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The Coaching Corner with Michael Riegel: Sometimes You Need Sharp Elbows

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As legend has it, early in Bill Russell’s career, he was getting pushed around the court. Red Auerbach called a time out and told him to go back in and “throw an elbow” at the offending player. Russell resisted and after the second time giving the direction, Auerbach said “you only have to do it once.” His point was that he had to demonstrate that he would stand up for himself and that he was willing to go to that measure to do so. Is the story true? I can’t confirm it, but I will give the benefit of the doubt. Auerbach and Russell delivered 11 championships in 13 years for the Boston Celtics, which is painful for me as a New York Knicks fan.

This story came back to me in a conversation from a new, younger team member who was being pushed around professionally. Her officemate felt that her tenure with the organization, her age, and her relationship with their supervisor entitled her to act in a domineering manner. The young woman was at a loss for how to deal with the situation and then I remembered that, sometimes, sharp elbows can be a valuable tool in your toolbox. Proverbial sharp elbows, of course. So when might you want to bring out those elbows?

Respect is a Two-Way Street

It can be easy for more established team members to fall into the trap of assuming greater stature and responsibility. They may not be aware of your skills and abilities and the attributes that your organization identified as being valuable. If you are not getting the respect or deference commensurate with your position, start with a direct conversation. Have the conversation as close to the incident as possible. Reflect back the offending attitude, language or tone being used.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Having been around construction sites for 30 years or more, there are times when the joking verbal volleys, or use of certain terms go outside the bounds of acceptability. This often happens with intact teams and the closeness that develops. The familiarity can lower awareness of a comment's impact. Think about how you might say something to a family member that you would never utter to a client. Maintain a level of professionalism and remind the person that they went over the line.

These are just two potential situations that you might encounter that require some firmer boundaries. It is not easy or comfortable to accomplish. Recognize that you will likely be the team leader in the future. Learn from the experience to ensure that your team members feel heard, supported, and can approach you confidentially. Start with a private conversation before elevating the situation. If there is awareness, respect, and mutual respect, the likelihood is that it can be rectified quietly.

Let me know what situations you have encountered that had you “sharpen your elbows” and how it turned out. As always, you can reach me at

Michael Riegel


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