Why not? You’ve had the experience. You’ve made the mistakes and learned from them. Why not prevent others from making the same mistakes? Why run the risk that an inexperienced team member will cost you time, money or even a client? Isn’t it your job as a leader to see that the best practices are consistently applied? Yes and no! One important objective of most work teams is to produce the best possible product or service and it is the leader’s job to see that that outcome is achieved. But, how do you assure that happens?
Several years ago, a manager complained that his team members kept making the same mistakes over and over. They kept coming to him with the same questions. They just weren’t “motivated” to learn. “I just wish I had better people.” In one example, the team member kept asking about a new procedure for documenting his time for rework. It was not a complicated process and the team leader was perplexed about why she couldn’t learn such a simple thing. I asked if other team members were having the same problem. He said, “Sometimes, but this team member is the worst.” I spoke with the team member in private. Here is what she told me. “Every time we have a change in a procedure, John (the team leader) drives us all crazy. If we make a mistake, he just loses it. As far as he’s concerned, there is only one way to do anything. His way! I just gave up. I quit trying to do anything on my own. I ask him about every little detail because if I don’t, I get screamed at.” After listening to several other team members tell me the same thing, I went back to the team leader and told him what I had heard. He insisted that he wanted his team members to learn to do things on their own and that he was just trying to help them “get it right.”
So how much latitude do you give to your team members? How many mistakes do you tolerate? How many problems and tasks do you need to take on yourself to insure that everything is done properly? How much risk can you accept?
These are not easy questions to answer. What is certain is that if you, as the team leader, try to “own” all of the problems, no one has a chance to learn from their mistakes. They will remain “unmotivated.” That is, they will remain unmotivated to take on responsibility and learn to do things on their own. They will, however, continue to be motivated to “keep you off their backs.” While there are many good articles on how to delegate important tasks, the day-to-day, mundane tasks that must be accomplished may be even more important. John, the team leader in the story at the beginning of this article, was actually pretty good at delegating. He would work with team members to learn of their interests, assess their skills and hand over significant tasks for them to perform. But when it came to the everyday stuff, he remained stubbornly involved in details that could easily be handled by the team member. I witnessed an hour-long conversation at a team meeting about whether to buy mugs or use paper cups for the coffee in the break room. What started to happen, of course, was that team members began to withhold information. They started to complain to one another about John. Although they would continue to pester him about trivia, they would hide big problems. They reasoned, “If John finds out about this, we will never hear the last of it.” So, the irony is that John’s need to control all of those little details has backfired. He now knows less about what is going on than if he let his team members own a few more of their problems all along.
Leaders often have an exaggerated view of their ability to “handle” all of the details of their operation. As work becomes more and more complex, it is increasingly unrealistic to believe that one person can understand everything that needs to be done. Such leadership produces a stifling environment in which only a limited amount of work can be done. Effective leaders learn to listen but stop short of directing and advising unless it is truly necessary. This sounds simple but it is a lot harder than it sounds. Leaders have been conditioned to believe that successful leaders can do everything. Not so! Leadership training that focuses on identifying “problem ownership” and listening skills can help overly controlling leaders a great deal. Such training and coaching can not only help the leader but will, in the longer term, help the team be far more effective.
If you hear a team leader bragging or complaining about how many hours he or she has to work or how much there is to do or how far behind the team has gotten, it is a good idea to take a close look at how much listening he or she is doing. The team leader who brags about how much the team has accomplished has probably learned to let the team members own a lot more of their own problems. So, don’t try to be a hero.
William D. Stinnett, Ph.D., conducts leadership training courses in which communication and problem-solving skills are addressed and nurtured.
Written for TrainingIndustry.com