While “give people an objective and get out of the way” sounds like great advice, it is not always sound advice. As with most things in life, the degree of leadership involvement is nuanced and highly dependent on the employee and the situation. I learned this the hard way a few years ago when I received feedback that I was treating every person on my team as low on will but high on skill. This meant I was the polar opposite of a micro-manager – often inspiring people but leaving them to stumble in the dark. That was when I learned the invaluable lesson of situational leadership – to adapt coaching to the skill and the will of the individual on the project.
This being annual review season at my company (and many others), I have been thinking more deeply about what role a team leader should play. Or, more specifically, when a leader should intervene and when a leader should get out of the way. Here are the questions I ask myself:
1. Does the individual have a clear sense of WHAT they need to do?
Most organizations have a clear top-level business objective. In for-profit business, the objective is quite obviously profit maximization with a healthy dose of ethics and global citizenship mixed in. In the not-for-profit space, the objective typically relates to boosting the quality and quantity of life (human or non-human).
Some employees have reached the point where they are able to identify a potential set of granular objectives that serve the top-level corporate objective, prioritize among them, and focus. In those cases, I get out of the way. In the other cases, I do not simply tell people what to do; rather, I teach them the skill of identifying and prioritizing objectives so that they too can learn to lead.
2. Is the individual highly motivated (the WHY) to pursue their objective?
I’m a huge fan of all of Chip & Dan Heath’s work, and in particular, their book Switch. In that book, the Heath brothers use the leadership metaphor of a rider on an elephant headed down a path toward a destination. The destination is the WHAT from the first question above. The emotional elephant and the analytical rider are two sides of the motivation coin. Here, I’ll use the more clinical terms – intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
If an employee has strong motivation, I get out of the way. If they do not, I first turn to intrinsic motivation since that is easier to address in real-time and (according to research cited in Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive) is the more effective lever for the knowledge-workers I interact with on a daily basis. When I sense a person’s intrinsic motivation is low, I relate our team’s North Star, our vision, to the individual’s specific wants and needs. Moreover, I try to express my love for what we are doing in the hope that my belief and my enthusiasm are infectious.
I rarely have to adjust extrinsic motivation in the type of work that I do. However, if you need to do so, remember that extrinsic motivation can come in the form of carrots or sticks. The sweetest carrot is obvious – money; however, there are non-monetary carrots such as extra vacation time and appropriate gifts. The big stick is job security – something that should only be threatened as a last resort in response to serious, well-documented performance issues. A more subtle stick is restating the cultural norms (or actual rules) of your team.
3. Does the individual have the skill (the HOW) to complete this objective?
My big mistake when I first led people more than a decade ago was assuming everybody was highly skilled. When they are, I get out of the way. However, when the individual does not know the methods or best practices to excel on their objective, they will appreciate learning HOW to do something. As with coaching in other areas, your goal as a leader should be to coach people how to figure out how so that they can be independent on future projects. You can do that directly or using the Socratic method.
By way of example, I strive to coach people to become experts at bright spot analysis (another concept from Switch). In broad brush strokes, the process is as follows:
a. Pick an objective (ex: increase sales productivity)
b. Pick a population of people that influence the objective (ex: sales managers)
c. Using an objective measure (ex: average sales per team member over a period of time), stack rank the population to identify the top 10% and the bottom 10%
d. Figure out what the top performers are doing that the bottom performers are not. You will be able to partially figure this out using existing quantitative data. However, you will also need to tease out qualitative insights through anthropological observation (i.e. ride-alongs, role-plays) or interviews where you are careful to ask the two populations to describe actual recent experiences rather than abstract, inspirational behaviors. (I very rarely conduct large-scale electronic surveys unless I have no alternative. When I do conduct such surveys, I ask only the questions that inform burning, specific decisions. This helps keep the surveys as short as possible – often just one or two questions.)
e. Conduct a pilot to verify that (i) I have synthesized the right best practices (ii) I have found the right approach to spread those best practices. Ensure that whatever you are piloting is practical and economically attractive at scale. Define the scope of the pilot. Identify what constitutes success from the pilot sufficient to broaden to full-scale launch.
f. Scale-up once the pilot is successful. (And yes, if the best practices are urgent, obvious, easy to deploy, and low-risk, you can skip the pilot).
4. Does the individual have the materials (the WEALTH) they need to complete the objective?
Referring back to the Heath brothers’ metaphor in Switch, leaders may need to “shape the path.” If the individual has the resources (financial, human, etc.) and tools to get the job done, I get out of the way. If not, leaders must intervene to remove such obstacles.
Relationships are often the biggest obstacles to address since people must influence at a distance in order to move their projects forward. Sometimes, leaders merely need to help associates identify stakeholders and partners who will be instrumental in making the project a success. However, due to ever-present politics or lack of positional authority, associates often need leaders to take more active role.
5. Does the individual have a feedback mechanism to assess their progress?
If an individual if proficient at establishing metrics (leading- and lagging- key performance indicators) and at defining milestones, I get out of the way. If not, intervene by coaching them how to manage projects in this way so that they can lead independently in the future.
Try it out!
If you boil all this down, you only have to remember two things. The first is that great leaders adapt their involvement to each individual in each situation. The second is that great leaders teach their people to fish. When you do that, you empower generations of future leaders instead of simply empowering employees.