If you want to reduce your workload, get out of the weeds

Why building the capability of the next layer is the secret to being home in time for dinner.

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I’m getting more and more worried about how many hours leadership teams are working and just how little value they’re adding. They are so far into the operational minutiae that they’re abdicating their strategic responsibilities, disengaging the layers below them, not to mention stressing themselves out. To help my clients recognize this micromanagement problem and understand the toll it’s taking, I created this tool. Feel free to use it with your team.

Even the teams that get the most alarming results on the micromanagement assessment respond with a litany of excuses for why they HAVE TO be in the weeds. Paramount among these reasons is that the layer of people who report to them are not capable and can’t be trusted to deliver.

Don’t get me started on how egotistical and delusional that comment is. But let’s say for the sake of argument that there’s truth in it. Leaders who blame their micromanagement on a lack of capability in the layer below are missing the point. The talk about it as if…

You wouldn’t make those mistakes, would you!(?) If you’re getting tired of doing your job and theirs, here’s a path out of the weeds.

Clarify Expectations

Reiterate what you expect from your direct reports. Define what “good” looks like and what you’ll be watching for to know that the work has been done well. “I’m expecting your recommendations to include perspectives from marketing and supply chain, in addition to our product development perspectives.” Don’t presume that the person knows what an “A+” looks like.

Break it Up

Set frequent milestones to evaluate progress and provide course corrections. “You’ve had a couple of days to noodle on this, tell me about your approach.” Don’t let things get so far off course that you have to take over. Keep your feedback high frequency and low impact.

Feedback should be high frequency and low impact

Shift to Questions

Coach with questions instead of giving direction. Rather than teaching the person what to think, train him how to think. If an important idea is missing, orient the person to it by asking a question. “I see you’re planning to use the same deck to talk with marketing as you’re using for supply chain. How might the two groups differ in what they’ll want to see?”

Turn up the Heat

Let the person feel a little heat. There’s nothing like an uncomfortable situation to promote learning. If you can find a safe spot to let your direct report feel some pressure, capitalize on it. Only do this if you can manage the situation so it’s not terrifying. For example, if you invite the person to present her work to your peers, set them up in advance. “Francine is presenting next. I know there are a few gaps from the supply chain side, Beth, would you ask her two or three tough questions but be careful not to scare her off? I’m trying to raise her game.”

Give Straight Feedback

Be specific, concrete, and non-judgmental when you share what was good and what was lacking in the person’s work. “In your presentation this morning, you covered the marketing side well by using their data and speaking in their language. On the supply chain side, your presentation didn’t include any timelines. Beth gets nervous when she doesn’t see timelines and now her back is up. How might you prepare differently on the supply chain side in the future?”

Add Formal Learning

As you start building the capability of your team, pay attention to the advice and corrections you’re having to give over and over. Collect common themes and provide training where appropriate. If everyone is struggling with stakeholder management, it’s time to invest in a course of influence strategies. If you can afford it, hire a professional. If not, pull together your own workshop to share what you’ve learned.

Hope is Not a Strategy

I once witnessed a conversation around an executive team table that went like this.

Person A: “We need someone to represent us at the event in Philadelphia. The press are going to be there, so it has to be someone good.”

Person B: “It’s not important enough for one of us to be there, but frankly, I don’t know who in the next layer I would trust with this.”

Person C: “I think the best we have is Emir.”

Person A: “Yikes, Emir, really? That’s a little scary.”

Person B: “Ok, we’ll let’s hope it goes well.”

You can bet I was all over that! Poor Emir, his leaders have high expectations of him, which no one has shared. He’s representing the company in a moderately-risky situation. The best he’s going to get in support is eight sets of crossed fingers.

It’s time to start being deliberate about how you position people to succeed. It’s the only way to raise the capability in the layer below you. And that’s the only way to get out of the weeds.

Further reading

I often notice leaders inadvertently reducing accountability, check out this list of ways you might be letting people off too easy. If it’s an issue, you can read this advice on how to increase accountability.

If the messy people issues at work are of interest to you, subscribe to my blog and get weekly tips and tools on how to increase productivity and reduce drama. www.3coze.com

Written by

NYT Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Ph.D. Organizational Psychology, Conflict Doctor

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