Posted: 19 Sep. 2019 10 min. read

Guardians in Hell: How to stop killing their potential

*This second post in a four-part series is about a Guardian (one of four Business Chemistry types), how the wrong work environment kills her potential, and what could be done about it. Read posts onethree, and four of the series, about a Pioneer, a Driver and an Integrator, respectively.

Once a Guardian named Gwendolyn was given one month to coordinate the creation of a website illustrating her organization’s vision and how they were living it. This was a high-profile project dreamt up by the board, and one that lots of stakeholders deeply cared about. Was Gwen an expert on websites with a deep understanding of the vision? Did she have a broad network of connections to draw upon? Did she thrive in the role of herding cats? Not at all. She was highly skilled in other areas, but she got this particular project because she happened to be standing nearby when it was assigned. From her Guardian lens, this wasn’t a fairytale about being handed a golden opportunity. It was a horror story.

The good news was that because of the tight time frame, there were lots of resources (also known as people) assigned to the project. This was also bad news—lots of people to coordinate, and every one of them with strong opinions, hellbent on expressing them energetically, and all at the same time. Everyone was looking to her to make quick decisions but Gwen could barely think straight in their presence. And they seemed to be present all the time.

Gwen and her team were provided the “gift” of a dedicated section of their open-space work environment in which to collaborate. Because so many important people had a stake in the project, the team was expected to be visibly working together on-site as much as possible. But that meant constant interruptions and no quiet place to think or to focus on the heads-down, detailed work that she, as a Guardian, typically excelled at. When she pointed this out to leadership they told her to stop being so inflexible—this is how innovative work gets done.

And the necessity of face time was the only expectation of the project that was clear. Beyond that, the whole thing was open-ended, with no structure or plan, and no definition of success, except that it needed to get done on time and that it be brilliant. But what did that even mean? Whenever she tried to get more clarity she felt pushed aside, the underlying message being that she should be able to figure it out for herself. When she pointed out inconsistencies, errors, or potentially problematic future implications of current decisions, she was answered with eye-rolls and the suggestion that she stop nit-picking.

And the vision? Well, that wasn’t quite set in stone yet either. Every other day it seemed that the language around the vision was changed, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. It represented a moving target, and yet the deadline didn’t move along with it, and no one seemed to understand that each time the vision was tweaked, there was a domino effect on all the other detailed elements of the project. At the same time, various members of the board and the leadership team kept dropping in spontaneously and expecting updates, which Gwen was never given time to prepare for. When they asked her to present at the leadership meeting, without prior notice, she balked, but they couldn’t understand the problem.

It wasn’t long before Gwen started to feel that her strengths and her way of working weren’t valued by her organization. She had started the project with a commitment to give it her all and produce a stellar product, but soon she was just hoping that this whole thing was some kind of nightmare that she’d wake up from. As her level of engagement started to wane, she gradually pulled back from actively working to make the project the best it could be. She overlooked inconsistencies and let them stand. She let little errors slip by. She stopped pointing out potential risks. She let go of the idea that she’d feel pride in her work and in the end, her goal became just to get through the project.

Gwen’s story is an excerpt from our book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships (Wiley, 2018), in which my co-author, Kim Christfort and I have an in-depth, back-and-forth discussion about the strategies leaders and managers can use to create environments where Guardians like Gwen can lean into their strengths and thrive.

Among these strategies are the following:

  • Provide pre-work, data, and information in advance of a discussion or decision
  • Share an agenda before meetings
  • When a change is required, acknowledge the potential domino effect on the details Guardians care about and explain why the change is needed
  • Provide clear expectations including what success looks like
  • Offer workspaces that provide permission to be alone, control over the environment, sensory balance, and psychological safety
  • Acknowledge the value of the Guardians’ work, which often involves more invisible tasks that keep the trains running on time
  • Pipe down and listen up so Guardians have a chance to process and don’t need to fight to enter the discussion
  • Ask Guardians to help solve any potential problems they identify



Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships on Amazon
This is an excerpt from our book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships (Wiley, 2018). Click the image to purchase the book on Amazon.

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.