‘How to lead by garnering respect & tackling difficult conversations head on

‘I’m not your mum’: How to lead by garnering respect & tackling difficult conversations head on

Umpiring the minor grievances of a team can be exhausting, while allowing small issues to fester can be debilitating. Author Rachael Robertson speaks to Jane Lindhe about the much more powerful approach to leadership she’s developed that garners respect and gets results.

Having managed a team in one of the most difficult workplace environments possible, Antarctica, Rachael Robertson has some key lessons on leadership that can apply to the challenging times we’re experiencing right now.

She’s just published a new leadership book detailing one of the most powerful lessons learnt: that for leaders, respect trumps harmony. That starts by avoiding ‘triangles’ and tackling difficult conversations head on. 

In 2005, Rachael was not only the second woman to lead an expedition to David Station, she was the youngest. Leading a team in the world’s harshest conditions, including complete isolation, 24-hour darkness and temperatures of around minus 35 degrees Celsius, taught her numerous lessons, many of which relate to the current leaders as they grapple with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rachael Robertson in Antarctica.

She believes that having direct, difficult conversations in a timely manner will get results and garner respect. Gone are the days of not dealing directly with issues in order to “maintain harmony”. Such strategies, she says, lead to catastrophizing and exacerbate otherwise manageable problems.

No triangles allowed: have the difficult conversations

Rachael’s team in Antarctica were first-time leaders in varied careers, from tradesmen and engineers to scientists. When she started the role, Rachael had people approaching her daily to air their grievances about other employees. Some workers began relying on her for psychological support, leading her to say: “I’m sorry, but I am not your Mum.”

She jokes that at one point, the $30 million science program was at jeopardy over an argument over whether bacon should be soft or crispy when cooked.

In Rachael’s words, the constant umpiring of her team was “exhausting”, so she devised her now well-known “no triangles” strategy. It’s a simple premise that can easily be applied to workplaces today.

“I got them all together and I said: ‘from now on there will be no triangles. We don’t speak to third parties about other people. If you have an issue or something that needs to be discussed, you speak to that person directly,” she said. “It is very simple: it’s about having direct conversations. Many of these men needed to be taught how to do that. They were from the generation of avoidance: ‘if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all’.”

Respect trumps harmony

Rachael went about training the staff about how to have difficult, up front conversations when they needed to express something. A major part of that was teaching them to be aware of the language they used. For example, defensive language, such as: “everyone, no-one, always or never” is triggering for most people, leading to a defensive reaction. Instead, deal with facts. For example, she says: “Today you arrived at 10:35am when you were meant to start at 9am” will be received better than “you’re always late!”

Good timing is also critical. Many employees will often choose to let issues in the workplace “fester”, instead of having direct conversations about the problem at the time, she says. Instead, a productive way of dealing with issues is to literally write a script of the conversation at home, and then arrange to meet with the person at work at a mutually beneficial time. “Whenever I need to have a discussion like this, I always write out my opening argument first. It is really effective,” she says. “Also, having these conversations in an open plan office, for example, wouldn’t be a good idea. Do it privately.”

Rachael Robertson's book Respect Trumps Harmony
Rachael Robertson’s book Respect Trumps Harmony

Leaders today must focus on visibility and accountability

Political leadership throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been variable, Rachael says. Leaders now need to focus on “being seen to be leading” and being accountable during errors of judgement. That means being present in the community, giving regular updates and being available to give guidance and answering questions at all times, she said.

In Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews case, she says that while he didn’t directly contribute to the second wave of COVID-19 he has taken accountability saying publically: “I am accountable”. Similarly, when former Chief Police Commissioner Christine Nixon was seen out for dinner during the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires she said “I am accountable”, irrespective of the fact that it was not her direct responsibility to be part of the firefighting effort.

Rachael herself had a similar decision to make when the team she managed in Antarctica encountered a plane crash. Her initial desire was to return to her office and try to manage the rescue effort alone. Instead, she positioned herself as the face of the crisis, ensuring she was with her team and ready to give information and answer questions. Without face-to-face leadership, teams can quickly lose confidence and can tend to catastrophize, she says.

“I had no idea what I was doing. But if I have said that to my team, it would have been a mess,” she said. “I needed to be out there leading and showing that I was with them. They needed me to be the face-to-face contact.”

Back yourself: your skills are more valuable than you think

Women should “back themselves” when applying for leadership positions, even if they do not meet all the skills or experience criteria of roles advertised, says Rachael.

With a background in journalism and public relations, she says she was reading the careers section of the newspaper back in 2004 when she was immediately drawn to an image of a penguin. The advertisement was to manage the Australian Davis Station expedition in Antarctica. The position was for a leader with resilience and empathy attributes –which Rachael had. However, she thought she had “no hope” of getting the job as she had no experience in Antarctic science.

“I thought: ‘I’ll interview, I will steal their interview questions, learn some things and take them back to my team at home,” she said. “Little did I know they had no interview as such, it was a week-long boot camp.”

Rachael says around 163 people applied for the job and only a handful of people were selected to go to the boot camp. She was the only female and felt she had far less relevant experience than other applicants.

“They said: you’re not running a science program, you’re managing people. You just need to know how to manage people: we can teach you Antarctica.”

Her friends and family questioned why she would agree to live in one of the world’s most isolated places in such extreme conditions. “My Mum was devastated when she asked: ‘when can we visit’ and I said: ‘well, you can’t.”

Her response as to why she accepted the role is something that can be applied to women everywhere when considering if they are doing the right thing, career wise.

“It’s better to regret what you did, than to live wondering and regret what you didn’t do,” she says.

Rachael Robertson’s Respect Trumps Harmony, Why being liked is overrated and constructive conflict gets results, is published by Wiley and available at Booktopia.

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