Empowerment is a key trait of leadership and it can also one of the hardest to master. A leader naturally assumes ownership of a business, project or task and sees that it is completed well. In a start-up business, the leader may be the only person working, so naturally, the leader does everything. Then as the business grows and team members are added, some work is delegated. However, it is natural for the leader to assume they know what is best and want to control each person they hire to make sure they dont hurt ‘the baby’ (the business).
If we as leaders have the belief we know what’s best, how do we let go and allow our team members to be autonomous? We know at some point during scaling up that we cant oversee everyone and must trust our team to work well by themselves.
Let’s look at this from the point of view of the person being led. Most people crave autonomy, want to succeed and don’t want to ask for help. To these people I say autonomy is a byproduct of trust and trust has to be earned, so patience is key. Second, humility is a huge positive and admitting when you don’t have answers is seen as a sign of strength by many, not a weakness. Self awareness and humility in asking for help will see both your status and success rate improve. The real challenge comes when you feel like you have earned trust, but are not extended the chance to shine, by a boss holding you on a tight leash.
Switching to the leader. The leader has a dilemma. Constant observation and interference, resulting a demotivated staff (and being labeled a ‘micro-manager’). Or a hands off approach, letting mistakes happen, often with a tangible cost to the business (a you getting labeled a poor leader for letting it happen). A no win situation?
The costs of micro-management can be severe. Employees lose confidence in their own ability and become unaccustomed to making decisions. This creates a self-fulfilling spiral in the organization, where the leader then HAS to micromanage to get things done competently. People stop trying, expecting the leader to change everything. (Which slows things down, demotivates employees and thus encourages staff turnover and the associated costs with that)
The solution lies in communication and coaching.
Communication is key. Open, candid feedback from each party on what level of autonomy is wanted by the employee and an outline of when and where the leader will permit autonomy is needed. With expectations set, both parties know where they stand.
Coaching happens during the communication, guiding the team member to think things through and create good plans, but also in the correction or analysis after the fact. Reviewing what has been done and ways to improve lead to better performance, greater trust and thus a greater level of empowerment.
Try talking about these action points to help advance the level of autonomy where you work:
- Focus on the big picture. What are the objectives, are they clearly defined and understood? Make sure things are directionally where they need to be then step back. If some minor details, or fine print aren’t exactly where you would have them, is a negative impact likely? Are you making changes because there is true risk associated with the current direction, or is your ego telling you that you need to raise the bar, from what your team is capable of?
- Try something small. Give the team a chance to shine on a ‘low-risk’ project to help build experience and trust in a safe environment.
- Look info the mirror. What are the reasons you are too involved – identifying and talking about the root cause will steer you to create an action plan to improve things. Micromanagement and lack of delegating happens because either the team isn’t good enough, or the leader is unwilling to give up their control (which will choke the business eventually, if it isn’t already).
- Talk about growth. It is important that your leader understands your desire to own a task, not just execute exactly what they say.
- Stay humble. While you want responsibility, you must also talk about your desire to learn and you can bridge the trust gap by asking lots of questions, especially in early projects. Two heads are often better than one. So, ask why, if you aren’t being given the chance to fly solo.
- Be honest with yourself. There is a chance you are being micromanaged as a form of coaching, it just doesn’t feel like it. Don’t dismiss your managers changes. Learn from them and adapt next time.
At at the end of the day, it comes down to who is doing what. If the leader is doing the work of the employee, then this is a symptom of another problem. If the CEO is doing the work of a Director, either the director needs training (or other action), or the CEO needs to learn how to be a CEO (focus on strategic direction and facilitate training when the need araises). One fact is indisputable, neither is doing THEIR job, if the CEO is doing a Director’s work.