was a young single mum so problem solving, managing on a shoestring budget, looking after my council owned home, responsibility of parenting; schooling, finances were all mine. My early 20s started with the professional roles of looking after others as a housing officer for 5 years; and then support worker at BACKUP for 2 years and then victims of domestic abuse for a year at Fortalice before I went into “management”.

So my role as a fixer, problem solver, rescuer was set.

Putting their interests first – your clients that is!

My first role in management was truly awful. It lasted about a year. With hindsight I was not a great appointment; enthusiastic and knowledgeable, yes. But the service I was being sent to was an under performing hostel for single homeless women with 10 female staff and I was not equipped for this. So a few things I did really pissed the staff team off.

I arranged to shadow every shift including waking nights to understand the roles. I saw on this shift that a TV appeared in the office so the person awake could watch it. I stopped this and asked the owner of the TV (staff) to take it home. I had the audacity to suggest that as we are working at work, then we should be working. I believed that women who needed to talk or access support overnight (which was often) would not feel welcome in the office if the staff member was watching TV. I suggested we should be more “available” and also catch up with admin, e-learning or even domestic duties.

During unplanned attendance at the scheme, I came upon a colleague in the communal lounge (used in the day by residents) doing her and her husband’s ironing. 20/30 items of clothing hung on hangers all over the room. This never occurred again – but I was becoming very unpopular. 1 possibly 2 women out of 10 colleagues put the service users interests first. But they worked in pairs, I didn’t have the skills then to deal with this, then. I left this service ultimately because I was assaulted physically by a colleague and my manager was unwilling to support me.

Micro Manage 0 – Leadership 1

Over 20 years in various management and now senior leadership roles I have learned how to deal with this and other difficult situations. I have recognised that my skill set, if not further developed, would become my enemy. In the management role I had I was more than likely micro managing, I was so focussed on the problem solving I doubt I really involved or included the staff team. The incidents of bad practice aside I could have approached the team differently.

Now I would make sure I had a vision and shared that with colleagues, in fact they might have been involved in the development of that vision, there would be a plan; also communicated. I would be still problem solving but the approach would include the enabling and empowering of colleagues to participate in the solutions. If I continued to micro manage, then the risk was I would disempower people, I most certainly disengaged with the staff team and then vice versa because after the negative incidents I witnessed I didn’t trust them.

So over time I have shifted from rescuing being my default position to now empowering being the default. Leadership is all about balance; and in my current position I manage other managers and to rescue them would be to micro manage and that can be very damaging. People can find it oppressive, restrictive and indeed upsetting. At worst it would/could prevent people from developing their own management and leadership skills, at best I would be delusional thinking everything was ok; and probably experiencing  low productivity and high staff turnover.

I created this shift with multiple approaches.

  • Observing.
  • Listening.
  • Reflection – a lot of it!
  • Desire not to repeat mistakes.
  • Developing my skills.
  • Including others.
  • Building trust.
  • Academic learning.

I learned also from my experience, successes as well as failures and not just mine but other peoples. I built on that.

If I had not recognised this then there was an additional risk. How would I ever have been able to be rescued if I was always the rescuer? Some people are not able to ask or receive assistance because they are conditioned or used to being the one that assists. This means throughout their life they experience an unbalanced give and take; so instead of seeking help they try and do it alone. Self reliance is ok to a point; but with everything there are limits and taking it too far can be damaging to mental health and well being. I have only really been aware of this for the last 5 years or so and allowed people to help me when I have needed it.

If you are a manager and are in a situation where you keep doing someone elses’ tasks, overlooking mishaps of a worker because it’s easier or you want a quiet life or it’s quicker or you know better –  then consider this. Why do you do it? Are you empowering or disempowering that person? Can others see you; are your other team members treated the same; would you have time to do this for all? Are you masking a capability or even misconduct matter? Whatever the reasoning it will not benefit you or your teams. What happens when you are no longer there; are the processes sustainable? If not, you need to change it.

I have taken my rescuing nature and made it strategic. So I still kind of “rescue” but indirectly. I have made a career out of it in fact. I’ve built and developed services and staff teams who are supporting disadvantaged people. People who need immediate and responsive solutions to meet an immediate need linked to risk of harm. But once out of crisis rescuing doesn’t help them either in the same way it never helped my colleagues; enabling, empowering and uplifting them does.

I trust people now, give autonomy and support to enable them to excel in their roles. 99% of the time this has been successful. Am I always popular? Certainly not. Are the services I manage successful – yes 100%. Do those they are designed to help, benefit? Yes they do.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for the day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” An old proverb but very relevant. 

For those of us not in the emergency services rescuing can be debilitating and counter productive. If a behaviour is part of your characteristics though, identify it, reframe it, use it to your own or someone else’s advantage. Recognition will be the key to your success.

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