I have been reflecting on this quote from Betty Williams, Nobel laureate, “One is a large number. If you can help one individual, one child, you will help ten. Because in the circle of that one person, there will be ten others that one will educate.” I speak of this as the ripple effect. Our actions have an impact on the world around us and, as leaders, what we can control is how we act and react.
Let me illustrate this through three scenarios. In each scenario, imagine that a supervisor has just come to you to alert you of a significant issue that has arisen in her department. We’ll explore your potential reactions and their impact.
Scenario 1: Your immediate reaction is visceral. Your tone becomes sharp and your words are expressed more quickly. You make it clear to the supervisor that you are displeased that this issue has occurred and with them for having brought it to your attention. In all likelihood, this supervisor is less likely to bring issues to your attention in the future. She may either react as you did when her staff bring issues to her attention or, at the very least, work to contain the knowledge of the issue to her department.
Scenario 2: You jump right into problem-solving mode. You’ve seen this issue, or at least one like it before, and have a strong understanding of the steps that need to be taken. Your tone becomes directive. You layout the steps to be taken and how you’d like to be kept informed. While the supervisor may have been able to interpret the process you followed such that she could apply it to similar situations in the future, the more likely outcome is that as problems arise, she will bring them to you for solutions. As a result, her team may learn to circumvent her and come directly to you for the answer to their problem.
Scenario 3: You get curious with the supervisor as to how best to handle the issue. Through a series of open-ended questions, you help her to explore the issue and options. You make it clear that you are a resource for her as she works to resolve the problem and you agree to a process for keeping you in the loop. By taking the time to teach this supervisor how to assess the situation and craft a game plan, you’ve given her tools she can carry forward. Perhaps the next time she comes to you, she begins the conversation by walking you through the process she’s employed and asks you to help her spot any gaps in her thinking. And, as her team comes to her with issues, she can practice employing this same, collaborative approach, helping her team build these diagnostic skills as well.
In each scenario, you were faced with the same situation, and the same actor, the only thing that changed was your reaction. And in changing your reaction — you changed the effect that dialogue had on not only the supervisor but her team as well.