Walking the outcomes talk

One of the advantages of having worked in retail management prior to completing my masters in occupational psychology, was the opportunity to identify why some of my previous approaches to management had worked, and why others hadn’t.

One example that has always stuck with me is the way I used to approach delegation. Back in the day, I clearly recall not just asking people to deliver an outcome, but also being overly concerned about how they did so.

I believed (from personal experience and years of seeing the way others completed tasks) that I knew the best and most efficient way to get things done.

More on management:

Is HR forcing people into management?

80% of employees have experienced bad management

Line managers need better support

From processing stock to daily rotas, I tried hard to develop ‘best practice’, and share my knowledge with less experienced colleagues.

This same issue with how and when to delegate or empower others is a leadership challenge I see time and again today as a business psychologist, and not just with newly qualified managers.

But this natural belief – that managers know the best way to do something and simply have to train others to do it as they would – is complete folly for at least three reasons.

Firstly, evidence suggests that people learn best, feel happier, are more motivated and find work more rewarding when they find their own solutions to problems.

Their solution might not be the 100% solution that you have in mind, but unless it’s going to impact negatively on another team or individual, waste a ridiculous amount of time or resource or land someone in jail, then you are almost always best advised to let people run with it and find their own way to towards the end you have stipulated.

Secondly, giving autonomy to others promotes learning. I sometimes refer to the dangers of becoming what I call a ‘sat nav’ manager: one who has a clear outcome in mind, but constantly directs and instructs from the sidelines.

The problem, aside from the obvious need for the sat nav manager to be constantly present is that little actual learning takes place.

Sure, the driver might end up lost down the odd side road for a while shouting at the map, but the learning that takes place in those unplanned detours is ultimately invaluable.

Lastly, stipulating where you want someone to get to, but not dictating the exact route leads the door open to innovation.

Your 100% solution may well be the best way right now, (or more likely the best way some years ago when you were in a similar role), but if it’s imposed ad infinitum, then how do we ever improve ways of delivering?

If people are not expected, or even allowed to experiment in their roles, then how do we ever progress?

If you see this in your organisation, here are some tips:

  • Help leaders be clear about which outcomes need delivering in a definitive way, and which can be used to allow people to experiment. The instances where there is a very clear reason for why something needs doing a certain way are fewer and further between than we might think. Most tasks don’t fit into this category, and the trick as a leader is figuring out which are opportunities to unlock people’s thinking and motivation.
  • Help leaders question whether they are expecting things to be done a certain way because it needs to be, or simply because somehow it makes them feel more comfortable. There are enough uncertainties that managers have to deal with and knowing that actions are being taken a certain way can be comforting. Help people fight these natural instincts.
  • Invest in coaching skills. Managers become much more comfortable allowing a degree of freedom when they have effectively questioned and coached people to come up with their own workable and personally owned solutions. This sounds obvious, but still so many managers confuse real coaching with ‘training’ or ‘advising’.

Mike Thackray is principal consultant, OE Cam