“I’m not playing in the next game,” Tyler said to me, with tears in his eyes. “That was a ball.”
“It probably was a ball,” I said, “but it doesn’t matter. The umpire called it a strike. Sometimes the umpires are wrong and that’s just part of baseball. And striking out is not a big deal anyway. Even the best players make out more than half the time they get up to bat.”
“Well, I don’t care. I’m not playing in the next game,” he yelled.
To provide some context, the first game involved Tyler playing on his regular team, while the second game involved two of the other teams in town. One of the teams was short players and had asked if any of the kids wanted to stick around and play a double header. Tyler had volunteered and so we were on the hook for another two hours at the field — that is, until the strikeout heard round the world.
“Listen,” I said, getting angry, “you said you were going to play in the next game. And all those kids need you to play so they can have their game. You made a commitment and you’re going to stick with it. Otherwise … ” And with that I listed the litany of punishments that would befall the boy if he continued to balk.
As I was about to kick my fury into overdrive, my neighbor and friend Bill walked over (Bill also happens to be head coach of Tyler’s regular team). He had obviously seen our, let’s say, disagreement, and come over to lend a hand. Bill waived me away, so I walked down to the other end of the bench — out of earshot — and watched him talking to Tyler. After about two minutes, Tyler picked up his glove and ran past me into the field, throwing the ball around with his new teammates.
“What the heck did you say to him?” I asked Bill.
“I told him I’d struck out about a thousand times and it was no big deal. Of course, it wasn’t true,” he joked. “I may have struck out once, but probably not.”
“Son of a gun,” I mused. “Looks like that worked a lot better than my threats.”
“It doesn’t matter much what you would have said or what I would have said,” Bill said. “The fact that the message wasn’t coming from you was all that mattered. If my kid was upset, it’s be much better for you to talk to him than me.”
“I guess it takes a village,” I joked.
“It sure does,” Bill said.
As any parent knows, the above phenomenon is quite common. As parents, we are the ones constantly telling our children what to do and what not to do, and with that frequency first comes general inattention, and eventually, total tuning out. For another person to care enough to step in and help out can be a real gift.
As Kate and I have referenced many times in these columns, there are definite similarities between parenting children and managing employees. This is not to infantilize grown adults in the workplace but, nonetheless, the comparisons can be illustrative and valuable. In the workplace, it is not the parent but the leader who calls the tune, and sometimes that tune can get quite old, at least that’s how it might seem to a particular employee. Perhaps, like Coach Bill coming in and waiving me away to save the day, someone in the organization other than the leader can and should occasionally inject themselves into certain situations with the goal of diffusing them.
Of course, there are many factors that will determine if such an interjection is appropriate — including the people involved, the position of the person jumping in, and everyone’s relationship to the boss. The leader must be on board with such assistance by being willing to move down to the end of the bench if someone else has volunteered to take the baton.
As a leader, you shouldn’t want to handle every situation. You should want your surrogates to save you from becoming embroiled in every conflict and absorbing the attendant scorn that will get thrown your way whichever way you rule. You want your team — at least your top lieutenants — to let their fresh voices work their magic, rather than relying on your stale tones.
As leaders, what you should want are positive results. It’s been said that great things can be accomplished as long as no one cares who gets the credit. The same goes true for conflict resolution — sometimes problems can be best solved if someone steps up, and you step out of the way.