Defend Your People So They Can Soar


Film: Dumbo

Release Date: October 31, 1941

Scenario: Mrs. Jumbo has just received a delivery she’s been waiting a long time for: a baby from the stork!  Little Jumbo Jr is being adored by his mother and the other female elephants when his nose gets tickled, causing him to sneeze and expose his over-sized ears.  The pretentious pachyderms take no time in switching from fawning over the little one to laughing at him, even changing his name from Jumbo to Dumbo to further mock the poor tyke.  Mrs. Jumbo immediately rushes to his defense, removing him from their sight and closing the door to their pen.

Leadership Lesson: Always stand-up for your associates.

It happens every day, unfortunately, and far too often: we’re in a meeting, large or small, and someone makes an off-handed, negative comment about someone else in the company (who usually is not present to defend themselves).  It sounds unprofessional in theory, but is far too commonly allowed (if not accepted) in practice.  No matter how true the statement may be, the presentation really is not doing anyone any good.  We all have at least a small amount of knowledge regarding how to give constructive criticism, but often times we don’t hold our colleagues (both above and below) to a standard of practicing it.  (For more information on easy ways to provide face-to-face constructive criticism, see my previous post regarding the importance of providing regular feedback.)

When such comments are made about individuals on other teams or in other departments, we may feel uncomfortable coming to their defense.  We may feel that we don’t know the person well enough, or that it isn’t our place to interfere.  However, if remarks are made about associates in OUR care, we have no excuse not to come to their aid without question.  As I stated before, there may be truth to what is being said, but we can certainly protest the manner in which it is being presented.

There are many moral and ethical reasons why we should not allow anyone to speak negatively about our team members, but the biggest reason is this: our teams will always find out.  Whether we do or don’t come to their defense, word will get back to them about what we allow to happen when we’re in meetings.  If they find that we don’t stand-up for them, they will feel that we don’t care about them, that we can’t be trusted, and even possibly that we agree with the comments being made.  This will lead to decreased morale and a team in shambles.  So, beyond the question of right and wrong, guarding our people creates a stronger relationship, a stronger loyalty, and a stronger team.  This will also have a  positive impact on productivity, both individually and as a whole.

One of the biggest challenges here can be to project the courteous and professional manner while intervening that we are asking the other person involved to display.  After all, the old adage of “Lead by example” is true in every situation, isn’t it?  If we can’t discuss the improper conveyance in a civil, professional manner, we certainly can’t expect to be taken seriously.  The best formula for responding in this situation is as follows:
1. Politely ask the other individual to refrain from making negative comments about members of your team.
2. Offer to discuss the matter with them privately at a later time.
3. Assure them that you will personally address their concerns with your associate(s) after the discussion.

Let’s take a look at a sample scenario to put this in to practice: we are in a meeting of managers, and we have just given our departmental update that all of our projects are currently on schedule.  Amanda, the manager of another department, makes a comment that she’s surprised our team is running so smoothly with “that idiot, Ian” being involved.  Ian is a hard worker on our team, but he is new, has a tendency to ask a lot of questions, and sometimes has to complete tasks 2 or 3 times to get them right.  It would be very easy to tell Amanda to keep her opinions to herself and move on, but that isn’t going to solve the problem.  So, using our formula, we respond this way:

Amanda, I would appreciate if you wouldn’t talk about members of my team in such a negative way.  If there is a problem with Ian or any other member of my team, I’d be more than happy to speak with you about it in private so that I can address any issues and resolve them.  Let me know a good time for us to schedule a meeting, ok?

To be a leader, we need people to follow us.  No one is going to follow us if they can’t trust that we will also protect them.  They won’t trust that we will protect them if we allow others to speak negatively about them in our presence.  Without that trust, our teams fall.  With that confidence, they soar on ears like elephants.


“Passivity is the same as defending injustice.”

-Deepak Chopra

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