One of the most important traits in a leader is understanding when you need to get out of the way of your team.
“How is that report going?”
“Did you do that thing I asked you to do?”
“Why haven’t you organised that thing yet?”
Sometimes, you need to keep on top of your people to get things done. However, continuing to hound your team for deliverables and progress reports can become frustrating for everybody. Being able to get out of the way can also help your team develop leadership skills of their own, as they manage their workload without you micromanaging them.
I know what it’s like. Sometimes you feel like a massive pain to your team, hassling them seemingly every five minutes to see where they are up to. You need to learn to get out of the way, while also keeping some type of oversight. Not an easy thing to do.
How do you know when you need to get out of the way?
When you’re in the way of your team, in most cases you’ll be able to spot the signs. It’s important to pay close attention to how your team is behaving.
You may need to get out of the way when your team are getting frustrated
If you notice your team becoming frustrated when you ask them for things, it might be time to get out of the way and let them work.
Frustration can be a natural stress behaviour for someone who is taking on additional responsibility. If you start to seem more like an obstruction than a helper, that’s a problem.
It can be particularly frustrating for teams when leadership oversight comes with additional work, just to report progress. If your team needs to create a status report for you in addition to actually doing the work, this is probably going to be seen as unhelpful.
How to handle it:
- Set a future milestone to catch up with your team to review progress, and let them go. Sometimes ad-hoc, spur of the moment check-ins can be frustrating because they are unexpected. Setting frequent, expected check-in points can alleviate this frustration
- Reduce the reporting deliverables you require from your team. If you need your team to collate a special report to communicate how they are progressing, this will be frustrating. You may need to become more comfortable with lightweight progress updates.
You may need to get out of the way when you become a communication bottleneck
You’ve said your team can handle this, but then you’re becoming more involved in the decision making. Your team used to be able to communicate directly with external stakeholders, and now you want to be involved in all correspondence.
When you put yourself into communication channels so that you can “be aware” of events, you run the risk of becoming a bottleneck. This is especially problematic when you have entrusted your team to deliver, because you’re sending mixed messages.
When you are trying to say “I trust you to do this”, but you need to be involved in every piece of communication, you are actually sending the opposite message to your team.
How to handle it:
- At the start of the project, ensure that you set up the correct expectations within your team, with regard to communication. Initiate a regular communication forum where you can learn about what is happening.
- Stipulate the conditions where you’ll require input in decisions. I’ll bet you don’t need to be involved in every little decision, so make sure you remove yourself from conversations unless they need to involve you.
Why should I get out of the way? I’m the boss.
You sometimes need to get out of the way and let your team take responsibility. Letting others have responsibility is a good way to improve other people’s leadership skills and take some of the burden off you at the same time.
If you feel that you should always be involved in everything, then it is likely that your team is going to find this demotivating and frustrating.
In fact, nobody is going to put in extra effort when they know their work is going to be checked and double-checked every time. On the contrary, they will rely on you to ensure everything is OK. They will also feel as if you don’t trust them.
When your team feels as if they can’t do any work without your input, they will feel disempowered. They will start to use you as a crutch. On the other hand, if they know they are critical to a certain process, there is more potential for them to take greater pride in their contribution.
My team wants me to get out of the way, but I’m afraid they’ll stuff it up
Well, this can be a valid potential concern for a leader. If you get out of the way and then everything collapses in a heap, it’s possible your team weren’t ready. Then you run the risk of being held accountable for a big failure because you weren’t paying close attention.
The only way you’ll build trust in your team is if you let them try. Start with smaller things and gradually increase responsibility until you (and they) get more comfortable.
You can also set up a network of communication with stakeholders so that you can learn what is happening without hassling your team every five minutes.
Is your team dealing with an external stakeholder or client? Maybe you can jump on the phone with them to get some feedback on their performance. Do you have peers who will be able to see what your team is doing? Contacting them for updates may be another way to keep in touch.
Of course, these methods should be in addition to regularly monitoring progress with your team. Remember, empowering your team to deliver is good, but it’s up to you to stay in touch with what is happening. You can’t get out of the way completely and divulge all responsibility. You’re still technically on the hook as the leader.
Look for opportunities to help the process, rather than to be a blocker. Get involved in team discussions and contribute as a participant rather than as “the boss”. Keep up to date with progress by trying to contribute rather than asking your team to report to you.
So what do you do if your team does stuff it up? Be sure you do a retrospective with the team so that you can review what went wrong. If you were too detached from progress, introduce some more control and communication mechanisms to keep in touch with your team.
Being able to get out of the way of your team can be a great way of letting them take accountability. When you are able to get out of the way and let them work, they’ll learn to lead. You’ll need to be less involved in minor decisions that just take up time.
Of course, it’s a balancing act. Good, thoughtful leaders know how to straddle the boundary between being overbearing and being out of touch. They have effective control over the situation whilst letting their team get on with doing the work.