If Teams Become Self-directed, What’s Left For The Managers To Do?

How do you enable and oversee without having control and visibility? This is the challenge of leadership and focusing on adopting or refining these three key attributes will help get you on the right path…

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We have all heard the words and most probably used them ourselves many times over; Empowered, autonomous, self directed. Thousands of articles, publications, books, podcasts and yes, even blogs have been written about the power of enabling this type of cultural environment. And to help us get there, we have a plethora of insights, tips, roadmaps and strategies to make sure we can navigate our path through this organisational utopia. It’s how we all want to work, and how we want our teams to operate.

Despite this consensus it remains a challenge for many organisations who are struggling to find the balance between the what of the work that needs to be done, and the how which determines the way in which it actually gets done. Why exactly is this the case? With all of the research backing it up, this should be a no-brainer to want to do, and with all of the practical guides available, it should be a matter of simply applying and executing to get it done. However, given the human element, it is never quite that easy or simple and that accounts for organisations and managers who have tried and not been successful, or have chosen to not try at all.

It could be argued that if we all want to work in that way, enabling others to do so is the not only logical but also effective. But words do mean different things to different people and sometimes depending on the context, the same words also mean different things to the same people. If we can have alternative facts, we can surely have alternative interpretation. A google search of the word empowerment returns over 293 million results. Self directed tops that with 438 million. I am pretty confident in my assumption that while results may be similar, they will not all be consistent. With that in mind, the challenge can start early, because what we need to understand is that while the intent is there, that in itself may not be enough. It needs to be the right intent and the right execution, to deliver the right outcome.

Irrespective of where you are within the organisational hierarchy there is always someone in a position to direct your focus, priorities and actions.  What tends to be different is the level of direction and who the messages are coming from. In typical, traditional structures, decision making and direction tends to be determined by functional role and reporting lines. In organisations that have transformed to respond to digital challenges, are working with Agile or for digital natives, that may be more a function of expertise and specific project engagement. Notwithstanding that, even CEOs have boards to answer to, and boards in turn have shareholders to answer to. While we have seen many recent examples around the world of interference, lack of probity, and good governance in organisations and government, oversight, direction, external perspective are important foundations for effective operation.  And that in itself can become a derailing factor for many. Because how do you enable and oversee without having control and visibility?

This is the challenge of leadership and focusing on adopting or refining three key attributes will help get you on the right path:

1. Understand and embrace risk

This is not about ignoring what is known to create a problem. Organisations need to be confident in their ability to get good outcomes in the right way without careening towards a disaster that could have easily been avoided or mitigated. The risk for many in stepping away from decision making and allowing individuals and teams to make their own decisions in relation to what is done, is problematic.  It can be seen as a leadership failure; that we somehow didn’t “own the problem”, or didn’t “step up to the plate”. Life, much less work situations are never really that simple. And enabling self directed teams is not an abdication of leadership responsibility. There are so many factors to consider including the information that was available at the time. It can also come down to a question of trust in that person as much as trust in our own judgement. It sometimes involves letting others find their own way, even if we know that it may not be the best way, or more pointedly, the way we would have done it. And equally important, it also comes down to assessing the consequence of things going awry and adding that to the factors determining whether the risk is acceptable in the context.

2. Understand capability

Applying equally to ourselves and our teams, the capability question is an important one. And a fundamental attribute of leading is assessing strengths as well as development needs in individuals and responding by making time and offering enablement to help those individuals build on their strengths and improve in areas that may need more attention. It takes time to actually spend time working on ourselves and helping others who are looking for development and improvement. In a choice between a meeting with an agenda focused on task allocation versus a meeting to develop and discuss development plans and progress, there is little question of which one would produce the more engaged employee. And with enthusiasm being contagious, it’s not a bad outcome for the rest of the team or client either.

3. Create a learning environment

Every organisation is in the process of either considering a transformation or has begun one. In the digital world, we have only started to explore the impact of the fourth industrial revolution and others are already speaking of the fifth (a great topic for another blog!) It is hard to keep up with all of the business-as-usual activities, much less everything else that is now an expectation; new projects, external research, feedback loops, workshops, to name just a few. Enabling teams and individuals with the opportunity to manage their own work and themselves to the extent that works for them and the organisation gives them a chance to learn through practical means, by hearing about the experiences of others, and in turn sharing their own stories. It fosters trust in the culture of the team and the organisation and a willingness to go beyond the simple instruction that they would have otherwise been given. Diversity. Creativity. Productivity. They can all thrive in this environment when leaders understand the opportunity of truly leading.