The managerial ‘urge’ to disempower subordinates

Work Place Competencies

Empower your team, and see the magic unfold

 I was talking to the Founder of a mid-size company about the need to develop his next line of leadership. His leadership has been seemingly ‘empowered’ to make decisions, but they would always come back to him for alignment with their decisions. He was quite ok with it, though he would complain that he was unable to get time beyond overseeing operations. As we discussed the situation, he agreed that his leadership style of management was not allowing his leaders to build the confidence to think on their own. They were being paid high salaries and had impressive credentials, but seemingly ‘incapacitated’ in the restrictive environment of the organization.

 ‘So I am hiring horses and transforming them into donkeys!’… he exclaimed as the truth revealed itself to him.

 This was a bit extreme but not very far from the truth. In today’s fast-moving world, hyper-competition and VUCA world, senior leaders (especially in mid-sized, fast-growing organizations) tend to intervene in the decision-making process of their subordinates and send conflicting messages on what is acceptable.

 This usually ends up with single point decision making, and the senior leader, burdened by the operational work,  spirals down to a state of constant stress, while the subordinates quietly absolve themselves of the accountability for the outcome.

 The leader ‘wakes’ up at some point, realizing that his subordinates are quoting him when decisions are going wrong and ‘decides’ that they are incompetent. After that, the slide is rapid as the prejudice builds up and the subordinate is labeled ‘incompetent’.

 What the leader cannot control (and is much more damaging) is the negative social interaction of these disillusioned subordinates with others in the organisation. Those who are partly disengaged just go into a shell, while the ones who are actively disengaged go on a ‘mission’ to disrupt the enthusiasm of others and sow seeds of doubt.

 The ramifications are far-reaching and the ripple effect is seen long after those disgruntled employees have left the organisation.

 Unfortunately, many of the senior leaders continue to play the ‘victim’ card, pushing the ostensibly ‘incompetent’ employees out and getting in new people, who are painfully pushed into the same ‘cycle of failure’.

 For many leaders, this is a significant ‘blind spot’ and they literally experience an ‘aha moment’ when they realize how the dynamics are playing out.

 So what are some of the few basic rules of engagement (between senior leadership and their subordinates) that could help reverse these potential ‘disempowering bombs’?

a. Trust his potential competency to do the job: Demonstrate a trust in the ability of the subordinate (considering his/her credentials which got him/her the job). His confidence is like a delicate sapling, which needs to be allowed to grow in the environment of the new organisation.

b. Emphasise the values: A values alignment is critical, as the values are inviolable and would help the new leader to know his boundaries of decision making. Role model the values, talk about them, encourage the leader to deepen them in his organisation.

c. Listen to her perspective, and appreciate the new points of view: However it may differ, her opinion comes from a new perspective, which would eventually add value to grow the organization. If they are rebuffed in the first few weeks, she would clamp down and stop thinking. (Unless her POV are conflicting with the organizational values).

d. Allow mistakes: Senior leaders need to ‘bite the bullet’ when managing their tendency to expound on new ideas to new leaders or ‘show them’ how they are not thinking correctly. Mistakes are good. Especially for new leaders in the organization. Celebrate them, discuss and use them to fuel the confidence of the new employee.

e. Think with him: There is a difference between ‘thinking for’ and ‘thinking with’, and when you are doing the latter, it’s best to raise a flag and announce your intentions. When you are ‘thinking with’ a subordinate, you are not taking decisions for him or even steering him (however subtly!) towards one. Your objective is that at any cost, the final decision should come from him.

 Finally, you need to have patience. People grow into their jobs and initially need some emotional security while they are building their ‘armour’ of confidence and competency at work.

 Comments are welcome!

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