The problem: Everything is burning down around me!
My current work situation is a mess. I’m managing a team that is performing OK, but we’re working on projects for an area of the business that is doing poorly. That department has major turnover, so every few months we’re teaching new people how to use our tools, and management says nothing about it. My team receives feature requests, but we don’t really understand how the features will help our customers; however, the business manager insists that these features are necessary for success. In the meantime, my boss is struggling to keep her cool about the situation, and I can tell she is really annoyed that my team seems to be spinning our wheels for a business unit that can’t figure out what its goals are. The team is constantly asking me what is going on, and I don’t know what to tell them. Should I just pretend like everything is fine?
The solution: Shield with discretion
Appropriate context is what helps teams make good decisions on how and where to focus their energy. As the manager, it is not your job to make all of those decisions by yourself.
However, in this kind of situation, you’re often told to keep your head down and keep your team focused. It’s standard advice to tell new managers that part of their job, if they are effective, is to be a shield (or, less politely, a bullshit umbrella) between company politics and day-to-day functions of the team. Managers in this scenario help their team focus on what needs to get done without being distracted by the wider drama, politics, and changes happening in the company around them.
I have mixed feelings about this take on management. Teams that are unnecessarily exposed to toxic drama that does not concern them tend to get distracted and stressed out. If you are managing an engineering team, it doesn’t need to be concerned with interpersonal drama happening on the customer service team. It is with mixed pride that I have often seen my own teams continue to function smoothly when (to me) the world is burning down around my ears. But of course, these burning problems have nothing to do with engineering, so they don’t need to affect the team. It’s great for everyone to realize that they can (and should) focus on the things they can change and ignore the things they cannot. Other people’s drama in the workplace is usually little more than a source of gossip and distraction.
So, yes, shielding your teams from other people’s problems is important. However, it is unrealistic to expect that you can or should shield your team from everything. Sometimes it is appropriate to let some of the stress and uncertainty through to the team. The goal is not to stress out the team, but to help give them context into what they are dealing with.
Extreme shielders think that by giving clear goals they can focus and motivate their teams. But humans usually need some sort of context into why these goals have been set and into what problems they are solving. If there will be operational issues in November if a particular system isn’t launched, your team deserves to understand the consequences.
Practical Advice: Treat your team like adults
Think of yourself not as a shield, but as a selectively passive membrane.
Filter: Irrelevant stress that the team cannot do anything about, interpersonal drama that does not concern them, and decisions where they will not have input
There will be decisions and politics that stress you out that are irrelevant to your team. Your boss is frustrated at the lack of focus from the business unit you’re supporting? Keep that to yourself. Your team will get no value in knowing about her annoyance; they will merely question the value of their work. You don’t get along with the manager of another team? Keep it to yourself. Don’t go to the bar after work and rant to your team about how much you can’t stand this person. They can probably tell that you don’t get along, but they don’t need to be in the middle of your interpersonal disagreements. Is the management team in the process of making a big decision on vacation policy that you disagree with? Keep it to yourself. Again, letting your team know that changes are coming both undermines management and causes your team even more stress about a change that they have no input into.
Share: The goals and uncertainties of their projects and the public realities of the organization
Your team does deserve to know what success looks like for the features they are building. If they are getting features thrown over the fence randomly with no notion of the real goals of the projects, it is OK for you to push back, and for their frustration to be part of your pushback. It is a mistake to shield your team in such a way that they are blind to the purpose of their work in the larger company. They can’t do their best work if they are blinded by a lack of context.
The worst shields are those who believe their team should be kept apart from the rest of the organization (a sort of us-versus-them model). This can seem like shielding when the rest of the organization is disorganized or having problems, but it is devastating to the overall company teamwork. The worst is when this comes down from the head of an entire division or department, such as the head of technology holding engineering apart from the rest of the company. The end result of us versus them is always dysfunction and unhappiness, followed by a long and slow reconciliation toward healthy teamwork.
Another error that the shield sometimes hits is denying that drama exists in the world outside their team. If layoffs happen in another part of the company and the team finds out, instead of shielding them from drama, you have created a situation where the team feels like something bad is happening and no one wants to admit it. By communicating information about such events in a straightforward low-emotion way, you will alleviate the gossip and more quickly neutralize the impact on your team.
In general, you can’t pretend that things that are openly happening aren’t, in fact, happening. If your team is complaining about not understanding the features they’re building, you are doing them a disservice by pretending that everything is fine and that it is OK that they don’t understand. If the marketing team is going through layoffs, your team is going to hear the gossip and wonder why they heard it through the grapevine instead of from their management. It is better to honestly acknowledge these challenges than to try to hide them. So, speak plainly, and as appropriate, bring your team on as partners in solving challenges, instead of hiding those challenges from them.
You may be a shield, but you are not a parent. Sometimes, when combining the role of shield and mentor, we end up in a parenting-style relationship with our team and treat them like fragile children to be protected, nurtured, and chided as appropriate. You are not their mom; you are not their dad. It is too easy to take their mistakes personally when you view them as a child-like extension of yourself, or to get so emotionally invested that you take every disagreement they may have with you poorly. Your team is made up of adults who need to be treated with adult-level respect and held with adult-level accountability. This is important for your sanity as well as theirs.