Illustration of drowning hand making peace sign
№ 15

Lost in space

Reading time 6 minutes read
Drew Beamer - Experimental on Unsplash
After giving my two cents on the concept of time, obviously I need to move on to the other physical dimensions of being ;) So in this post, I will write about "space" and its meaning within leading humans. Practicing emotional agility is about being able to fluidly move around in space and constantly holding the optimal position to address the needs and expectation of the humans around you.

One of the more challenging aspects of leading and managing people & organizations is the breadth and variety of roles you need to take on and fulfill. Every single day you're confronted with an endless array of needs and expectations, sometimes articulated clearly, sometimes more clouded. But always it's your job to find the right role to address these expectations in the most effective way - with an ever increasing amount of different identities to juggle:
Sometimes you need to be the boss (in the more traditional sense of the word) and need to decide and direct, other times you need to be the cheerleader to hand out the pep talk, other times the buffer, when handling difficult situation or defend the team. Other daily roles include: the trash can for a myriad of worries and complaints, the buddy, the team mate, the critic, the coach, the mentor, the partner in crime, the sister in solidarity, the teacher, the challenger, the mirror, the assistant, the captain and many more (I increasingly feel like a therapist, but that’s an issue I will address another time).
And the thing is: to fulfill each of those role on their own is already challenging and hard. But what’s even more demanding is to constantly switch between all those roles, moving fluently from one to the next and knowing which to take in what context. So how do you manage?

What has helped me to move with more focus and settle in each role with purpose is to take 5 minutes before each meeting or interaction and ask myself what my role in the upcoming situation needs to be. Or what perspective I need to consciously choose to take, in order to be of most value to my team or to solve the issue most effectively. To avoid entering the context unconsciously and being washed up by waves of expectations I didn’t see coming, leaving me without orientation and tousled hair. And - in the worst case - not delivering on their expectation, causing confusion and wasted time in the best case, frustration and disappointment in the worst.
Everyone of us, being led by others, knows situations like these and has experienced them thousands of times.
You have been working on an idea too long and slowly, self-doubt creeps in. So you approach a trusted team mate because you want a quick feedback and a metaphorical pat on the back that you are working in the right direction. But instead they attack you with an endless list of questions, scrutinizing every detail around that idea and suggesting totally different ideas as alternatives. Leaving you not robbed off time but also with more self-doubt than before.
You had a difficult situation with a client of yours and invite your colleague to the next meeting in the hope that they will have your back, just in case it gets heated again. But instead of giving you support and strengthening your argumentation, they immediately take over and solve the issue by themselves leaving you not only disappointed in camaraderie but also looking incompetent in front of the client. You just don’t wanna be that type of person.

Sometimes we are not even consciously aware of what we need, let alone being able to communicate that clearly to others.

So you better make sure that as often as possible expectation and role are in synch because that’s the best way of having meaningful conversations of value. You might say: well, yeah, that’s true but isn’t the other person responsible for communicating their needs in a way that makes it clear how to address them?
Well, yes. Obviously, it’s also part of the other person to make sure that their needs are articulated. But how many people have you met in your life who are effortlessly able to do this? And how capable are you in clearly communicating what you need? - Exactly. Unless you’re a practiced yinyang-buddha-communication-specialist fluent in coaching language, most people aren’t. Sometimes we are not even consciously aware of what we need, let alone communicate that clearly to others. Because we never learned to do it or were encouraged to do that (Especially women.) So I don’t really count on that thing to happen magically anymore. And instead of assuming that people are these buddha beings and being disappointed every single time, I just take over part of that responsibility as well (it’s this empathy thing everyone is talking about).

As you know by know, I love to work with concepts, metaphors, images that give me presence and clarity. And what has worked very well for me in this context, is the image of space. For me, leading with emotional agility means becoming aware of the space around us and intuitively know which position and thus, which perspective to take to best answer the expectations around us. And adapt your communication and behavior accordingly. Sounds abstract, yeah but it’s not in application, so let’s deep dive into the spaceology of leadership.

There are five main positions you can take in relation to the people you work with.


1. At the front

Probably, this is the position that is most associated to that of the “classic lead”. The image that comes to our minds: A powerful person up front leading the way into the future and unknown territories with the team rallying behind them. Ironically, in our modern times this position is much less useful than it used to be (if it ever was). In our turbulent times of uncertainty, how advantageous can it be to put only one person at the front, not only loading all responsibility on their shoulders, but also limiting the perspective to one pair of eyes, trusting them to stay aware of everything happening there while also keeping the contact to the rest of the group in the back. I always imagine that person acting like a visitor at a tennis game. Rapidly turning their head back and forth, hoping not to miss a crucial ball. It's very tiring to be here. Nevertheless, this position still has its essential place in the space repertoire of leadership; it just needs to be used wisely.

Good position to be in:

When wanting to provide clarity in a situation of uncertainty or you want to inspire movement into a clear direction and get people excited. When you have made a decision and need to communicate it (not to be confused with when you want to involve your team in making a decision, see below). Or if you want to make them look up and look at the bigger picture. So in short, for presentations, vision talks and strategy updates of all kinds.
But it's also the place to be when you try to take off load of the team or when you are clearly taking over responsibility for a certain task.

Things to do here:

Take control and communicate with clear voice, in this space, it’s your time to talk and people will expect you to and will listen. Just be aware of the fact, that while you're at the front, the others are behind you, so you need to be conscious about addressing the distance between you. To be able to let them understand your perspective and share what you see, your communication should be as concrete, vivid, and descriptive as possible.

