Let Your Guard Down

Getting a person to let their guard down is not easy. Just verbalizing the words raises a person’s defenses. It’s as if the suggestion alone raises obstacles. First, a person has to consider the source. If a spectator advises a boxer—as he enters the ring—to let his guard down, the outsider probably doesn’t have the pugilist’s best interests at heart. The timing of the advice betrays a concern over a wager, not the boxer’s safety. Second, a person has to consider the setting. A young football player letting his guard down as he digs in to protect his quarterback is not good mental discipline; yet the same player must have the discipline—if he doesn’t want to repeat the same mistake on the next play—to hear the coach’s advice. No matter the timing, the player’s guard must come down to hear the coach. A good coach sets the right environment so that a player, or an employee, will be most receptive to the message. To get a person to let down their guard, a consistent, predictable, and positive coaching action works best—not words.

Coaching in Business

When a CEO calls an individual into his office for a discussion, critical dynamics are at play. The last thought that would cross most employees’ minds is to let their guard down as they walk into the corner office. In fact, in such a situation, it is both the “who” and the “setting” that raises barriers. Much to the chagrin of both, conflict may be the result when nothing more than good counsel was sought.

As an employee enters a corner office they wonder, “At this particular moment, is this my coach dispensing advice, or is this my leader dispensing a ‘thus sayeth the lord?’” If the conversation starts to rumble, the employee wonders if the executive across the desk has just touched gloves, as it were, and wants a good contest—no matter the outcome. Or has a winner been preordained?

One Chief Executive Officer’s Method

Watson Sr., the traditional founder of IBM, communicated to an employee entering his office in a non-verbal way that they should either let their guard down or put their dukes up. Mrs. Ruth Leach Amonette, describes in Among Equals Watson Sr.’s technique.

Once, he summoned me upstairs to his office and asked me to sit in the chair at the right side of his desk. This would be a friendly conversation, I knew. Had he asked me to sit in the chair on the other side of his desk, the conversation might not have been so pleasant.

She knew—in an instant—that her Chief Executive Officer was seeking advice. After he confirmed her thoughts, he summoned the editor and the entire THINK Magazine staff into his office—who were obviously now standing on “the other side” of his desk. He told them what needed to be done in the next issue. The editor, not realizing the side of the desk he was on said, “But we can’t implement that idea now for the next issue. The presses are rolling at this very moment.” To which Mr. Watson responded, “Well then, stop the presses, NOW!”

So in November of 1943, THINK Magazine rolled out an issue more like Readers Digest with entirely self-contained articles that always continued on the next page until finished—the reader would never again be asked to flip ten or twenty pages to read the conclusion of an article. The following month, THINK Magazine carried an article by the same Ruth Leach Amonette entitled “Women in Industry”. It displayed her new title of Vice President, International Business Machines Corporation. She had become IBM’s first female senior executive. If any CEO ever wanted to send a clear message that providing good advice in the corner office would advance a career, Mr. Watson knew how to accomplish it.

Setting the situation properly also ensures that diligent employees stand in their own defense. William Simmons in Inside IBM: The Watson Years writes a wonderful story about how he was (almost) fired by Mr. Watson but then promoted a few days later to Director of Product Planning. He found himself on the wrong side of the Chief Executive Officer’s desk after a real estate agent claimed that he and another IBMer had lied about a real estate deal. Watson Sr. looked at the two employees standing before him and said, “We have no room for such people in IBM—they are fired. Gentlemen, I’m sorry. I’m afraid you have lied to this man.”

While the IBMer next to him appeared terrified, Bill Simmons stood his ground. As Bill explained the circumstances, he saw the storm front slowly dissipate from Watson’s face. Then Watson said with a small smile, “I believe you have been economical of the truth, but that is not lying.” A few days later the Chief Executive Officer promoted Mr. Simmons to his new position at IBM.

Let your guard down, put up your dukes or get to work

Many employees become chameleons when threatened—they blend into their surroundings. But the last thing any executive needs is a company of employee-chameleons disappearing into the woodwork every time he or she enters the room. The daily life of successful leaders involves many transformations and, of necessity, they must assume different personas. An executive who is truly extracting the best from everyone must feel like a shapeshifter. There are times when a decision has been made and it’s time to move forward, there are times when advice and counsel are sought, and there are times when a sparring match is needed to reveal the weaknesses of an idea. If an executive hears discussion when he needs action, or notices a deathly silence when he requires advice, he should ensure the employees knows which side of the desk they are on. Employees need guidance to deliver consistent results—and consistent, predictable, positive, non-verbal prompts can set the right environment.

Trust relaxes a person’s guard. Never violate that trust. Landing a sucker punch when someone has let down their guard is a betrayal. And word of such an act travels fast. As a result, two of the most important characteristics a leader needs to lead have been damaged: trust and respect.

When a person lets down their guard, it is an act of trust.

Trust is earned. It is not given on demand.

Setting the right environment is important.

Respecting that environment is critical.

And great CEO’s get it.

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