“I’m Your Boss, Let’s Collaborate Like Equals”: A Case Study on the Tension between a Manager’s Authority and Collaboration By Lilian Abrams, PhD, MBA, PCC

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What Was the Problem?

In a recent coaching conversation, a senior-level female executive, Angela*, raised the topic of the tension she was experiencing between encouraging a subordinate to be collaborative, and that person’s respect for her authority.

Angela is a senior-level retailer who manages a $900 million division which is part of a larger business.  She is a fast-moving leader who focuses relentlessly on results. She expects all her directs and other colleagues to exhibit strategic innovation and agility to help achieve those results.  As a leader, she also strongly values and demonstrates caring about her employees, teamwork, collaboration across levels, and employee development.  She expects her staff to have and share innovative ideas, for which she gladly recognizes them.  

As a good leader who was valued and enjoyed by her direct reports, Angela now faced a surprising leadership issue:  Her most senior direct report, Marla, was taking Angela’s gestures of openness, collaboration and respect, as an opportunity to subvert and disrespect her authority as a manager instead.

How Did It Develop?

Angela had recently inherited Marla as a result of a re-organization.  Marla was smart, competent, ambitious, and experienced, and Angela needed her help to make the new structure successful.  However, Marla had long wanted and expected to achieve Angela’s title and level in the organization. Marla believed she deserved both after her many years of service and her elevated status in a prior organizational structure.  However, Marla had failed to notice the direction of strengthening winds of change, and was thus completely taken by surprise when the company eliminated her prior structure and former career path. Instead, Marla was slotted under Angela, her former peer, in the new structure.

In the first few months since Angela’s promotion, Marla omitted or was noticeably reluctant to share information and include Angela in key meetings and emails.  She did this even after Angela directly asked her for these types of inclusion.  In multiple ways, Marla conveyed that she has not yet come to terms with Angela as her new leader.

How Does Collaboration Normally Work, Across Levels?

Marla’s prior organizational leaders had strongly emphasized the importance of respect for hierarchy.  Decisions and goals were set from the top down, and respect for this top-down management style was assumed. Therefore, instead of collaborating respectfully, Marla took many of Angela’s openings and equalizing gestures to assert a superior position over her.

This put Marla out of step with Angela and other more senior managers, who wanted her to participate in creating a more collaborative culture than she was used to.  Typically, when senior leaders want to obtain input and collaboration from lower-level staff, they need to consistently show subordinates that they are safe and free enough to offer their real thoughts and ideas without negative repercussions.  To some degree, they “equalize” the relationship, which works beautifully when there is also mutual understanding and respect for the different roles that each level of authority ultimately plays in getting work done. On the flip side, all participants need also to understand the subtle actions by which respect for hierarchical authority is conveyed, and when those actions are appropriately used.  This dynamic also works well when all parties value innovation and teamwork, and believe that collaboration from all concerned will likely achieve the best outcomes for joint success.

What Should Angela Do, To Change Marla’s Disrespect? 

During our coaching conversations, Angela realized that the first step was to help Marla understand more clearly that she was expected to support a new approach of respectful, cross-level collaboration.  To achieve this particular goal, Angela herself now had to overcome some of her own natural tendencies, including a few of those which had helped to make her as successful as she was.  For example, Angela had to restrain her naturally quick pace and feelings of impatience and frustration, so that she could slow down and give Marla time to grieve her lost opportunities and relationships, as well as learn Angela’s new approach.  Until Marla did, Angela also had to learn to assert her own authority more often and more strongly than she had previously been used to. 

Angela and I repeatedly explored methods by which Angela needed to manage her own ways of thinking and acting, so that she could support Marla while reframing Marla’s outlook.  For example,

  • Over a few conversations, we discussed various situations that had already occurred, during which Marla had violated Angela’s expectations around respectful collaboration. I asked Angela questions about these incidents, and made reframing statements, which helped Angela realize her expectations around the desired culture, her own role in it, and how she expected Marla to act. 

  • We then explored Angela’s understanding of the gap between her own expectations and Marla’s, around respect for authority and collaboration. 

  • We also heeded Angela’s direct manager’s explicit direction and permission for Angela to give Marla about six (6) months’ time to adjust. 

Overall, Angela and I together discussed a number of strategies for her to use in reining in her personal impatience and pace, and allow Marla to “catch up” to the expectations her senior managers had of her.

The groundwork was thus laid when Angela’s approach was spontaneously validated, during an interaction that she, Marla, and Angela’s own manager had.  Unprompted, the more senior manager clearly expressed her views such that she unknowingly reinforced the new ways in which Angela was asking Marla to behave.  Having received given this clear direction from above, as well as consistent reinforcement about the respectful collaboration that Angela expected, Marla now more obviously began to accept the more collaborative approach she had to learn to take.

What Was the Result?

Angela is beginning to see respectful collaboration more consistently from Marla, which will serve to give this valuable employee a new career trajectory in the organization.  To do this, Angela and I together had helped her discover her own assumptions, directions, boundaries, and new behaviors.  Angela learned to take a new direction as a leader to maintain Marla’s ambition and competence, while simultaneously making clear the lines Marla could not cross. In their most recent conversation, Marla actually expressed her appreciation for Angela, and acknowledged Angela’s consistent support of her. While it is still not clear if Marla will stay in and succeed in the organization, the tide is definitely beginning to turn in a positive direction.  Stay tuned!

*All names changed to protect confidentiality.

To connect with Lilian Abrams

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Lilian Abrams (Ph.D., MBA, PCC) is an organizational psychologist with more than twenty years of Fortune 50 consulting experience, in all manner of organization and leadership development areas and applied research. She has been a senior consultant for Towers Perrin, Watson Wyatt, Nabisco, and Kaiser Permanente, and an accredited executive coach for many client organizations, including ADP, BASF, BMS, KPMG, Unilever, Warby-Parker, Sanofi, New York Presbyterian Hosipital, and the FAA. As former New Jersey Organization Development (NJOD) Learning Community's Education Team Chair, she facilitated learning to bridge the gap between academia and practice. She teaches, publishes, and serves, always seeking to learn and bring the right learning to the right people at the right time. 

LinkedIn profile:  Dr. Lilian Abrams