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Advocating for Your Employees

​You put one of your most promising employees, Sam, in charge of leading the integration of a recent acquisition. But during a meeting among higher-ups, another manager—Lila—criticizes Sam as being a micromanager, calling him a "control freak." As proof, Lila tells a story about how Sam was mired in some minor details, implying Sam lacks the ability to think strategically.

What happens next depends on whether you, or anybody, steps up to defend Sam. In many workplaces, nobody does, said Stephen Miles, founder and CEO of The Miles Group, a leadership consultancy in New York City.

"This happens all the time," he said. "People have anecdotal information. The loudest person, somebody who's aggressive, wins the day," whether that opinion reflects reality or not.

What should happen instead is a logical, fact-based conversation that describes Sam holistically and puts his performance in the proper context. As Sam's manager, you would point out that integration projects require careful oversight and attention to detail. Sam very well may be strategic, you explain, but that's not what you've asked of him in this context.

Workplace experts call this "advocacy." The idea is to know your people well enough to make sure they are represented accurately and fairly within the company. It's a skill that often gets short shrift, said Paul Tesluk, dean of the School of Management at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y. Managers who do it well help not only their staffs but also themselves, he noted.

In fact, not doing it well "can hold you back as a leader yourself," he said, assuming your performance is measured based on the success of your team. "If you're not fully advocating and being an agent for your people, that's ultimately going to be a reflection back on you."

But it's not easy. Even though leaders pay a lot of lip service to taking care of their staffs, human nature often causes them to act otherwise, said Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and author of several management books, including Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best … and Survive the Worst (Business Plus, 2012). For instance, when people are put in charge, they feel powerful. And when people feel powerful, they tend to focus on their own needs rather than the needs of others.

How to Advocate Well

It takes time and effort to become a good advocate for your staff, which can be a challenge when you're juggling myriad duties and deadlines. It requires collecting information on every employee, as well as knowing and understanding each one's work history, skills, and appetite and capability for growth, Miles said. It also means understanding each employee's current roles and responsibilities.

"Then compare that information with a few people around the individual so you understand holistically how they're performing in the context of what you're asking them to do," Miles said.

The best advocates offer detailed examples of how and when their employees demonstrate particular skills, said Sara Canaday, an Austin, Texas-based speaker on leadership development and author of Leadership Unchained: Defy Conventional Wisdom for Breakthrough Performance (T&C Press, 2019). Rather than just saying Jane is good at negotiating contracts, for example, her manager should tell a story: "Because of her skill set, Jane was able to renegotiate much better terms on this contract we've had for years. Nobody else has ever been able to get them to agree to new terms."

Advocacy doesn't always mean elevating your staff in the eyes of others, however. You might conclude, for example, that one of your employees is in a role that doesn't suit her.

And managers aren't limited to advocating only for their direct reports.

Whenever someone is talking about someone else who's not in the room, he or she is being an advocate, Miles said. Ideally, in our hypothetical meeting, Sam's manager would not be his only advocate. Rather, everyone in the room would be able to contribute accurate information and knowledge about Sam. That way, if another manager misrepresented Sam using a stray anecdote, the group would correct that impression by drawing a complete picture of Sam and his skills.

Tam Harbert is a business and technology freelance journalist based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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