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Skillful Neglect: A different kind of resolution

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

On a recent weekend run with my two dogs, the hound stopped suddenly to sniff around a telephone poll and the leash, which was wrapped around my hand, caught my ring finger and yanked it to the side. I heard a noise, felt pain, and I reversed course to head home. I iced it, taped it, and went about my business (after a quick cry because it HURT.) A couple days later, when neither the pain nor the swelling had subsided, I called my primary care office to get an evaluation. Thankfully, they fit me in same-day and took an Xray. The nurse practitioner, whom I adore, returned to the exam room to tell me that I had, indeed, fractured my ring finger – and that the Xray revealed another issue: a noncancerous tumor in the bone. Because the fracture had occurred at the site of the tumor, called an enchondroma, she wanted me to consult an orthopedic hand specialist.

As I sat in the waiting room waiting for my second appointment that day, I did what most anyone with working internet access does when they learn of a medical condition – I searched for more information: symptoms, diagnosis, treatment. I came across a London medical practice that offered two ways to deal with this issue, which usually goes undetected and is harmless to the body in most cases: You can get surgery to remove the tumor, sometimes also inclusive of a bone graft to strengthen the area so it will not break again; or you can leave it alone. The term they used for the latter option was skillful neglect. It was not a term I’d heard in any American medical material, but bells starting ringing as I read it, as the term so brilliantly described a leadership skill I admire when done well: the practice of not intervening, of watching and waiting.

We constantly cycle between three phases: observation, assessment, and intervention. I see my child walking toward the street. I assess that he knows to look both ways. I decide not to yell. I hear a car coming. I assess that he does not see it. I yell, “car!” It is the same at work, as we watch our teams work through problems and assess whether, or how, to involve ourselves in it. Not intervening is a form of intervention, and one that can be really useful.

Skillful neglect is not the same as avoidance. It does not mean pretending an issue doesn’t exist; in fact, it requires you name and understand it. “Ms. Stanley, you have a noncancerous bone tumor.” It requires your thoughtful, informed assessment that particular interventions won’t be useful right now. Maybe later, maybe never, maybe something you haven’t thought of yet, but not you, not this, not now. It requires that you watch and wait, that you give it your attention, ready if the time comes to act in a new way. My doctor will keep watching my finger, assessing how it heals, and we’ll make a decision together about whether further intervention makes sense. In the meantime, I will keep my hand in a splint, custom-built to support my hand and allow for movement.

How we decide what to do, and when, is inextricably linked to our values and goals, and any intervention will require us to give something up. For two employees struggling through a problem, if what I want is for them to develop their own skills, their own sense of direction, and strengthen their collaborative bonds, then I’ll choose to back off, giving up the control I’d have solving the problem myself. With my children, when I value their learning over expediency, skillfull neglect is often the path I take as I allow them to struggle through a problem with a friend or with virtual math problems. To not rush in to fix the issue requires restraint as I’m often tempted by expediency, control, and precision.

As we begin this new day, this first day of 2021, many of us are designing interventions into our own lives in areas we want to change. Diets and new workout regiments begin. Marketing emails go out to hopeful new customers in a new business venture. Appointments with bosses are made to announce resignations. Perhaps you have some steps you are taking to correct a problem or plow new ground in the direction of a dream. Perhaps you have new energy building around how you will change your part of the world and you are building quite the impressive to-do list.

As you do, consider also what action you will refrain from taking. Consider which parts of the problem or idea you might allow to rest, to hold in a kind of leadership splint: supporting them, allowing their gentle movement until it is time for something else. In this time of eagerness to act, where can you practice skillful neglect, watching and waiting? Where can you practice not doing? We resist eating a tomato until it is ripe in service to our own satisfaction. We resist interrupting a child working through a puzzle so she can solve it on her own, in service to her growing patience, confidence, and independence. What in your life will benefit from your restraint?

Coaching relationships are great places to explore your values and goals and figure out what kind of interventions will serve you and your team the best. Coaches can also help you through the awful hard part of having patience while you watch and wait. (I know, I have darkened my coach’s door many times for those moments.) If you’d like to learn more about how this works, please reach out.

Happy New Year!

Photo credit: Cara Shelton, courtesy of Unsplash. Not my actual Xray. :)

Website where I discovered the term skillful neglect:

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