As a leader, how do you view your direct reports? Do you see them as colleagues, or do you see them as competitors? Although you might assume that leaders view their direct reports as colleagues more than competitors, this is not necessarily the case. I have encountered seasoned executives as well as individuals just beginning their leadership careers who look at their direct reports as competitors.

What is the reason that this happens? In my work, I have noticed three elements that contribute to leaders seeing direct reports as competitors. The first element is a driven/achievement-oriented demeanor. Those who are driven/achievement-oriented often prefer to accomplish things on their own. This is because they think no one will be able to do it as well as they can, or it will take too much time to show someone else how to do it in a way that meets their standards. The second element is overreliance on knowledge that helped the leaders get to where they are. They believe a large portion of their credibility and influence is based on their knowledge, and this credibility and influence will be diminished if their direct reports demonstrate similar knowledge. The third element is forgetfulness that part of their role is to help develop the capabilities of the organization including people who work around them (i.e., their direct reports).

If you are a leader who has a tendency to see direct reports as competitors, consider the following actions:

Question Your Assumptions

Although there might be a few direct reports who in fact are competing with you or may aspire to fill your job, this is not true of every direct report. Capable, intelligent direct reports will want to use their skills and continue to develop them. So, it is very likely that they are not trying to outdo you or take over your job—they just want to continue to grow and be challenged.

Clarify Objectives

Take some time to understand where your direct reports are coming from, and share your perspective. For example, talk about what you are trying to accomplish in your role and how they are an integral part of making this happen. Ask them how important they believe it is for everyone to be pulling in the same direction and what suggestions they have for enhancing alignment. If there are potential examples where it seems there was more competition than collaboration, address the examples in a casual, matter-of-fact way then agree on productive next steps.

Get Things Done through Others

Regardless of your place in the leadership hierarchy, it will be difficult to consistently fulfill your responsibilities in a first-rate manner entirely on your own, especially if you are in a growing and/or fast-paced organization. I am not saying you can’t try, but realize the risks of doing so. Leaders who have tried to do everything often encountered personal burnout, found key details were missed, or noticed that quality suffered. A better strategy is to adopt a coaching and delegation mindset to help you lay out objectives and the parameters for meeting them. Then give your capable direct reports the opportunity to use their skills and expertise to figure out the best way to accomplish the objectives.

How you show up as a leader impacts the degree to which your direct reports are allies rather than adversaries. This includes how you perceive your direct reports and how much you treat them like valuable collaborators.

Related insights:

Conduct a Leadership Self-Audit


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: P1050275, Flickr)