In my work with executives it’s not uncommon to hear things like, “If I don’t tell people what to do the ball will stop rolling around here,” or, “I’m the glue that holds this place together,” or, “I have the weight of the world on my shoulders."
Addressing it with a client, I start with three observations: 1) you’re not alone, 2) you’ve probably already realized there’s a better way to lead, and 3) if it’s truly troubling to you, it’s time you fire yourself from the job of thinking for your people.
Let’s consider the practical steps for you, or for someone you know, who may be carrying this type of undue burden.
The Directive Habit
Telling people what to do -- being “directive” -- is ineffective and unsustainable over the long haul. A more empowering approach, like giving your team the latitude to do things their own way and the authority to make decisions for themselves, is more effective. It’s good for you too, as it frees you up to make a more significant contribution, feel more fulfilled, and ensure your organization is firing on all cylinders.
If you know their job well, have done it yourself, or you have been in your role a long time, you may well be right in assuming you know what needs to be done, and how best to do it.
Also, in the interest of time and expedience, it can be efficient just to tell / direct your team, keep them on a short leash, and make the big calls yourself.
Knowing what’s best doesn’t mean directing others to do your bidding is the best way to foster a strong, self-sustaining organization. It’s not.
First, a highly directive approach is an undue burden -- an exhausting one -- for you, and for those on your team.
When you lead as a puppet master, you end up with puppets -- dependent on you for guidance and direction at every turn -- and an organization capable primarily of making sure you get what you want, rather than one that does the right thing independent of your close supervision.
Tell a strong performer what you want done and how to do it, watch them closely, and have them come back to you to make the key decisions, and you de-motivate them, sub optimize their contributions, and diminish their ability to do their finest work.
Kicking the Directive Habit in 8 Steps
When you’re ready, you can make a change. Shifting your approach to enable / empower your best people -- to think through problems and opportunities, prioritize them, and decide and act on their own -- expands your reach as a leader, and therefore extends your organization’s capacity and capability to deliver and win.
I’ve developed the following steps to address directive habits, and make progress on changing them. I post them here, so you can try it yourself, or pass it along to someone you know.
1. Assess the percentage of your time spent heavily involved in the activities of your people. Take into account your “to do” lists, meeting notes, and calendar (review your meetings and discussions from the last six weeks, and the next four weeks, for example), emails, project lists, etc. What’s your percentage?
2. Set a new target percentage for the level of your own involvement in your team’s work – and a timeline to get there.
3. Make your own assessment of what you need to delegate, or delegate more fully, including both tasks and actual authority to prioritize, decide, and act.
4. In a future one-to-one meeting with each of your direct reports, invite them to be very candid with you then ask some form of these questions: “Given my own involvement with what’s on your plate, are there things you could do more on your own?” and “Where have I given you responsibility to do something, but not the authority to get it done?”
5. Make liberal yet honest assessment, by person, if they COULD do a good job on those items, even if it’s a stretch.
6. Given the above, revise and finalize your list, by each person reporting to you, of items to “turn over” to them.
7. When you’re willing to delegate some or all of the items on your list (note, I didn’t say “ready,” as you may never feel “ready,”) go ahead and try it. Ask that they keep you informed on progress, and to let you know if they need your help along the way. Decide on a reasonable time frame (and note it) on each item for you to check back with them.
8. In addition to gently monitoring the above items, check with your people in 30 days, and periodically thereafter, on how delegation is flowing from you to them. Make sure there’s two-way feedback, which will help you both work out any snags in the process. Adjust accordingly.
A Few Tips
Depending on whether you have been moderately or heavily directive, some of your people will likely be hesitant at first to take responsibility for more and/or authority to decide and act on their own because they are very accustomed to being told what to do. You may hear things like, “I didn’t think you were that controlling before,” or “What should I do?” Don’t be afraid to put it back on them and let them figure it out for themselves, even despite the temptation to be pulled back into the behavior you’re attempting to change.
Also, there will be times – particularly when you are under stress -- when you fall back to your more directive or controlling habits. No worries – just notice it and help yourself out of the pattern. It took many years to establish these habits, and it neither can nor will change in an instant.
One Final Note
Letting go of the directive habit isn’t easy, and it won’t feel comfortable for you or your team right away. Just keep your progress steady, and keep checking in with yourself and your team along the way. You won’t regret it, and your bottom line will appreciate it too.David Peck
Principal and Senior Executive Coach
Goodstone Group, LLC