Stop Making All the Decisions
If you believe that you have communicated the company and teams goals properly. Give your team the freedom and permission to make decisions and bring them to you instead of the other way around. This allows you to focus on the decisions that are more impactful for your role. Overall, this will result in the entire team getting more done. There will be empowerment among everyone else and you will not be holding people up.
I have talked about communicating the goals of the company, team, and individual previously in Driving Your Bus
To summarize that here:
As a leader of a team or organization, you must communicate clear goals at all levels. This involves finding clarity and having difficult discussions to decide one top priority at the company level, department level, and team/individual level.
The Team/Individual level is the most important one in this context. The more clarity you can create the less lost people will feel when you stop making decisions for them and allow them to do their best work.
To best communicate the goals of the team?
When it comes time to communicating goals at each level, the people involved need to help create them. Without input from each group the passion to meet the goals will not exist.
Goals need to be simple, few, and internalized by the team. At any point, anyone within an organization should be able to answer the following:
- What is the current company goal?
- What is your department's goal?
- What is the team's goal or your goal?
I keep coming back to this idea of communicating goals because it is such an important and powerful one. If the people in the company cannot tell you what they are trying to achieve on a day to day basis, the chances that they don't make it to where they want to be skyrocket. To get to where you want to go, you need to know your destination.
Wait for Action
Waiting for action is probably the hardest part for you and the management team, it is the most likely time for you to feel out of control. This sense of control loss can be compared to sitting in a slowly moving line of traffic where it is natural to feel out of control since there is not much you can do. Trying to take action in any way and do something "productive" you may leave the line of traffic and drive through the neighborhood. Though you feel more personally empowered and in control, you can not see at the moment that you have lost more time by creating a more circuitous route for yourself. A loss of 5 minutes from taking a different route driving is not a big loss. The parallel in business is not appropriately delegating work and allowing others the time to do their own work before interrupting, asking for the status, or reaching in to help. Your new leaders must experience their own path.
When you start tasks you should have delegated or make a decision that should be firmly within the responsibility of someone else on your team then you have limited them and their ability to prove their worth to you and the organization. You have taken away any chance they had of doing it right, feeling proud of their work, and taking further responsibility in their role. This effect compounds over time and will end up creating more complacency within your team.
Another example of improper delegation is group projects during school. We have all likely experienced a project where in a four-person group one person stood out and said they would do everything. This is the fastest way to have a complacent team with a single "hero", though the work will likely be of less quality than if the team had used the unique perspectives that everyone brings to the table and made decisions together. In some instances, delegation on the team does seem to exist, though if quality and goals are not appropriately discussed the "hero" may end up redoing everyone's work. I have seen and experienced similar things happen in organizations of which I have been a part. Instead of teaching, someone will silently redo other people's work. In addition to complacency, this will also create anger over time that was wasted. The collective mind when you have the right team will be greater than the whole when given a chance.
Any sense of control that you feel through these situations as you step in and act is ultimately not worth the negative impact you may have on the team.
Don't Abandon Them
At the risk of immediately contradicting myself, while waiting for action takes place you still need to participate in the work of the team. They need to see you still, though you have to keep it known that they are the owners of their domain and their problems.
So what can you do that supports them without overruling them?
- Hop in to ask clarifying questions, questions that help understand the problem in the fullest way possible. From different viewpoints, try taking on the perspective of different roles throughout the company.
- Don't become radio silent. Let them talk to you about anything and all their needs.
- Encourage spending more time on the problem understanding before diving into solutions.
- Finding a single solution too early often can mean they haven't searched hard enough. Push back and have them explain why they chose it over others.
- Lastly, continue to return the ownership to them. Communicate your trust and belief in their ability.
Trust Your Team
Once you have explained the responsibility you are giving a team member and explained that you will hold them accountable for that, you have to trust that they will execute to the best of their ability. Without trusting them they will not truly be allowed to make the decisions that may be the right ones for that problem, and it will result in them coming to you for each decision in a series of decisions. Which will ultimately slow the team down significantly as they look to a single person to solve their problems instead of finding ways to solve their own. Since the team members directly working on the problem are closest to it and often have more context, they often have the ability to see solutions and decisions that leadership indirectly working on something, may not be able to see. Or they may be able to prevent and correct mistakes of anyone, including the leader if you have been successful in giving everyone a voice and embracing psychological safety.
Analyze the Teams Performance
This is not an original idea, after you deliver something have a retrospective with the team. Retrospectives often get overlooked as teams immediately start their next project. Hold each retrospective with small teams (No more than 10). Make a laundry list of things both positive and negative that occurred during the time or project being discussed, try not to rabbit hole into solutions or deeply discussing each one it will take too long, having a solution for all of them often means none will get done.
Retrospective questions to start creating your laundry list with :
- What went well?
- What should you keep doing?
- You can use this as an additional opportunity to praise the good work of the team.
- What went less well?
- What should we stop doing?
- Was there something that was slowing down or frustrating team members?
- What can you learn from something whether it was a success or a failure?
- Was there something that you should try that you didn't before?
Once you have your list it's time to pick one positive and negative to really focus on. To choose the negative and positive you should prioritize for the impact it will make on the team. How much will the items you have chosen reduce frustration or improve the team dynamic? Choose one of the positives that you want to specifically call out, what did the team do to make that happen and how you can continue to do it. Then choose 1-3 negatives that occurred, prioritize them, and dive in. It is okay if you deeply talk about one and do not get to the others.
