Tips for High-Impact Teamwork: Four interpersonal stances during challenging situations

Tyler Reimschisel, Associate Provost for Interprofessional Education, Research and Collaborative Practice

by Tyler Reimschisel, MD

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, David Noble and Carol Kauffman describe four approaches or “stances” that leaders can take toward their interpersonal communications during challenging, tense or stressful situations. I think their work is pertinent to improving the effectiveness of teams, and in this Tips for High-Impact Teamwork article, I would like to briefly summarize their article. I also encourage you to take the time to read their full article. 

Noble and Kauffman quote the work of Charles Snyder and Shane J. Lopez which shows how our capacity to achieve our goals is increased when we can envision multiple distinct paths to success. With this in mind, Noble and Kauffman provide what they call four “stances” or approaches to interpersonal communications that leaders can use during new, challenging, uncertain or tense situations. 

The four stances are lean in, lean back, lean with, and don’t lean. The lean in stance is the stereotypical approach of a leader. In this stance, the leader takes an active and controlling approach by directing, delegating and confronting. The lean back stance involves collecting data, being analytical, studying the situation from multiple angles, asking lots of questions to gain a better understanding and delaying any direct action or decisions. In the lean with stance, the leader focuses on building relationships, showing empathy, caring, encouraging and coaching. In the last stance, don’t lean, the leader is simply still and does not act or take any steps to address the problem. Instead, the leader contemplates the situation, reflects on the challenge, visualizes the situation, practices reflection and otherwise avoids any action whatsoever. In this stance, a solution should arise from the subconscious over time as the leader lets the situation percolate in their thoughts.

The authors provide several examples of how their stances can be used. First, leaders or supervisors can use different approaches for different situations. Sometimes a more direct and proactive style is warranted, whereas in other situations intentionality around interpersonal connections and relationships should be the focus instead of emphasizing the task itself. In addition, some situations require the utilization of different stances at different points in the evolution of the situation. When the challenge first arises a lean back or don’t lean approach could be appropriate, then a lean in stance could be indicated when the leader and team have a better understanding of the nuances of the situation and are ready to act. In this case, the authors make the point that effective leaders are able to sense when a pivot to a different stance is appropriate. They also point out that leaders will frequently need to use different stances based on which team member they are working with. Each team member has their own personal styles, preferences and unique dispositions. Therefore, leaders may need to use one approach with one team member and a different approach with a different team member in the same situation.  

I really like this conceptual framework for different interpersonal communication approaches. First, it emphasizes that one size does not fit all. It also provides a nice image that can be used during a crisis to delineate quickly how we could act. I can easily picture in my mind’s eye someone leaning in various ways or not leaning at all, and this simple visual heuristic can be incredibly helpful during situations with patients, clients, or co-workers when stress can impact our cognitive load for decision making and effective communication.

I do have one critique of their approach that I would like to share. It is actually a common critique that I have about leadership literature in general. The authors write as if leaders need to be independently omniscient about which stance to use in a given situation or at a given time. It is as if supervisors have “super-vision” or super-human qualities. In my last article I wrote about emotional intelligence (EI), and Noble and Kauffman’s approach assumes that leaders must have a very high level of EI at all times to effectively apply the stances. Sure, some of us have a sixth sense of what to do and how to act during a crisis or dilemma. But I suspect that that is usually a leader simply defaulting to their natural tendency or predisposition for one of the stances. Engagement with a quick and decisive stance is not necessarily the best approach, especially if the leader always applies the same stance regardless of the dilemma or challenge. 

Instead of leaders unilaterally trying to decide which stance to implement, I would like to offer that they can engage with their teams in a discussion about which stance the team thinks would be best for the leader and each member of the team. Except in overt emergencies like a trauma or cardiac arrest where the work is highly scripted and protocolized, there is usually ample time for the team to pause and talk through as a team how to approach the dilemma. This does require the leader and team to dwell in a place of discomfort instead of reflexively taking action in order to get out of the uncomfortableness, but this pausing to huddle as a team is likely to be the prudent approach. 

As the team reflects on their current understanding of the situation and the stances, perhaps there is an opportunity for shared leadership so different professions, perspectives, or voices can work together to provide truly exceptional leadership. Or maybe different individuals can use different stances based on their roles and responsibilities to address the situation as an interdependent team instead of the traditional model where a single dominant leader is out in front with the rest of the team following along as near-voiceless minions. I think effective family meetings in a clinical setting use this approach because different team members bring their distinct professional training, lived experiences, and relationships with the patient and family to influence how the team engages is a productive dialogue with the patient and family.

I think framing the stances as both a leader and team decision seeks to flatten the hierarchical structure within teams. I am convinced that a diverse, interdependent team in which everyone has psychological safety and knows that their perspectives and skills are essential for the team’s success will almost always be much wiser than the greatest of leaders. And for those of us who lead but are mere mortals, this approach provides the freedom to be humble, stable grounding in an effective teamwork process, confidence in the capabilities of our teams instead of just ourselves, and emotional connection with our team members that I think leaders and teams can use a lot more of. 

I encourage you to read the article on the four stances by Noble and Kauffman. Then take the time to talk with your team about how each member of the team can apply the stances during your team’s work, especially when new opportunities or challenging situations arise.  


Noble D and Kauffman C. The power of options: always give yourself four ways to win. Harvard Business Review, January-February 2023.