Managing and Leading the Legitimate Other
by Deanne Duncombe
The notion of the Legitimate Other
Some time ago, I came across the concept of the Legitimate Other. This concept is a deeper way of saying “respect”. The expression Legitimate Other refers to accepting another person as they are in their current Way of Being without necessarily agreeing with their behaviour. For example, someone who is currently operating from a way of being that is based in anxiety will have different actions available to them than someone who is operating from a way of being that is based in ambition. Regardless of our personal judgments around their behaviours, if we hold an individual as legitimate we are accepting that their actions and behaviours are what the individual currently has available to them, and their way of being is not allowing any other behaviour to be available to them in that moment. This concept really resonated with me, and it felt beautiful and powerful.
My fascination around what it means to hold someone as legitimate has been quite strong and I found myself reflecting on the possibilities that become available for leaders and managers when holding their team members, colleagues and peers as legitimate. What happens in our interactions with others? Does it make a difference? I decided to explore this using some real-life experiences.
Not being treated as a Legitimate Other
Once upon a time, I had a new manager who, in my assessment, seemed to form opinions about my skills and ability, hold those opinions as truth and then take action from that “truth”. An example of this was one day when the billing team had alerted him to some issues with our timesheet data. There was a known process issue that contributed to incorrect timesheet data. Various people had assessed that it was not an easy issue to resolve, and so it continued to happen regularly. My manager gave the data to me and said that he expected me to fix it. He had not explained what the issue was so, instead of assuming it was the standard issue, I asked him what the problem was that we were trying to resolve. He replied with “The problem is that you are useless”.
I had experienced behaviour like this from my manager many times and I decided to say nothing in that moment and find other ways of understanding the issue and reaching a resolution. Reflecting on this time, my assessment is that this manager had formed an opinion about my competence and, by holding that opinion as a truth, he then took actions that, in my interpretation, included verbal abuse, swearing, and berating me regularly.
I sometimes wonder whether my manager thought that his approach would “whip me into line” and, as the individual on the receiving end of his behaviour, I can confirm that he achieved the complete opposite. I lost interest in the role, I lost respect for my manager, I became emotionally withdrawn, and I left the organisation. All of this because I felt that my manager had chosen to hold his opinions of me as truth, rather than seek to understand me.
So, how would it look to hold someone as legitimate and how might that be more useful? I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to experiment with this when I had a new team member join my team.
Leading from an orientation of the Legitimate Other
The new team member joined at a time when we were incredibly busy. There were people absent from the team, which resulted in this team member receiving somewhat of a baptism of fire. In my interactions with her, I felt that she was often putting up road blocks, complaining, becoming defensive, and reacting negatively to everything that I said. I felt certain that I was going to be having a performance discussion with the team member, potentially ending in her dismissal. Simultaneously, however, I was curious about the mood that she may be operating from. My suspicion was that our environment was very different to what she had expected, and she was feeling anxious about how she was going to be perceived in the organisation. I tried to reassure the team member that I understood that there were challenges, and I was hoping that this would make a difference to the behaviours that we were seeing.
In a team meeting one day, this team member became quite frustrated, declared that I was a very unsupportive manager and then proceeded to tell me, in front of the whole team, exactly what my failings were. In that moment, the thoughts going through my head were “It is time to commence performance management proceedings. This person is not being a team player and this behaviour is not acceptable”. Somehow, I also managed to remind myself that the individual was most likely operating from anxiety, and I took a deep breath and became curious about how they may be feeling.
If she really was operating from a mood of anxiety, then the behaviours I had witnessed made sense to me, and I could see that she would most likely not have anything else available to her from a mood of anxiety. After calming myself, I said “I apologise for anything that I may have done that has led to you feeling this way. I would like to stop this conversation here, and discuss it further, one on one and after this meeting, so that we can both understand what is going on”. When the meeting finished, I declared that we were going for coffee; I felt that being away from the office where the incident occurred would be useful for both of us.
Over coffee, I again apologised to the team member for anything that I may have done to cause her reaction. I then started to talk about some of the behaviours of mine that I felt may have led to her feeling this way and provided my interpretation of what I had been trying to achieve. I acknowledged that we had given this team member a baptism of fire, and I thanked her for her efforts in accepting that challenge. I declared my appreciation for everything that the team member had done. I then reinforced the message that I had tried to give a few days earlier – that I understood the challenges that she was facing and was happy to be supportive in helping her to meet these challenges. I also said that I had seen other team members face similar challenges when they had started in the team, so I really did want to support her, because I felt that I understood.
As I spoke, I saw what I interpreted to be realisation appearing across the team member’s face. She looked at me and said, “I can see that I have misunderstood you. When you said that other team members had faced these challenges, I thought you were judging me. It never occurred to me that you were actually taking care of me”. We then continued the discussion, and the team member told me of her fear and anxiety around the role. As I listened to her opening up, I was quite moved, and very grateful that I had opted to hold her as legitimate, rather than take action from my original assessments. At the end of the discussion, we talked about what would help her to feel more supported, and we put some actions into place to address this.
Reflecting on this incident afterwards, I felt quite proud about what we had managed to achieve in that discussion. Instead of holding as truth my opinions of the team member’s behaviours, I had tried to understand that they were possibly limited by a mood of anxiety. Doing this seemed to have been quite powerful. As I observed her over the next couple of weeks, I saw a team member who was contributing well to the team. She was completing her own learning after hours, joining in with jokes and laughs, trying to support others, and coming up with great ideas to support our customers and our organisation. This, in my assessment, was a brilliant outcome.
Interestingly, after the discussion with this team member, I was talking to another manager, who said “Well, that behaviour would have been grounds for a first warning from me. It is not acceptable, and we don’t tolerate it”. In response to this, I started to question myself. However, it was only a matter of seconds before I decided that I would stand by my approach. This team member had told me that I was occurring to them as someone who wasn’t understanding or supporting them, and my assessment is that pulling them aside and issuing a warning would have reinforced that. Also, my discussion with the team member left me with the assessment that they had been suffering somewhat, through anxiety, self-judgment, and their assessments of what they thought I was thinking about them. By understanding that this team member’s way of being wasn’t enabling her to operate at her most resourceful, and by being curious about what might be occurring for them, I think that we managed to achieve the best possible outcome for the team member and the team. I also think that we achieved this without impacting on my legitimacy. I didn’t ignore my opinions, and I was still able to take action relevant to those opinions. I believe that I did that from a place of concern and love for the individual, rather than from a place that may have only sought to address my own concerns and ego.
So, what does it mean to hold someone as legitimate? I think it is about putting aside our own judgements of the individual and becoming curious about what might be behind their behaviours. It is about operating from a place where possibilities can arise, rather than holding our opinions as truth and removing possibilities. It is about seeking to understand.
As I look back on the example of the manager who I assess didn’t hold me as legitimate, I wonder how our relationship could have differed, had either of us understood the concept of the legitimate other. Holding someone as legitimate is about interacting with them from a point of love and caring. In my assessment, that has to be a more productive approach than the more traditional method of holding on to apparent truths.
How might you currently not be holding others as legitimate?
What difference will it make to regard your team members, peers and colleagues as legitimate?
Deanne has an important leadership role in an IT company in Canberra, Australia. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org