I was working with a leader recently who wanted the people on her team to treat their relationship differently. Because she was approachable, compassionate and empathetic to her team, they began to share every trouble, woe and bit of drama in their lives with her, often when there were pressing business issues that needed to be discussed instead.
The question so many leaders face is how do I build a productive relationship with my team so that I can learn about the things that are important to them and what their goals and ambitions are without setting up a situation where they share the details of every life struggle with me. People don’t just give up their personal goals and life’s desires to just anyone and without an understanding of those, our coaching will be ineffective. But we really don’t want to spend critical work time hearing about the meddling sister or the friend who was rude to them over the weekend either.
The solution is in a concept I like to call “chalking the field.” If you think about the grounds crew preparing for a sporting event, they have to establish the limits of the playing field by where they place the chalk lines on the field. Once the chalk (or in some cases paint) is placed on the field, everyone can see it, calls are made based on it, and there are no questions about what is in and out of bounds.
We do the same thing in the business environment but more by what we do than what we say. Just telling our team what is out of bounds is much less effective than acting in a way that reinforces it every single day. Consider these tools for chalking the field for your team.
Ask different questions.
Consider how conversations begin and how the boundaries are established as you start them. Think about what would prompt the right kind of conversation and then create that question. It might sound something like: “John we have about 30 minutes to talk this morning and I want to make sure that I address what’s most important to you. What do you think the priorities are for us today?” Create something that makes it very difficult to select car shopping or Aunt Martha as the topic of conversation and still reinforces the fact that they get to have some say in how the discussion plays out. You have chalked the field, but they still get to call some of the plays.
Whenever you participate in a conversation, you validate it. I have known leaders who spend enormous amounts of time sharing their own personal drama and then get frustrated when the people on their team do the same. We don’t have the luxury, as leaders, of having the kind of conversations that don’t directly influence the capabilities of our team and the success of our business. Share your goals, your ideas, your vision, but not your weekend drama. It will send a clear signal to them about what they should share with you as well.
Imagine if the boundaries on the playing field kept moving. How hard would it be for teams to execute? How could they plan, prepare, practice effectively if the lines determining what was in or out of bounds were subject to interpretation or mood. Once you consciously decide where the lines are and then, through your actions, lay down the chalk lines, you have to be consistent about how they are used. You can’t be interested in how the date went when you feel like it and then all business when you don’t.
People respond to us the way we teach them to. Our job as a leader is to make conscious choices about what’s best for the business and ultimately the individuals who are part of it. Decide where the limits are and then observe them yourself. Pretty soon it will be clear to everyone how the game is played and when everyone understand that, the team can focus on winning it.