Heartstyles blog

The subtle dangers of an over-protective leader


Dr. Mara Klemich – Founder & Consulting Psychologist

Fresh in her role as Operations Director, Deborah has recently put in place a new team of direct reports. The environment had long been very controlling and restrictive, so Deborah wanted to change the culture, creating a safe environment in which her new team could learn and thrive.

Deborah’s intent was to remove fear, while increasing creativity and empowerment. However, because she was conscious her team was very new and naturally quite awed by their new positions, she started to over-protect her direct reports. In particular, Deborah failed to share performance information that might worry them, and took accountability herself for every difficult scenario. In one-to-one sessions she would brush over team members’ recurring mistakes, saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.”

It appeared to others Deborah was trying too hard to relate in a slightly inauthentic and childish way, but very few people gave her any feedback, so she had no idea of the impact she was having.

Over time, a couple of Deborah’s direct reports became totally dependent on her for decision making. In contrast, one of the more experienced members of the team got frustrated and lost respect for Deborah, becoming caustic and overbearing in meetings. In Deborah’s peer group, doubts began to set in that she was capable of doing the job based on her “odd” behaviour in certain situations.

Because of Deborah’s interpretation of the context they were trying to change and her own level of experience, she approached coaching with each direct report in the same way, not recognising that she would need to adopt a different style based on the experience and character of each individual. She started every conversation with praise that wasn’t really deserved, so praise lost its currency. The truth was this: because Deborah lacked the confidence or techniques to broach development of below the line behaviours, she avoided these conversations so as not to hurt the individual or risk becoming unpopular. Deborah herself did not receive regular and directive coaching, so the situation was not course corrected early enough.

Overall performance declined and Deborah left the business. It was a sad outcome, as she was well intended and had many positive attributes.

The more fearful members of the team had become so very dependent on Deborah that they could not adjust to a new, far more directive and development focused manager, and they also decided to leave the business. Two of the most experienced team members stayed on, but their behaviour went downhill for a time. They became highly striving to prove themselves, as a counterbalance to the dependent and avoiding situation they had come from.

Too Much Support Is…Too Much

How could this scenario have turned out differently? Very senior Directors need as much coaching as the most junior member of a team—everyone needs constructive course correction. Coaching style and focus must be tailored to the needs of the learner. While those just starting out need more encouragement and support, applying the same approach to very experienced people who want stretch and challenge can drive them quickly below the line. 

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