Taking a “hands-off” approach to leadership can work well, especially when leading a team of skilled experts who are motivated and capable of working on their own. But when hands-off leadership goes too far, or when it’s used with the wrong kind of team, lots of things can go wrong.
Of the four main styles of leadership: Steward, Diplomat, Idealist and Pragmatist, the Steward leader most rarely experiences the negative issues associated with undermanaging. Steward leaders aren’t micromanagers, but they do believe that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and they move only as fast as the whole chain will allow, taking care and time to help those employees that struggle to keep up. (You can take this quiz to find out if you’re a Steward, Diplomat, Idealist or Pragmatist).
The following are three warning signs that you may be undermanaging. If you find yourself facing any of these issues, try using the listed techniques, favored by Steward leaders, to correct the situation.
Under-Management Warning Sign #1: Employees Are Underperforming
One of my studies called “Fewer Than Half of Employees Know If They’re Doing A Good Job” made a shocking discovery: Only 29% of employees say they “Always” know whether their performance is where it should be. Meanwhile, well over half of employees “Never,” “Rarely” or “Occasionally” knew.
One major problem are the euphemisms, admonitions and clichés that too often get passed off as performance expectations. When undermanaged employees receive vague instructions, such as “maintain the highest standards of professionalism” or “treat customers as a priority” or “challenge the company’s thinking,” it’s impossible for them to know whether their performance is where it should be.
Steward leaders set crystal clear performance expectations using “Word Pictures” that employ behavioral specificity to paint a clear picture of what a particular performance expectation means broken into the categories of: “Needs Work”, “Good Work” and role-model level “Great Work.”
If accountability, for example, is a performance issue, build a tripartite “Needs Work,” “Good Work” and “Great Work” Word Picture definition by asking yourself and your team: “Accountability for what, exactly?” and “What does accountability look like (and not look like) in this team or organization?”
Recently, a CEO called me to gripe about the lack of accountability among his employees. I didn’t fully understand what he meant by the word “accountability;” on its own, it’s an awfully vague term. So, I asked him to provide examples of the specific employee behaviors around accountability that he found the most problematic. The very first employee behavior he identified was:
“When new changes are implemented, I resist the changes and push for a return to the status quo.”
That’s a behavior that he felt employees absolutely should not do. What should employees do instead? The first Good Work behavior he identified was:
“I openly support our change initiatives, whether I’m in meetings or in one-on-one conversations.”
That’s an elegantly simple example of what employees should do. But if I’m his employee, I might wonder, “How do I exceed those expectations?” That is where the Great Work category comes into play. His first Great Work behavior was:
“I do everything in the Good Work category, plus, I encourage and convince my fellow employees to support change initiatives.”
If I’m a leader armed with these definitions of Needs Work, Good Work and Great Work, and I actually share them with my team, or develop them collaboratively with my team, then I should never again have employees who don’t know whether their performance is where it should be.
Under-Management Warning Sign #2: Employees Lack Passion
With purpose comes passion, but when leaders take hands-off leadership too far, they risk leaving their people in the dark about “why” they’re doing the work assigned to them. Without a clear sense of purpose, work becomes a lackluster and perfunctory exercise.
Steward leaders keep their people passionate about their work by explaining where the work originated, why the work is being done, and who will benefit from the end product. Goal setting is a great place to start.
The study “Are SMART Goals Dumb?” showed that only 15% of people strongly agree their goals for this year will help them achieve great things and only 13% said their current goals will help them maximize their full potential. Assigning HARD Goals that are Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult vastly increases the likelihood of setting meaningful goals that result in great achievements.
The Heartfelt element of HARD Goals, in particular, creates an emotional connection to the goal that ignites the kind of passion that leads to incredible accomplishments.
Under-Management Warning Sign #3: Employees Are Missing Deadlines
When leaders undermanage, it’s often the case that no one is held accountable when deadlines are missed. This sends a clear message to all employees that deadlines are just fuzzy targets that carry no consequences when missed.
Another issue that happens when leaders undermanage is confusing the stated deadline with the leader’s mental sense of the time it takes to complete the project.
If you give a project deadline of Friday, for example, but you’re thinking “if it were me doing the work, I’d have it done by Tuesday,” and you don’t convey this information to the employee, they’re not going to meet your expectations. If you want your people to meet and exceed your expectations, always set the deadlines you really want.
Steward leaders also enforce accountability for missed deadlines with a simple conversation that asks employees to identify what went wrong, how they plan to recover and what they learned so the mistake is not repeated.
The goal of any performance conversation is to get employees to make a behavioral change towards better performance. Sadly, 51% of employees say they get too little constructive insight from their boss and 81% of managers say they’ve avoided giving employees tough feedback because they were afraid of a bad reaction. Remember that good employees want feedback that helps them improve performance.
You can be a successful hands-off leader without suffering the problems of undermanaging. Just pay attention to the warning signs and take action as soon as problems appear.
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Three Signs That You’re Under-Managing Your Employees
By Mark Murphy, Contributor
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