DIRECTOR’S CUT: Bridge Over Troubled Water

How we relate changes what we create.

Q: My problem? I want to bring out the best of each of my team member’s “best,” but they themselves don’t know what their very best is. One member of my team, I’ll call him Michael, is really good at communicating what he’s good at and then delivering on it. He is thorough, analytic, good at taking feedback, and then precise and clear about checking back in. Working with him is a breeze; we get aligned on the big picture, agree on when to check-in or sync up with others….and then he just runs until it’s done. He’s the most senior member of my team for a reason. Another team member thinks he’s equal to Michael in both skills and approach when he’s not. He makes regular mistakes, is a little mean to everyone, and his work is always a bit sad. He waits until the last minute to show me things, which usually means I pick up the pieces of his delays. He hates to acknowledge any of this, so giving feedback is hard. What then? I have this tension of wanting to bring out everyone’s strengths but wondering… what if their own sense of self and their actual capabilities don’t match up. 

Dear Wanting the Best,

You say you want to bring out the very best in each teammate. And, I believe you. 

Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here, posing this question. You know how exceptionalism harms; how we pit people against one another instead of honoring each person.

So what I noticed in your note?  While you wrote of Mike by his name, the person you say doesn’t see their own capabilities, and we can only refer to them as non-Mike? 

Without having a clear name for something, we miss seeing it all together. 


Just the other night, I asked my family if we could take the upcoming weekend off. 

We’ve been doing things non-stop. An upcoming kitchen remodel meant we’ve been busy with what feels like a million and one decisions from faucets to disposals, slabs to paint colors. And a weird remnant of COVID is that we planted a garden that won’t grow, so we’re constantly futzing with the sprinklers or soil or whatever. And soon (like four weeks soon), the kiddo goes off to college. 

The upcoming weekend I was talking about? It was the last one we’d all be together under the same roof. 

Even before the idea was fully out of my mouth, my husband started to question whether it made sense, name all the obstacles, and why it made no sense. Luckily, my son pointed out how silly it was that we were arguing about … relaxing. 

The thing is, we didn’t all say what we were thinking. 

My son doesn’t *not* want to be with me, perse; it’s just more likely he’s had more than enough of me, given COVID lockdown. And, he probably wants to spend all his spare time with his high school buds before they all scatter. My husband doesn’t want to *not* relax, but he over-adults as his way of showing love. And by my spending time arguing the case, I wasn’t sharing what was so obviously true for me: I just wanted us to hold each other tight. 

Because none of us shared enough, we had no shared understanding.


Shared understanding. We don’t talk of it enough and how it affects our work. 

If you don’t know what your boss expects, it undermines your ability to contribute. (So non-Mike might be mimicking Mike because he sees you and Mike connect with ease.) 

Those people who feel misunderstood often display antisocial behaviors, such as acting rebellious. (Which non-Mike does, every time he turns in his work late, affecting your workload.) Aggression, too, is a typical response if someone feels unseen, which might explain why non-Mike is a “little mad” and his work “a bit sad.” 

And while it’s easy to blame them for their madness, we need to own our part in the dynamic. At least if we want something better.

One of the foundational thinkers on identity and psych, Erik Erikson, talked to this best. His work taught me that people want to contribute that which only they have. Specifically, they deeply want autonomy vs. the shame or doubt associated with being directed. They deeply want to show initiative vs. the guilt of feeling insipid. They deeply want to demonstrate their own industry vs. feeling of inferiority to anyone else on the team. Altogether, they want to generate and create value vs. stagnate in any way. (Good paper recapping this here.) 


You say you want members of your team to be exceptional in their own distinct ways. But it sounds like non-Mike doesn’t know that. 

So, just asking the obvious: Have you told him? 

Have you taken him aside and said what’s in your heart? You want the very best for each person, not in comparison to another. You do not want to build a team of Mike’s. (Please, Gawd, don’t be building a team of Mike’s! The great thing about a team is having the distinct specific contributions of each member, all pulling you towards a common goal.)  And how you believe non-Mike can put his best to good use for the business.

You could start by naming what going on: 

“I get the sense that you want something better at work. Where you would light up from the inside. Something that would have you rushing into my office to share your latest work vs dragging your feet until the last minute. Where you’d be willing to let me coach you so you can be better. Where you double-check your work instead of having me do it because it matters to you to do your best.” 

And you could name what you’ve noticed that’s worthy of appreciation: 

“I’ve seen you really light up when you do X. You seem to really shine when you’re doing Y and I think you have a knack for Z.” 

And then ask them to name what they need: 

“Will you work with me to figure out what that is?” 


Now, asking the question doesn’t mean non-Mike becomes his fullest at work. But, until we develop a shared understanding, we can practically guarantee he won’t. 

If my husband, instead of getting all jacked up to show me what I might not have thought of, could have just  asked, “what makes you want that?” We would have probably learned they could have met my needs with some snuggling before bed. 

Without a shared understanding, we drifted even further apart.  

Now work, and home life is not the same, and I know you don’t owe non-Mike the same commitment I owe my son or husband. But, one thing that is the same? We want, even need to do, that work of connection, naming correctly what’s going on. 

Because how we relate changes how we create, or rather co-create, the future—both at work and in life. 

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