This Year: Give the Gift of Space


Not sure what to get your team this holiday season? Show your appreciation of their capabilities by giving them more space to produce their very best work. Like the infamous Jelly of the Month Club, this is a gift that keeps on giving, the whole year round. Unlike the Jelly of the Month Club, this is a gift that everyone will cherish!

When leaders provide space, they are acting as liberators. This is one of the five disciplines of multiplier leadership that was uncovered by Liz Wiseman, a Top 10 thinker, as a result of her extensive research. Liberators create a safe environment that requires people to do their best thinking. In return, liberators receive the best and boldest ideas from their team.

Liberators deliberately create space for others to contribute. They do so in the following ways:

Adopt a liberator mindset. Creating more space for others begins with having the proper mindset. The most memorable example I have come across is Kathleen McGee, Chief of the Bureau of Internet and Technology at the Office of the New York State Attorney General.

Kathleen’s assumption is that “people are motivated adults who want to produce their best work.” As a result, her goal is to give her team “work that will change their lives.” Start by considering Kathleen’s assumption and identify how you would lead differently.

Release others by restraining yourself (aka play fewer chips). You certainly cannot create space for others to contribute if you are constantly contributing. Once you create space, resist the temptation of jumping in and consuming it yourself. Basically, don’t hog all the space for yourself!

Each week, Kathleen meets with her entire team (not just direct reports) and provides a forum for them to share case issues for group input. While she may have her own ideas of how to address each, she will rarely comment and instead let the team drive the discussions. As one member of her team noted, “this has allowed me to sharpen my thinking on cases and get different views.”

Start by planning where you will play fewer chips as outlined in a previous post.

Label your opinions. Within the traditionally hierarchical structure of government organizations, it can be natural for teams to act on the opinions of their leader. This can happen even when the leader’s intention was simply to share a thought – not knowing this may be received as a direction not to be questioned. To avoid these innocent misinterpretations, label and share your opinions as either soft or hard.

  • Soft opinions: when your idea or perspective is for consideration with others on a level playing field. These ideas are intended to be received with an air of safety to simply ignore or perhaps build upon.
  • Hard opinions: when you have a strong view intended to carry a lot of weight. These should be used sparingly and only when situations warrant.

When studying liberators, we discovered they provide space, with the expectation of receiving extraordinary work in return. As another of Kathleen’s team shared, “She gives us space to do our own work so we do not show up unprepared. We feel like we have been given a gift to have space.”

This year, forget the fruitcake and give the gift of space.


Jon Haverly is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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