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The Power of Sustainment

Perhaps it comes from my experience in working in the Department of Defense, but I have come to appreciate a simple facet of Relationships called Sustainment.

The concept is seemingly obvious, yet so often lost and forgotten. Simply put, one must always provide respect upwards to leadership, laterally to peers, and downwards to subordinates.

If you have ever been in the situation where somebody is presenting a topic or concept, and their supervisor (or perhaps even you) states something to the effect of, “I haven't approved this yet,” then you have just witnessed a relationship withering because that manager did not provide sustainment.

It is okay to have a disagreement of opinion, but to contradict or act against another’s influence, whether they are present or not, is the easiest way to lose respect—both with them to you, and with others.

The subtlety of Sustainment is hard to fully comprehend. It is in the small messages we send, perhaps even without intending to do so.

Once when I started with a new team, after coming directly from the consulting world where we provided weekly activity reports as part of our contract, I asked my team to provide similar reports to me. My fears were that I didn't know what the team was doing, and I could not correlate the team's actions to what the customers were saying about the team's results. I didn't want to be surprised with a claim from a customer about what somebody on the team was doing, and not be able to support the team properly.

However, the team did not like the idea of doing weekly reports. They had never been required to do this before, and they feared it would take up time they didn't have. So they circumspectly went up another level to my superior, Roland. He listened to their concerns and neither contradicted nor sustained the weekly report requirement. His passive action left them feeling he had authorized them to not support the reports, because he didn't sustain the effort. Over the next few weeks, things digressed as the team members found reason after reason why the report wasn't working. They didn't like the formatting, and in general resisted the effort, to the point where I finally suspended the effort. Yet even though it was dropped, it left a seed of frustration in the entire team which took more time to resolve.

This would have worked much better if instead Roland had sustained the request by asking those who came to them the simple question and statement, “Did he ask you to do it?”

Perhaps a reluctant answer, “yes.”

Followed by his simple sustaining statement, “Then do it.”

If Roland had any concerns, he could have brought them directly to me. With this corrective feedback and understanding, I could have then couched the request to the team in a more understandable manner. I could have solicited feedback from the team to learn how they might be able to help me alleviate my fears, but in a manner more acceptable to them. However, without this sustaining cycle, the overall effort faltered and fell apart.

It can be more overt than this, however. I was once in a meeting where Erin, a project manager, was leading a conversation with customers. Isaac, an engineer on the team, raised a question and asked, “Perhaps we could review the original designed use cases, and it might -” at this point the Erin cut Isaac off and she declared, with some emotion, “I don't see any value in that, at all.”

The room was quiet, and things were a bit uncomfortable. The message was clear—Erin was closed to input, her mind was fixed, and she had no respect for her peers. This disrespect changed the rest of the tone of the meeting, and not for the better.

Sustainment goes all directions. If somebody is discussing or presenting information that feels contradictory to your understanding or belief, the wrong course of action is to correct them in front of everybody, and it is even more wrong to circle around to their audience afterwards and solicit their thoughts (see: Dangerous Allies). Regardless of your position in the organization, this corrodes relationships.

In any scenario where there is a difference of opinion, the best course of action in the moment is to leave the original assertion without contradiction. It is rare for somebody to say something so damaging it cannot be repaired at a later time. Follow up with a private meeting to reconcile the differences. Work through things with the individual, using empathy, to learn the reasons behind their position, with an ear to the fact that yours may be the wrong belief.

Importantly, if a correction must be made, the same individual who made the incorrect assertion should make the correction. This is the person who reaches out to the original audience and clarifies their mistake.

This last step is extremely important. If a somebody made a mistaken claim, gave an improper direction, or perhaps just was working in a direction you disagreed with, then stepping out and making the correction yourself will geld them.

Empowering them to correct the situation, on their own, strengthens your relationship with them and strengthens their relationship with their peers.

As a leader, in addition to sustaining your subordinate's choices, it is important to recognize the chain of command downwards. It may seem useful to side-step one of your direct reports and work with their own subordinates, but when you do this without their involvement, you undermine their influence. This process of sustainment downwards is crucial, and sometimes means you say and do less, not more. A statement or word spoken by a peer may carry a common weight, but when spoken by a leader people will conflate the importance or criticality of what was said.

Sometimes, a common tactic to avoid direct confrontation is to encourage peers to act in conflict. This is demonstrated with a scenario where an executive, Mara, wished to enact a change to how her organization worked, but did not know how to make it happen because most of her direct reports liked the process already in place. Furthermore, the responsibility for this process was delegated to Beverly. But Mara had found an ally.

This is demonstrated with a scenario where an executive, Mara, wished to enact a change to how her organization worked, but did not know how to make it happen because most of her direct reports liked the process already in place. Furthermore, the responsibility for this process was delegated to Beverly. But Mara had found an ally.

James, a peer to Beverly, sympathized with Mara’s desire to change the process. She then encouraged James to act contrary to Beverly’s authority, yet did not communicate this direction to Beverly. James felt empowered because Mara had given him direction on something they both agreed upon. But his actions usurped the authority of Beverly, creating confusion and friction in the organization. Beverly then acted to elevate visibility to the friction with meetings and discussion that further frustrated everybody over an issue they felt was already resolved. Beverly was confused, asking Mara why James was being so ‘political.’ The overall result was fear and stress on the entire organization.

The problem here was not Beverly’s or James’ in how they dealt with the situation. It was Mara’s lack of respecting and sustaining Beverly, and she also missed most of the principles discussed in the section Delegate with Success, while also falling into the mistake of seeking Dangerous Allies.

The simple process of Sustainment creates a chain of respect that works all directions. If you want respect, you must give respect, both up and down the chain of command, as well as with your peers.

Consider through your working career if you have seen any of these scenarios play out. Have you perhaps ever acted in a manner that may have lacked sustainment to your direct reports, your peers, or your superior? Were there other ways that you could have accomplished your goal, and sustained them instead?