When someone told me that they didn’t feel like I had their back, I was shocked. What exactly does it mean to have someone's back? Do they expect me to defend them unconditionally if they screw up? Do they want to know they can trust me if they take a risk? Is this a general behavior or does it apply to a specific situation? What does it look like when someone has your back?
When I received the comment about having people’s back, my initial reaction was that it seemed needy. Why do they need me to have their back? Do they think their actions need to be defended? And have your back about what exactly?
A former military friend explained that in battle, having someone's back means that they are focusing on shooting forward and you are making sure no one is sneaking up or shooting them from behind. Makes sense. But what is the analogy in corporate life? Perhaps you might say that someone is scanning for threats that might blindside you? I think it's a stretch. I think most corporate "having your back" is about forming a defensive alliance to protect each other no matter what. And I think that is potentially detrimental to the overall organization.
Enter...my son’s 4th-grade teacher. She asks the students to tell her if there’s trouble on the playground so that she can advocate for them. Ahhh now we’re getting somewhere. If she knows what happened from their point of view she can work to resolve it proactively. She lets the kids know, “if you don’t tell me first, it’s hard for me to be your advocate.” Now, this I can understand. She will advocate for them, but she’s not saying she will defend them at all cost.
I sketched up a set of principles for advocacy. Here they are:
If you screw up, take responsibility. In other words, if you screw up, no I don’t have your back. Pushing decisions to the people doing the work, also means that you take the responsibility that goes with it.
If we agree before taking action, I’ll advocate for you. If we have a conversation where you tell me what you’re doing and there’s a risk, and I agree that the risk is worth taking, then yeah, I have your back.
If I’m on board with the plan, and I know the risks, I can advocate. The difference I see between advocating and defending is that advocating leaves room for listening to the other side while defending implies a fortressed view that isn’t open to hearing others.
If something goes wrong, let me know asap. Like the 4th grade teacher, if I’m blindsided I don't have enough information to advocate for you. I might even say that you didn't have MY back! Arm me with the information before I’m confronted and I’m likely to help you. I believe this is the scenario when people say their boss doesn’t have their back because the boss doesn't jump to their defense. Help your boss have your back by giving them the info they need.
Has your boss had your back? Let us know how it worked out!