As supervisors, managers, and bosses, we can easily fall into a routine of absentmindedly directing and giving commands.
We tell others: “Do this.” Telling, not asking. Speaking at, not with.
And in harmony with expected procedures and hierarchy, our teams robotically march forward.
Giving orders stunts healthy autonomy. It builds a culture of people who wait to execute, do only as they are told, and fear speaking up or stepping out.
Enter an email I received from a colleague this week that went something like:
“I’d like to make sure ____ is happening if it is not already being done.”
My mind defiantly sneered back, “I’m already doing that. But thanks for bothering to ask…”
Instead of asking questions or eliciting real conversation, this simple email felt condescending. Brimming with assumption and a hint of authority, these careless words built my defensive wall and prompted me to quickly delete it without response.
A memory gate opened of past bosses who had obnoxiously done the same thing:
“Please make sure xx is being done.”
There was no room for engagement. There was no conversation giving me room to step up to make that right decision on my own. There was no opportunity to be proactive. So, why try, right? If someone’s just going to tell you what to do and assume you know no better, why step up? No, might as well wait until you’re told.
Such a directive is often a product of thoughtlessness, asserting power, or insecurity in leadership (lacking purpose). Following up on your people, dotting their i’s, and distributing commands can deceivingly feel like necessary work. “Just doing my job.” Unfortunately, these interactions insinuate the absence of intelligent thought or intention. If you double-check someone’s work on a regular basis, her natural standards will decline.
It made me step back to consider how I also may have asked things of other co-workers and direct reports. Have I so carelessly barked commands and belittled their potential efforts and judgment? As a former “control freak”, I’m guilty of wanting things done my way and thinking I know best. I’ve humbly learned the downfalls of these limited and ego-driven actions. Having an interesting, quirky group of people who bring new challenges, fresh ideas, and can critically problem-solve is essential to any company’s (and any person’s) growth. In order to scale, a solo effort will never test the edges enough. Companies need people who move and act, think bigger, reach further, and bring their unique skills to help business grow.
While you can cook according to a recipe and have it turn out as expected, the variations are what make it interesting. Pizza could have been dough, sauce and cheese… Until someone came along and said, hey, let’s add anchovies and jalapeno-stuffed olives. Or what about stuffed crust? A dessert pizza with M&M’s?
Empowering my team to develop intuition, decision-making, and free-form thoughts means the skills they are learning position them for success beyond a typical employee role. I want my dent in the workplace to be a proliferation of provocative, innovative leaders who raise the bars of anywhere they land considerably higher. Development isn’t happening when one is mimicking a how-to manual.
The trust you give in business, is a gift.
Choking independence and depriving your people of their own “wins” deteriorates performance. When people lack the space to do right on their own, a culture breeds of those who do “just enough” not to get fired. Inner office cliques form as a result, as people seek commiseration and shared identity.
The future leaders of the company then only emerge out of tenure or with those who always colored inside the lines. Business stagnates. Like parenting, the upcoming leadership teams parody the actions their managers showed them. The cycle continues.
In an article by Mayim Bialik, I felt inspired by her approach to parenting in giving her kids a chance to develop, stroking their natural curiosity, and making them feel comfortable in their own skin:
I have heard people say that those who force their kids to share, be polite, and excel on adult terms are really just creating children who are monkeys, imitating behavior without independently experiencing it or really understanding it. I don’t know if I agree, but I do know that families that don’t force these things have children who grow and develop at their own pace and they all turn out pretty much fine. It is my hope that my children will feel truly understood and safe in their skin, no matter how “delayed” their skin might be.
While not a parent, I maintain a very maternal approach in leadership. I work to equip my team with skills beyond their job description and current path. I view the mark of achievement to be a team member feeling empowered to “leave the nest” of the team I’ve built, ready to attack a position above the “normal hierarchy”. How else do we create ripples and revolutions?
We live in a learned state of “catching someone doing wrong” and the intervention of “higher power” to mediate. Or “if I don’t tell him to do xx, he won’t think of it himself.” To some, leadership is telling others what to do or what they should do. These power plays (intended or not) deceivingly make managers think they are doing their job.
The cycle only ends when we shift how we talk to our people, letting them awkwardly flap their wings, occasionally crash, and eventually soar gracefully. Development happens in these moments of trial and failure accompanied with valuable teaching conversations.
I want to create a team of independent thinkers, who have the same cultural objective, but are motivated to think above their “job title”, without micromanaged details. I want to develop people who are shifting the conversation and bringing caviar to the traditional pizza party.
Give your people the opportunity to do right. Give them the chance to win.