I quite frequently hear the comment from my delegate customers: “I really wish my boss would be more supportive. He/she needs to be present and on my side/by my side”. Whilst I mostly agree with those making the commentary, there’s a fundamental difference, however, between the two phrases – “by your side” and “on your side”.

“By your side” conveys the possible meaning of being alongside someone, offering support and encouragement. It suggests that the boss cares and is eager that the subordinate performs well. It carries the imagery of a coach who is there to assist you with a form of practice that will translate into improvement actions.

“On your side”, on the other hand, could potentially mean one of two things: positively – “I am committed to you and I believe in you”; negatively (if taken to the extreme) – “I will always stand up for you and protect you, no matter what”. The positive expression of being “on someone’s side”, where the boss sees the potential in the subordinate and therefore facilitates the environment for the subordinate to reach a desirable destination, could be really encouraging and inspiring for the journey ahead. The negative form of the expression, however, implies potential favouritism, a lack of objectivity in the relationship and the possibility of overlooking mistakes and poor performance. The boss always needs some objective distance in the relationship to be able to confront subordinates regarding inappropriate behaviour and not meeting performance expectations. This confrontation need not be punitive or disempowering, but it does need to be firm – “these are the performance standards and expectations. The current data that we have is suggesting that you are falling short in the following areas … Let’s discuss what you can do to change this”.

Supportive leadership implies the following actions:

  1. Authenticitythis is what the company stands for (in terms of vision, mission, values and strategic direction) and so do I, so you can trust me to talk to you about your performance in relation to company expectations honestly.
  2. FairnessI will always treat everyone fairly in the company and give all my subordinates opportunities to excel. I will not take sides or favour anyone.
  3. Genuine careI want to see you grow your skills, improve your perspective and develop your career. I will treat our relationship as a set of learning opportunities.
  4. RespectI will uphold the dignity of everyone and respect all subordinates. I will communicate respectfully with you.
  5. Removing obstacleswhere possible, I will attempt to remove unnecessary bureaucracy and meaningless reports and rather create an empowering environment where you can give of your best.
  6. Vision impartationI will give you sufficient information so that you are able to relate your job role to the “bigger picture” of the company and its plan to get there.
  7. Presencewhilst I will not always be available, I am accessible. I will attempt to listen to you with emotional understanding. I will, however, not allow you to become dependent on me as this is not only unhealthy, but also stunts your growth.

Supportive leadership is the facilitation of a progressively-engaging environment where every subordinate can grow, perform their roles well and excel in their respective careers. Leaders should develop this performance culture deliberately.

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