Diving deeper into a single topic:
- What did we do as a team to create this behavior?
- Is there anything tangential or similar that could be gained by repeating this behavior elsewhere?
- Why did this happen? (This will usually be a best guess)
- How can we avoid this in the future?
- Are there multiple ways to solve this problem?
- Is this the root cause of the issue or a symptom of something else?
It is common, though not required, that there be fewer questions surrounding the positives. This is okay because there is often more to learn from a failure or mistake than there is from success.
This section of responsibility is most important during the transition from hierarchical leadership to leadership at all levels of the organization, once an organization has leadership at all levels responsibility and ownership is much more inherent. During that transition, this last section pertains mainly to the hierarchical leaders of the organization as they work to bring change.
As a leader, you want to ensure that you keep people accountable, this means reminding them of expectations and goals until they are inherent within them. It also means that when failure does occur it is laced with plenty of learning. Reprimanding and punishment should not be the first thing you turn to after you see a failure or mistake that occur with one of your team members. Even small punishments can have negative impacts. Let's say you have 6 people on your team. If one person makes a mistake and you lose trust and revert to making more of their decisions they will likely backslide to their previous position where they had a lack of responsibility. Seeing the current leader begin treating someone else in this way will lead to others on the team questioning where they stand for all of their actions.
Instead, it is important that you coach them through the problem, mainly by asking them what they could have done better and seeing if they can identify the failure themselves. When you give people the space to identify their own issues after a failure occurred you can be fairly confident that it becomes ingrained in them. There is no better way to internalize knowledge than to teach someone else, in this example you are putting them in a position of "teaching" you. The act of thinking aloud as you ask questions about the situation will make them analyze it more deeply than they had previously.
For individuals, a scenario we had talked about previously is complacency created by having one person who makes decisions and everyone turns to. That person has more responsibility than anyone else on the team. This is where each team member needs to take back the responsibility of their own distinction. Owning their fair share of the burden on the way to completing the goals of the company. What is happening on occasions like this is often similar to an over-functioning/under-functioning relationship. As person A tries to help person B, person B will pull back, causing person A to help more. Ultimately, this behavior creates a cycle that is very difficult to break. Breaking it starts with coaching the people who are being complacent to step up more and speak up, paired with coaching person A to encourage others to speak up and ask more questions.
Accept responsibility for any failures or bumps
After you have a retrospective, many of those failures and bumps that happened along the way will be known. If each person is open enough to share and you have created psychological safety then you will have a fantastic list to start working from and also a list of things that people may be upset about.
Some of the things on the list will affect the success metrics you are tracking (OKR's and KPI's), others may delay projects, and a various array of other negative things that may have happened as a result of these items. At this point, it is your job as the leader of the team to take outward responsibility for the actions of the team and protect the individuals. This does not mean that you are dropping the spirit of accountability that you have been working to create. You and the rest of the team members are still responsible for keeping everyone moving in a positive direction, focusing on what you can learn from the mistakes, and improving the team, and how you do things. When someone from higher above you on the hierarchical ladder tries to get down in the weeds of the team members and begin micromanaging, it is your job to prevent that. As an outsider to the team, they likely have not built the same culture of trust with all the team members. Until they have, or the culture of open non-judgmental feedback is inherent throughout the company the team should be analyzing the failures and road bumps on their own.
Praise their achievements (in all directions)
People need validation. It's that simple. What is important is that the validation is tied directly to the action for which you want to give it. If it is delayed by a week, month, or year the connection to that action, how it was performed, and what needs to be done to recreate that success is often just a faded memory. This is one of the reasons employee of the month and other awards fail.
Give validation to your team right away, try to keep it within 24 hours and make the praise they are receiving appropriate. Did they launch a huge project in record time? Take a moment to stop and be proud before moving on, have a team lunch. Did an individual learn something new and successful use that skill? Send them a thankful email (these go a surprisingly long way). Finding out what is the best reward depends both on the situation and on the person. For some people being recognized in a more public manner, to the entire team or company, is fantastic. For others that same situation can be terrifying and uncomfortable. Ask your team how they like to receive praise and tell them that you will give them praise when you believe that they deserve it. Another thing that can help you with this is decoupling praise from yourself. Allow the team members to give each other praise, kudos, or whatever you want to call it. Having the ability to congratulate each other in a meaningful and valuable way can be tremendous value on the team since it can allow you and the team to reinforce behavior as it happens for everyone. It is easy to see if the teams are abusing the system, you can take it away if needed, at this point though you and the team should have the trust and openness to call them out directly on it.
Teach the Team to Coach Others, Not Do For Others
The last pillar is the most indirect since the goal is not directly related to their work. Teaching to coach is important for the long-term health of any team. As it will allow the team to become resistant to changes in staff and reinforce behavior over time. As everyone around you is lifted up in leadership, you will be too since the entire team is becoming more performant within the organization.
The Backslide (Reverting to old ways)
It only takes one person to pull the team back into negative behaviors. If one person sees another doing it then the negative behavior and complacency could spread. On the flip side it also only takes one person to spread a good habit.
When one person becomes a non-conformist there is always a higher chance of people sticking to their own laurels. So we want to encourage this behavior when it comes to sharing ideas and speaking openly, meaning the leader should be open and questioning of basics regularly.
- Study on conformity within groups Asch Study Explained