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Business and work Mindsets

If you want capable teams, don’t boss them around

If you want a capable team, don’t boss them around. This may come as a shock to some “managers” who believe that their function as “managers” is to tell their subjects precisely what to do and how to do it. That isn’t managing a team, that is bossing people around. There is a big difference.

Every time I think about this bossy “management” style, I think about that Princess Leia quote in Star Wars:

I wrote before about the benefits of not treating your team like they are children and this theme is a gift that keeps on giving. What bosses seem to be ignorant of are the effects of being bossy and overly prescriptive when directing their teams. It is stressful being on the receiving end of that and the more layers of bossiness you add to the mix, the waves of stress become utterly counter-productive; almost enough to stop fusion in a star.

HubSpot has yet another great post, titled “The Psychology of Teams: 9 Lessons on How Happy, Efficient Teams Really Work” which is a must-read for managers and their teams, alike. One of the key factors of an effective team, for me at any rate, is a healthy degree of freedom and responsibility. HubSpot quoted Dennis Bakke’s book, The Decision Maker, on what this freedom and responsibility means in the context of a functional team:

You’ve got the responsibility, but you’ve also got the freedom. Think through these questions. Figure out what you think will work best. Do whatever you need to. If you want to connect with other people who are thinking about this, get advice from other businesses, you let me know. Whatever research you need to do, we’ll make it happen. And then come to me with your decisions about how to handle human resources going forward.”

“So you can sign off on them?” Angela challenged.

Tom shook his head. “Nope,” he said. “So I understand what’s happening in the business.”

This is a subtle but important shift from a bossy approach where the boss wants to review and sign off on every activity because he feels the overwhelming need to control every aspect of the team’s work. It is tempting to be so controlling. After all, it’s your business and you want it to succeed. It is so much like raising children and I’m beginning to think that, even there, it is easy to make similar disempowering mistakes. Take a look at this short video of the late H. Stephen Glenn speaking about developing capable young people:

After watching this I want to try a very different approach with my children (as nerve-wracking as that is). The thing with children and pets seems to be balancing their need for structure (I’m still making this up as I go, like most parents) with granting them freedom to grow.

When it comes to adult employees, bossing them around is just stupid. It doesn’t work. It dumbs down teams; discourages innovation and assassinates productivity. Often this form of “management” is really stressful and that creates an unhealthy work environment for now reason other than to satisfy the boss’ need to control what he can’t meaningfully control anyway.

Manage your team, lead them, if you want a capable team. Don’t boss them around. Don’t be that boss.

Image credit: StockSnap.io

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Business and work Mindsets

The flipside of treating employees like children

When I was last a manager I couldn’t help but draw analogies between raising children and managing employees. Now, having been both an employee and a manager, the association is even stronger for me. At the same time there are two perspectives on treating employees like children. The one is harmful (as you may imagine) and the other can be very positive.

The classic approach to treating employees like children

When you think about managers treating employees like children, you may imagine managers –

  • working on the assumption that employees can’t be trusted to do their work without close supervision;
  • strictly determining working conditions and times to reinforce that close supervision; and even
  • micro-managing their work.

That is a pretty common approach to managing employees, I think, particularly one adopted by managers who may not have a lot of experience and having stepped into the role believing that managing employees means telling them what to do and when to do it.

It isn’t a particularly effective strategy for the most part. For one thing it basically kills the employee’s initiative and creativity by imposing far too much structure and oversight. Why bother being creative and using your initiative if you have a manager looking over your shoulder telling you exactly what to do and how to do it?

One argument I’ve heard is that many employees are incapable of working unsupervised and if you give them too much flexibility, they won’t get the work done. I think this approach is the embodiment of the destructive perspective on managing employees like children. It tells employees that they are not trusted to get their work done or to make decisions about how best to do their work. It also typecasts employees as programmable machines that can’t be left unsupervised for five minutes.

This approach has been framed as encouraging planning and goal setting but it’s really far more than that. It is the expression of deep distrust and fear of losing control over processes that don’t function productively when controlled so tightly.

A more productive approach to managing employees

Our son is eight years old and we are starting to trust him with responsibility for a couple things. As you can imagine, an eight year old is not exactly accustomed to taking responsibility for many things. We’ve been working with him for a while now to teach him what it means to be responsible for things like his toys, a feature phone we gave him for emergencies (it turns out there are a lot of emergencies in an eight year old’s life) and school work.

I had an epiphany after a discussion with him last night; about responsibility and managing employees. He mislaid something we made him responsible for and only told us a week later. I had two options at the time. The first option was to take away the responsibility and revert to managing that aspect of his life and the second was to reinforce what it means to be responsible, guide him and give him another opportunity to behave differently. I’m not sure how much of what I was telling him really sunk in at the time. Then again, he is a child and his primary focus shifts between Megaladon sharks and Star Wars: Clone Wars (depending on the day) with school work somewhere in the persistent background.

Unlike our son, however, employees tend to be adults and are capable of independent thought and brushing their teeth without being told when and how to do it. Just on that, our son can brush his teeth, he just needs reminders now and then. It is far more effective to rather apply the minimum structure required to make sure projects proceed as planned and to otherwise leave it up to employees to figure out the best time and method to get the work done. You can keep track of how projects are progressing using various minimally disruptive tools (my favourite is still Basecamp for team projects) and perhaps even have regular status meetings (although I think that these are largely redundant if you are tracking project progress effectively using other means) to bring teams up to date.

This approach requires a fundamental shift that can be challenging for managers: instead of assuming that all employees are lazy machines that will slack off (not the awesome team messaging app, the act of not doing much unless driven to work) at the first opportunity; managers could rather start with the assumption that their employees are adults capable of independent thought and getting their work done efficiently with appropriate guidance (guidance, as in leadership, not puppetry).

Just as it’s more constructive to teach our son what responsibility means and give him the tools he needs to learn to behave responsibly; managing a team constructively is really more about leading them to success and empowering them to do their work in the most effective way they can. That doesn’t mean hovering over them and directing their movements. It means giving them the guidance and tools they need to develop their most productive workflows and the space to do great work.

Unchain your staff

Businesses are not 19th century factory production lines (even 21st century production lines aren’t 19th century factories), particularly in knowledge-driven industries. People work differently. Some thrive under closer supervision and others needs more space and flexibility to disappear off into the ether and to return with their creations in hand. If you are going to treat employees like children, treat them like you’d like to treat your children if you want them to grow up to be responsible, independent and confident adults. Preferably, though, recognise that your employees already are adults and have the capability to do great work if you would just remove the chains and let them do it.

Image credit: Grandstand figures by Efraimstochter, released under a CC0 Dedication

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Business and work Mindsets

Taking the lead

Take the lead, give others permission to contribute:

It turns out that finding the employee/partner/consultant who says, “this is what we should do, follow me,” is rare and precious. More valuable than just about anything that’s printed on a resume.

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Business and work Events and Life

A wealth of knowledge and inspiration at the 2014 Discovery Leadership Summit

Discovery Leadership Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre

I am privileged to be at the 2014 Discovery Leadership Summit today. I am here as media (so I was given a ticket) and this is a dream come true for me. The speakers are exceptional and I just haven’t had an opportunity to attend before. I am taking notes as the Summit proceeds and I’ll share those a bit later. For now, the tweets are a treasure trove for any entrepreneur or business person. Here are some highlights: