Last month, my articles explored two aspects of my hybrid leadership model that illustrate the leadership competencies that need elevating to effectively lead the hybrid team. We looked at setting objectives and measuring performance across a distributed team.
This article will look at empowering employees, providing autonomy and leading with trust. The second article will focus on the need for leaders to set clear expectations across a distributed team.
Don’t be a dinosaur
If you are a boss (note deliberate avoidance of term “leader”) and you continue to believe that productivity means “butt in seats” and that the best way to get results is through micromanagement, you are on the verge of following dinosaurs into extinction.
That’s because you are unable to adapt to the rapid changes in your environment. The catastrophic event that leads to your demise will not be an asteroid strike or a volcanic eruption, but a change in the way we work — a hybrid operating model.
If you think that investing in employee-monitoring software will enable you to continue to micromanage by intervening when there is a decline in keystrokes, you are just prolonging your agony. Surveillance does not provide you with any data on which you can determine whether a task is being performed at the speed you want and in the way that you want.
Good leadership empowers employees, provides autonomy and operates from a base of trust.
Many people confuse the terms empowerment, autonomy and delegation and use them interchangeably.
Empowerment is about giving another person decision-making rights.
Autonomy is having self-directing freedom.
Delegation is giving someone else duties or tasks to carry out.
You can’t have true delegation without providing empowerment and autonomy. You can delegate a task but unless you have empowered your employee to make decisions and given them the autonomy to choose how they approach the task, you are still in the echelons of micromanagement.
Empowerment is the direct opposite of micromanagement. Employees can make independent decisions and act upon them.
Without empowerment, the bottleneck resulting from employees having to revert to their superior for decision making in a hybrid working model will simply increase.
Remote employees may have to wait prolonged periods of time for a decision to be made as they are not physically co-located with their manager. When co-located it is often easier to garner someone’s attention.
Empowerment doesn’t mean that you leave your hybrid team to flounder. You set clear parameters around the decision-making process. Often these are called guidelines or guardrails. Just as the guardrails on the road are there to prevent us going off the road, guardrails around decision making are there to keep us from making risky decisions.
How do your employees know what decisions they can make without recourse to you?
You can apply the “Waterline Principle” instituted by American engineer and entrepreneur Bill Gore. He was the co-founder of W.L. Gore and Associates, the maker of innovative products such as Gore-Tex fabrics.
Imagine your organization is a ship and you are the captain. You can empower employees to make decisions if they are shooting above the waterline. The decisions won’t sink the ship so the risk can be sanctioned. If the decision should go awry and result in a hole in the side of the ship above the waterline, it can be fixed.
If the decision is shooting below the waterline, it’s a risk that can’t be sanctioned as it could blow a hole in the side of the ship that is below the waterline and result in sinking the vessel. Below-the-waterline-decisions need to be referred to the “captain” so that risk can be assessed and the right decision made.
Empowerment with guardrails such as the “waterline principle” ensure that the hybrid team is effective and agile regardless of employee location.
As the captain, you can also define where the waterline is located based on factors including an employee’s position, experience and level of expertise. A junior employee will have a different waterline to that of your senior managers.
The waterline principle can also be applied to deciding what issues need your attention as opposed to those that can be left to your team to resolve. If an issue has occurred, the criticality can be determined by asking whether the damage is above or below the waterline.
If something goes wrong above the waterline such as a broken computer or a jammed door, the ship will not sink and therefore the issue can be dealt with by your team and does not need to be referred to you as the captain. If something goes wrong below the waterline that could sink the ship, then your attention is required. Once again, your team will be far more effective and efficient by following this principle.
Autonomy is having self-directing freedom.
Your employees are free to make their own choices about how they carry out their work. Providing this autonomy is paramount in a hybrid working environment. Autonomy means freedom to decide how you work, where you work and when you work. The traditional five-day, 9-5 working week is a thing of the past.
Autonomy allows employees to arrange work around their lives rather than the other way around.
Jack Welch, the former chairman and CEO of GE. summed up his role as a leader as it related to employee autonomy: “Place the best people for the best opportunities and to properly distribute the monies to the right places. That’s all. Communicate your ideas, distribute the resources and get out of the way”
It’s your responsibility as a leader to clearly communicate your expectation, make sure your employees have the resources they need including your support and then get out of the way.
Providing employee autonomy is not “management by abdication.” You are there to provide support and remove obstacles as needed. You are there to guide, not control.
This is a wake-up call for many bosses. As long as the work gets done, is done on time and to the expected standard, it’s up to your employee to decide how to carry it out.
Autonomy increases employee motivation and engagement and decreases levels of talent attrition. Employees feel valued as individuals rather than a cog in the workforce mechanism.
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity” — General George S. Patton
If you micromanage, you are just shouting “I don’t trust you.’
Trust is at the foundation of the success of hybrid operating models. There must be respect and mutual trust.
You need to build a culture of trust and responsibility and you can do this by increasingly delegating tasks, empowering and providing autonomy. This shows your employees that you trust them, they are valued and capable of working independently of you.
Trust is amplified when mistakes are embraced as learning opportunities and not labelled as failures accompanied with negative consequences. Foster an environment in which it is ok to have a setback and a shared belief that if you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough.
Empowerment and autonomy will only deliver successful outcomes if you provide clarity of your expectations.
Failure to set clear expectations can rapidly dissolve trust and result in serious problems.
My next article will explore why – in the words of Brené Brown, a research professor, author and TED Talk star – “clear is kind and unclear is unkind.”