This is one of my notes from the MIX Mashup event. It was something that Terri Kelly, the CEO of W.L. Gore and Associates said. Well, technically she said “associates” and not employees. At Gore, there are only two titles: associate and leader (and it’s the associates who determine who the leader is, by the way, not other leaders).

But even in an organization as flat as that, Kelly was concerned about the idea of shielding employees from tensions. I don’t remember (nor did I write down) the specific context in which she said this, but it makes a lot of sense to me. Leaders and managers have to make a lot of tough decisions and deal with a lot of tension. That’s part of the job. Deciding which department gets an additional staff member. Figuring out how to structure the work or design the processes. You’re always balancing tensions because there is rarely a single, obvious right answer. It’s a lot of give and take.

And generally speaking, the managers shield the employees from all this tension. At one level–protecting the emploeyes from interference–that’s a good thing. Let’s say there’s a manager who’s got cold feet about a new strategic direction and is now questioning your department’s activities. That should be dealt with among the managers. No sense in sharing that with the employees. It would only confuse them or get in their way. The managers need to work on their own clarity and commitment to the strategy. I am a big fan of making it the manager’s job to clear the path so the employee can get the work done.

However, this can easily evolve into the manager taking too much on and insulating the employee from some important realities in the system. What if that manager’s objection was not just cold feet on the new strategic direction. What if given the new direction, some of the new activities in your department ended up causing some real friction with the work of the other department. Expenses and time were going up unexpectedly. Now one (or both) of the departments needs to change the way they are doing things.

This is the kind of tension I DON’T want shielded from employees. I want them to be in the middle of it, experiencing the tension so they can help figure a way through it. When there’s tension about how to allocate resources I want them to be in the middle of it. When there is tension about how to solve tough problems I want them in the middle of it. When there is tension about strategic emphasis I want them in the middle of it.

Now, you may argue that this makes it messy. It takes up people’s time. It makes it harder to schedule your day or week. Yep. But such is life in today’s complex environment, and the more we try to shield our employees from that complexity, the WEAKER we make them. I want strong employees, ones who can jump into a complex, tense situation and work through it. I want employees who are okay hashing something out BEFORE the clear results are in (because that’s where the critical decisions are made). So yes, shield them brom the crap, shield them from the petty politics, and shield them from the distractions. But give them the important tensions. Trust them to handle it. That’s how their capacity for it will increase.


Jamie Notter