Your Team Can’t Manage Itself

One of the most insidious pieces of advice in modern management is to “stay out of your employees’ way” and “let them do their best work”. The intention is to display trust in the people working for you and, perhaps more importantly, avoid the dreaded label of micromanager.


Here’s the problem with that.


Many managers who take a more hands-off approach are surprised when employees push back at any feedback they do eventually receive. These employees, particularly young employees, are often labeled as overly sensitive. But the resistance is typically less about the feedback itself and more about the timing of that feedback: Why give a direct report the freedom to create their own plan and timeline, only to derail that plan with your thoughts and opinions late in the process? That information would have been more valuable before the employee started going in the wrong direction, for everyone involved.


This type of leadership comes off as careless at best and manipulative at worst.


Managers are primarily responsible for making sure the work gets done, but their role in today’s highly collaborative and interdependent workplaces goes far beyond that. Self-managed employees may feel they are the authority on their own work, but if they exist in a vacuum of self-accountability, they will struggle to feel engaged. Employees today want to know that their efforts are effective and will result in a final product that is valuable to the right people—not just themselves.


If you’re a manager dealing with employees you’ve labeled as having a participation trophy problem, it’s time to take a step back and examine how your approach is exacerbating the issue. These are four steps you can immediately take to rebuild true trust and confidence on both sides of the management relationship.


Establish an ongoing routine for giving focused and specific feedback

People thrive on the familiar and comfortable structure of a focused routine, especially in relationships with authority figures. The routine doesn’t have to be pretty, but it does have to be something you can and will maintain on an ongoing basis.


Don’t ever let these meetings become long or convoluted. Make it clear that your meetings will follow a fast and tidy agenda, preferably the same basic format every time. Have your team member prepare an agenda in advance of what they want to discuss with you. But more importantly, be crystal clear on what specific items you want to discuss with them.


Don’t waste time warming up to the real conversation

These routine one-on-one meetings should be cordial but all business. This is not the time for chitchat.


Don’t waste these meetings shooting the breeze, pretending to be friends, or worst of all, talking about deep personal matters. These meetings should not become therapy sessions or hangout sessions.


Also beware of letting your regular one-on-ones digress into big-picture career discussions or long-range planning sessions. There may be a time and a place for everything, but your regular one-on-ones are not the time and place for anything but helping each team member focus on priorities in the short term. All references to matters deep, big picture, or long term should be immediately tied back to short-term details that can be written down on a to-do list.


Stop pretending employees have power they do not have

For most employees, power is about control of resources, wielding of status, authority to make decisions, and autonomy to take action. They do not have the power to ignore the tasks they don’t like or take on responsibilities that don’t belong to them. They are not free to do things their own way or get others to do things their way. They cannot access and deploy money or anything that costs money. Stop pretending they do, only to pull the rug out from under them later.


The key to giving anyone real power is to set strict deadlines with detailed timelines and regular benchmarks along the way. In between those regular benchmarks, let them work on their own terms and time. The more concrete the goals and expectations you set for them are, the greater their feeling of ownership will be. In general, the more structure you provide, the more freely team members can operate within set boundaries.


Lend them your power to get things done

There will always be unexpected obstacles, problems, and people who get in the way of even the most concrete plan. When your direct reports cannot get something they need from someone in another work group, department, or division—that is when they should be able to rely on your authority the most.


Tell your team members to inform you of any roadblocks they cannot navigate themselves. Reassure them that asking for help won’t make them seem unqualified or undermine the quality of their work. It actually makes them more powerful and helps get things done.


Again, don’t pretend employees have more power than they actually do. Even in organizations with flatter hierarchical structures, someone is still ultimately in charge. Make it clear where your employees stand in that power dynamic, and that you are a power source in their working life.

Make better use of your management time

Improving the quality of your leadership, no matter your role, is one of the best career investments you can make:

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