One of the characteristics of the HYPER lab community and alumni is authority and ownership over projects. I work very hard to fulfill the role of coach, a.k.a. service leadership, and to not take ownership of experiments away from the people actually doing the work. This is a fine balance and requires lab wide standards to ensure safety and performance. This scaffolding is a key reason great students keep coming to the lab — freedom to own a difficult project with the necessary coaching and resources to succeed. This is very different from authoritarian micro-managing environments typical of business and academia in the US. Hence, the lab community has to continually practice to prepare our members to handle situations when dealing with authority.

Here are two common situations and how to handle them:

“We had a setback”

Having to tell your boss that something went wrong is always tough, and it happens to everyone that is working on the hard problems we need solved. How you handle this though is the difference between becoming the golden child and the scapegoat (all narcissistic authoritarians have both a scapegoat and golden child). It’s critical to NEVER use the default response of asking your boss “what do you want me to do next?”. This is tempting as it frees you from the responsibility of making a decision, but your boss probably already has enough of this.

Always propose the three best options weighted based on your justified preference. “We had a setback with the ____. I see three ways of handling this: 1…, 2…., 3……, I’m leaning towards ____ because _____.” Then wait for your boss to weigh in. This allows your authoritarian boss to still feel like the boss and being involved in your work WITHOUT assuming the responsibility of doing your work. Your boss is not paying you engineering salary for them to tell you what to do. In the worst case scenario, and all three of your solutions are failures, what will your boss have to do? Tell you what to do next. Don’t start this conversation by failing yourself. Do your best to impress and at the very least set the stage for good coaching and feedback.

“Feedback Received”

Another common problem is how you receive coaching/feedback/direction from a boss. Anybody can say “thanks for the feedback” as it is easy, however, this response does not return the favor of your boss’ valuable time spent working on you. Even worse, simply saying, “your feedback made a big difference” could come across as disingenuous. If your boss is worried about continuous improvement and systemic thinking, then they hopefully provide feedback via Strengths, Improvements, and Insights (SIIs). Reciprocating this is important. Dr. Chuck realized that it helps to go in reverse order to communicate that the feedback was correctly received.

For example, Boss says, “Your report has an excellent data analysis for the experiment (strength). However, the results section did not emphasize the sensitivity of the key variable (Improvement). If you follow this ASTM standard on sensitivity analysis you will naturally add a nice summary and important reference (Insight).” A great response to this would be, “Thanks! I was not aware of this ASTM standard (Insight). I had difficulties quantify the key variable sensitivity (Improvement). With the sensitivity issue solved the report should be complete and ready for submission later today (strength).”

Authority versus Service Leadership

A hallmark of the “Toyota Way” of continuous improvement is the ability of a boss to go down and work the assembly line with other workers. This empathic place-taking is key to actually understanding the problems faced by the community as we endeavor to continuously improve performance, and it’s only possible with a highly scaffolded and error-proofed work-flow. Lean has been slow to permeate in the US for a reason — our culture is obsessed with the idea of the cowboy-champion. Nearly everything about our culture/system is geared toward building these individuals, often at the expense of a sustaining community of empowered individuals. Remember our society’s view of what a “leader” is may not be what best helps your team to succeed. It’s one of the reasons I followed the Boeing lead and renamed the role of “leader” to that of liaison. Authority is important, but don’t fool yourself — sustaining communities are built upon independent mastery of the standards and rules of an organization. And to build that community, it takes a community.