Fence-sitting is no longer an option for a leader | Daily News
Leading your flock into greener pastures – Part 12

Fence-sitting is no longer an option for a leader

Unless you are a CEO or Managing Director, you are going to be in the middle of two other levels in the organisational structure of your company. People in their first leadership position are typically in the middle between their staff and their boss, the equivalent of a corporal in the army who’s between the front-line troops and their sergeant.

Being in the middle, though, involves far more than just communicating and liaising between senior managers to your staff, you need to represent both groups as well, which is where you can get trapped!

At times, the views of senior managers, or your immediate manager aren’t going to align with the views of your staff, and vice versa. Both sides are likely to expect you to comply with them: your manager expects you to reinforce the company view while your staff expect you to support and speak up for them! This dilemma can result in some leaders end up ‘sitting on thefence’.

Sitting on fence

There are few dangers of sitting on the fence. They are -(a) Being seen as indecisive., (b) Losing credibility with your manager, (c) Losing credibility with your staff. (c) Allowing changes in systems, procedures or other ways of doing things that don’t work. (d) Risking your staff becoming more anxious, frustrated or angry about changes that you are introducing.

You have to get off the fence if you want to avoid these dangers of being caught in the middle. Listen carefully to both sides of an issue - to the views of your manager and your staff - and then make an objective assessment of the situation and decide on your own view.Inform your staff about the reasons behind decisions and why you agree (or disagree) with them, and be willing to acknowledge their concerns.


If you disagree with decisions that your own or more senior managers take, and you’re expected to implement them, ask for clarification about the reasons for the decisions. Also be prepared to let your manager know your view and the views of your staff, as well as your and their reasons for questioning or challenging the decision.

You may not be successful in changing the decision, but at least you can try to ensure that all parties have a good understanding of the reasons for and against the decision.

You’re certain to experience situations in which you understand the business reasons for a decision, and yet have concerns because the decision is going to have an adverse effect on your staff. It is better that you act in ways that maintain your integrity with your staff and encourage them to do what’s reasonable to help the business achieve sustainable success. You can find more insights and guidance on leading people, especially during periods of change.

Accepting that leadership can be lonely

Leadership can also be lonely, because leaders often have difficulty sharing their concerns and doubts about decisions and even their own abilities with the people who report to them.

Similarly, people in their first leadership role can also be lonely, because they find that sharing their concerns and dilemmas with their manager and staff is difficult. Your current manager probably appointed you, and you may be reluctant to share your concerns and doubts with him You believe doing so reflects badly on you. You may also be reluctant to share your doubts with your staff. You believe they may lose confidence in you.

One suggestion istaking the initiative and find your own mentor. Choose aelderly leader with more experiencethan you - someone who you admire, respect and trust- and ask that person to be your mentor. In doing so, you’re paying that person a compliment: you’re acknowledging that you value his knowledge, skills and wisdom. Talk through what you expect of each other, and agree what you can talk about and how often you’re going to meet.

Avoiding the imposter syndrome

People who are promoted to leadership and then question whether they’re worthy of having a seat at the table with their new colleagues can experience the ‘imposter syndrome’. If you feel like an imposter, you fear doing or saying something that causes you to be embarrassed in front of your colleagues; that is, you fear being revealed that you’re not up to performing your new role.

The result is - you tend to be cautious, speaking only when necessary when you’re confident and knowledgeable about the topic or issue being discussed. This sensation is normal and it exists until you realise that they feel comfortable with you, or you feel you are as good as your colleagues. You need to observe and listen to your colleagues, and in doing so come to realise that your colleagues are human rather than superhuman.

To avoid falling prey to the imposter syndrome, make sure that you talk yourself up and build your self-esteem. Remind yourself that you’ve been promoted to your new position because others appreciate your talents, and praise yourself for making useful contributions, such as to group discussions. Take time to observe your new colleagues and notice what they do well and what they can perhaps do better. Recognising that they’re not perfect - and that some of your abilities and talents are the equal of or even better than those of your colleagues - helps you to appreciate yourself and feel that you’re worthy of your seat at the table.

Leading friends

Stepping up to your first leadership role can cause all sorts of dilemmas if you’re promoted from among a group who were your peers and are your friends. Dilemmas normally result from you and/or your friends perceiving that a fundamental shift has taken place in the relationship: at work, you’re no longer ‘one of them’. Perhaps, previously, members of the group took liberties with time- keeping, spending some time than they should chatting in the office orsurfing the Internet. Now that you’re responsible for setting the standards for the group, you may be concerned about changing everyday practices that you used to condone as a group member.


One question that may occupy your mind is: can I succeed in my new leadership role and keep my friends?

Yes, you can, because although the work context has changed - that is, you’re now the manager - the relationship as friends hasn’t. You do, however, need to consider the implications of the change in work context on the relationship. One implication is that you’re expected to consider fully the needs or requirements of your company, and therefore any consequences of, for example, the behaviour or performance of your staff on the success of your company. This new reality may mean that you now have a different view towards timekeeping, time spent chatting or the extent to which people surf the Internet.

Another implication is that you probably used to share most, if not all, information with each other when you were peers. In your leadership role, however, your manager may include you in considering options such as potential changes in organisational structure or procedures, or share commercially sensitive information with you that you can’t share with your staff, at least not straight away.

Talk through the implications of the change in work context with your staff, especially those that are your friends, so that everyone fully understands these implications and you cancontinue to work well together. This discussion can be a tough thing to do, but you and your staff can all experience success while you keep your friends.

Knowing where and when to draw the line

Most organisations have policies and procedures that are designed to provide general guidance for managers on how to lead and manage their staff. These policies probably cover a range of issues such as health and safety, attendance or absence, training and development, and performance, as well as procedures for dealing with situations in which individuals are significantly under-performing in their job: the discipline procedure.

Providing detailed guidance on every possible aspect of staff performance or behaviour, however, simply isn’t feasible: the reference document would be far thicker than War and Peace and nobody would use it. In any case, foreseeing every possible scenario is impossible.

As a leader, you need to consider each situation on its own merits and no documentation can be a substitute for you or other leaders making the best decisions and taking everything into consideration. Put another way, you’re expected to make difficult decisions about the performance or behaviour of your staff with the assistance of your organisation’s policies and procedures and, where available, the advice of the Human Resources department or personnel specialists.

You need to be clear about the standards you expect from yourself and the people who work for you so you can make decisions about what’s acceptable or unacceptable behaviour and performance, and to enable you to know where and when to draw the line!

(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired company director with over 35 years’ experience in senior business management. Presently he is a business consultant, freelance newspaper columnist and a writer.)

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