Have you ever heard a frustrated leader talking about their team? You’ll often hear things like:

  • ‘My product development is too slow.’

You might be facing these issues at your company. However, before you blame your team, there’s a chance you might be responsible, without even realising it.

The question we must come to terms with

It’s easy to be aware of other people’s behaviours, but it’s far more difficult to have that same level of awareness about our own behaviours. It’s as though we’re blind to them — and the reasons behind them — even when others can see them effortlessly.

In Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, author and coach Jerry Colonna shares a powerful question that can help uncover new insights about ourselves:

How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?

The question contains an assumption: we aren’t merely innocent bystanders at the biggest issues in our lives, but rather, in some way, we let these issues happen.

If we’re willing to accept that, then the next question is, ‘Why?’ And this is where it gets interesting.

Many of our issues arise through a misguided attempt to defend ourselves against something unrelated — for example, a hurt from the past that’s so raw we can’t bring ourselves to face it again.

That’s a lot to take in, so to help clarify the idea, I’ve created five plausible narratives to illustrate the point. They’re all about . . . uh, my friend . . . let’s call her Davina.

Narrative 1: ‘My product development is too slow.’

Davina is constantly frustrated by how slowly new product features are released. When her team comes to her and demos a new feature that’s nearly ready, she instantly sees five glaring errors. However, she holds back on mentioning all but the most important ones to encourage a faster launch.

What Davina can’t see is that the team glimpses the disappointment on her face. And this momentary disappointment has a history.

Davina was top of her class all through school, consistently getting full marks in her assignments . . . except for a single assignment that got her a ‘C’. For most people, getting a C isn’t so bad, but the look of disappointment on her teacher’s face was so humiliating that Davina can’t even remember it consciously — it’s just too painful.

So she’s developed a defence mechanism. She spots all possible mistakes and aims for a standard that’s impossible to criticise — or achieve. The pursuit of perfection has become so instinctive, she can’t question it. So, it makes sense that she’s hired perfectionists too.

Narrative 2: ‘People don’t give me feedback until it’s too late.’

Davina is regularly blindsided by team issues. A couple of her best performers come to tell her they’re leaving to go travelling for a few months. Davina asks them for feedback in a private meeting, but they reassure her that the company is awesome and they’ve been dreaming of this trip for years.

What Davina can’t see is that her employees hate the idea of upsetting her. They can see how afraid she is of these conversations, and this fear has a history.

Davina’s parents separated when she was very young. She has few memories of that time in her life, but it’s safe to say that no separation happens without conflict. One day, Davina witnessed a shouting match between her parents — nothing out of the ordinary to an adult — but it terrified the young Davina.

So she developed a defence mechanism. She spots any sign of conflict and takes whatever measures are necessary to avoid it, thereby avoiding the fear. And if you’re conflict-averse by nature, what sort of people will you gravitate to?

Narrative 3: ‘Where’s the sense of urgency?’

Davina’s mind works quickly, and when she delegates a task, she expects it done pronto. However, when her team doesn’t report back, she gets concerned and shoots out a few instant messages — but it might be a day before she gets a response.

What Davina can’t see is that her team senses her anxiety, even though Slack’s pixel interface, and they can’t deal with it until they are ready to. Davina’s anxiety has a history.

Davina was raised by a single mother who simultaneously needed to earn money, put food on the table, and entertain a needy infant. A single mother can’t attend to all things at all times, so sometimes Davina was left alone while her mother did the cooking — unless she cried loudly, at which point her mother returned.

So she developed a defence mechanism. She spots any signs of distance and tries to reconnect before it’s too late. And how do people generally respond to anxious people? They avoid them . . . particularly if they are prone to anxiety too.

Narrative 4: ‘My team isn’t assertive enough.’

Davina ends up hiring some great people, but after a while, she still feels like she’s in charge of too many things. When the team reacts passively to an issue, Davina gets frustrated and steps in.

What Davina can’t see is that the team interprets her assertiveness as defensiveness. Rather than poke the bear, they back off, leaving Davina to resolve the situation. Her assertiveness has a history.

Davina used to work at a top management consultancy firm. She received copious communication and stakeholder management training; she routinely worked until midnight on client presentations. Each year, the bottom 10% of her colleagues were fired — it was either step up or step out.

So she developed a defence mechanism of taking charge and managing upwards, to control her workload and keep her job. But now her instinctive reaction to push back is taking away her team’s autonomy.

Narrative 5: ‘I don’t think my team is competent enough.’

Davina has created a great atmosphere in the office, but as the company grows, some of her teammates — many of them long-time friends — are under-performing. Despite giving feedback in one-on-ones, nothing seems to change.

What Davina can’t see is that the company requires skills and experience her friends don’t have. The reason she’s hired friends, rather than experienced professionals, has a history.

Davina was an awkward teenager. In the schoolyard, she was never picked first for a team and she experienced more than her fair share of romantic rejections before reaching college. And how did all those rejections make her feel? Pretty awful.

So she developed a defence mechanism. She stuck with her group of friends and let people come to her, rather than the other way around. And it worked . . . except now her fear of rejection inhibits her from assembling a more experienced team.

Making the unconscious more conscious

There’s a lot you can unpack in these vignettes, but here are a couple of insights to get you started. Firstly, the type of people you hire isn’t an accident. Our personality traits, such as conflict-avoidance and perfectionism, can influence who we hire.

Secondly, what we judge in others is secretly what we judge in ourselves (or what we’ve struggled with in the past) — a phenomenon called projection. As Carl Jung put it, ‘We always see our own unavowed mistakes in our opponent.’

The Loyal Soldier

In Imago Relationship Therapy, they refer to the defence mechanisms learnt in childhood as The Loyal Soldier. These behavioural adaptations stick around long after they’re needed, like a loyal soldier who’s still trying to protect you.

As the legend goes, Japanese communities reintegrated their soldiers after the war with a ceremony of gratitude. An elder would stand up and say:

“The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and us well up to now. We now need you to return as a parent, a partner, a friend, a mentor — something beyond a soldier.”

The soldiers released their weapons and returned to society.

Coach and author Jerry Colonna ask a follow-on question: how do these behaviours serve you?

If they don’t, it’s time to thank them for their service and release them from duty.