Wrong position to be in:

  • when giving feedback (especially critical one)
  • when working together or facilitating collaboration
  • when work is praised (there’s nothing more cringy when leads take the praise for their team, sorry, it’s their show, get in line or in the back)

[Important to remember: You’re supposed to be here much less often than you think.]


2. In line

In Line
In line

When you position yourself in line with your team, you equalize levels and experience and signal belonging and a collaborative spirit. You can't give orders from here, but by by taking hierarchy out of the equation, you can make space for meaningful conversations, for expertise to be shared and for personal growth of others than you.

Good position to be in:

This is the position I’m in most often — you could say it’s my default space (next to the lateral one). I'm here when giving feedback, when having face to face conversations, in collaborative project work, ideation sessions, when praising colleagues. It's also a good position to be in when shit hits the fan, because in bad times, it’s time to cuddle up and take the blow together.

Things to do here:

Communicate on eye-to-eye level and get everyone on the same page. That means listen more than talk yourself and actively try and take the perspective of your opposite. Match what you know/ assume with what you see and what's really there. Create trust by acknowledging what you hear.

Wrong position to be in when

you just want to focus on a one-way-street of communication or you are not able to or don't want to use the perspective of others, e.g. when you need to decide on your own (there’s nothing as poisonous as faking collaboration and pretending it’s a shared decision, when the outcome is already clear and the answer set in stone)


3. At the sideline

At the sideline

Although it’s close to the previous position, the side line positions is a completely different space to be in. You not only position yourself in distance to the team, but also in a kind of neutral spot. Observing from a distance, you don’t take a position meaning you also don’t take a stance.

Good position to be in:

It's the place to be when you aim at a (more) objective decision/communication. When you want to assess a situation neutrally or reviewing a situation. When you're asked to mediate a conflict within a team and you need to understand social dynamics. When being the cheerleader for great work.

Things to do here:

Don’t say much, observe and simply reflect back what you see. This position is never about you in that moment and your personal opinion doesn’t count and doesn’t help. Point things out that your colleagues might not be able to see, especially things that happen in between the group. Be a mirror.

Wrong space to be in:

  • when trying to inspire for change or a vision that includes you. With you at the sideline, people assume that you yourself are not invested = don't care.
  • when communicating/ announcing a decision (same rationale as before, it’s impossible to make an objective decision as a lead and pretending to just comes across as very arrogant).
  • when people ask you for clear direction or feedback. This is the consultant trap; it’s not very credible to know things better or share an opinion when you’re only at the sidelines. It’s possible to hand out feedback from here, but only if there is already a high level of trust in your integrity. Otherwise the response of the other person will be: how would she know? She’s always on the safe sidelines, easy to judge from there.


4. Lateral - in the back

First important lesson when you're at the back: no-one sees you until they turn. So this position is not at all about you. It’s about the people in front of you who don’t need to see or hear you constantly, but just sense that you are there if they should need you. Having their backs. Ready to step in when needed, but only when asked, not interfering. [You’re supposed to be here much more often than you would like.]

Good position to be in:

This is the perfect position to be in for coaching or mentoring and another default situation of mine, when it comes to responsibilities of the teams and people I lead. It's my default space for daily leading (people sense you’re present and aware, but you let people do their job by not interfering). When people present their work and look for acknowledgement and endorsement, you definitely should hide at the back and don't steal their glory.

Things to do here:

Shut up, let go, take a step back, trust your people. Be patient and let things run their course, give way and hold the space. Wait - maybe someone of your team will look back to you and ask for advice or just a nod of your head knowing that you’re there.
But refrain from caving in to your own need of asserting control and jump in. There’s another time to feedback, when you’re back in line with them.

Wrong space to be in, when:

  • Talking or trying to exert influence
  • You need to take over responsibility - you basically hide behind your team.


5. Taking the bird's view

You are in healthy distance of the system, able to zoom out and observe the whole and its inderdependencies.

Good position to be in:

When forming decisions and craving perspective, for taking yourself out of the system and being able to analyze situations without emotions and a healthy distance. So, also a very useful space when in conflict.

Things to do here:

Think, reflect, analyze. Digest & Make Sense. Breathe & Relax.

Wrong space to be in:

When doing anything else than reflect. No-one hears or sees you here ;)

And in the best of cases, this movement resembles not a rigid game of chess, but an elegant dance, where everybody moves around lightly and gracefully, in synch and in rhythm to the music.

So, every time I’m about to step into a meeting or a conversation or a situation, I ask myself: What space do I want to be in? Where do I tend to naturally move to and where does the team need me to be (instead)? How much presence belongs to me, and how much space belongs to the others? Obviously you can move beyond those four direction and take any position in between and additionally, you can zoom in and out. Sometimes this is necessary, even within one conversation or within one meeting. But it’s always good to start with a clear stance that I take very consciously according to the expectations and needs that I sense/know to be present.
And in the best of cases, when I listen closely and empathize deeply, this whole movement doesn’t resemble a game of chess where heavy figures are forcefully drawn across the board, but instead an elegant dance, where people follow basic steps but everybody moves around lightly and gracefully, in synch and in rhythm to the music.

PS. Small hint, in case of doubt: It doesn't hurt to ask. No-one has ever blamed anybody for asking explicitly: Where do you need me to show up? What do you expect from me?

Illustration take away box

Key Takeaways

  • What is my default space? What position do I tend to draw towards because I feel comfortable there?
  • What is my weak space? What position do I feel most uncomfortable to hold?
  • What are cues that could help me move around?
  • Where does my team need me to be located more often and in what contexts?
  • Where am I most effectively addressing the pressing issue and most effectively in answering my people's needs?