For project managers, self-reliant team members are more than a nice-to-have.
At a minimum, these employees offer organizations a competitive advantage. And in the long run, the empowered employees an organization cultivates today will be essential to its survival.
These are big stakes for a buzzword like empowerment, but it’s an easy case to make when you consider the looming impacts that technologies such as machine learning and automation are about to make.
Mac Bryla has an excellent piece at Tableau that argues self-sufficient employees are the key to unlocking innovation, even in very large companies. Bryla says that when employees are allowed to explore an organization’s lakes of data, test their own hypotheses and take risks without fearing the repercussions of failure, they bring business intelligence into the realm of self-service. That allows innovation to scale.
That’s the competitive advantage that exists today. Going forward, all team members need to have access to raw information and the skills to turn that information into intelligence or guidance, Hannover Messe writes, because automation will take over any repetitive work that doesn’t require the application of knowledge.
Eventually, then, expertise and decision-making must be pulled out of managerial silos and given to all team members. That’s a tall order. So, how do organizations lay the groundwork today for team members to become self-reliant? Here are 10 tips for initiating that process.
1. Delegate Decisions, Not Tasks
Delegating tasks keeps people reliant on you for direction and instruction. Therefore, true self-reliance only comes from handing people the power to make decisions themselves. After all, your team members were hired for their knowledge and skills. Let them apply those.
“If you think about it, the people that you hire to do this work are freakishly smart,” Joseph Flahiff at Whitewater Projects Inc. says. “They know a lot. They definitely know a lot more about their work than you do. And, you may know how it fits into the greater puzzle. So there is a symbiotic relationship that you have to have.”
2. Then, Get Out of the Way
It’s hard for most people to hand over authority. Most of us have a tendency to want to at least sign off on a decision to make sure it aligns with how we want things done.
But this turns us into bottlenecks, and does more harm than good. HR veteran Susan M. Heathfield has an example of this effect in practice at The Balance. She tells the story of how one human resources department stretched its hiring process out over several weeks all because of one manager, who asked “staff members to obtain his signature on every document related to the hiring of a new employee. Consequently, documents sat on his desk in a pile until he had time to review them.”
The lesson here: You cannot partially empower team members and expect results. Give them the freedom to make decisions within the scope of their work, and remove yourself as a bottleneck.
3. Lean On Your Most Autonomous Team Members
Don’t feel compelled to hand over decision-making authority wholesale. Instead, drip it out selectively, and let team empowerment grow organically.
To do this, Amit Maimon, SVP of product innovation and development at Lifion, says to identify the people on your team whom he describes as “autonomy leaders,” or those who define success through what they create rather than the orders they follow.
“They need to be comfortable pushing back on their managers in a logical, articulate way, and they should come from a place of achieving impact,” he says.
Focus first on these team members, Maimon suggests. Give them the authority to make decisions, and recognize them publicly for their accomplishments. For everyone else, these team members will serve as an example, and slowly but surely many other employees will begin to take their own initiative and eventually earn the trust necessary for you to empower them.
4. Don’t Wait for Annual Reviews to Offer Feedback
Even for employees who are otherwise ready to take the initiative, a lack of timely feedback will make them cautious about taking chances.
So, instead of pencilling in an annual or even a quarterly review with everyone, set aside some time right after a project is completed to let each person know what he or she did well, and where there is room for improvement.
“Most people have been in situations where they put a lot of time, energy and resources into a project,” GoCo co-founder Michael Gugel says. “It’s frustrating to discover late in the game that something was wrong. When it comes to performance, employees deserve to receive timely information.”
These timely reviews help strengthen the feedback loop that lets employees know there is room for them to grow into their roles.
5. Let Them Disconnect
There are a couple of benefits to letting people leave work at work.
First, sending out non-urgent emails in the evening sets unhealthy expectations. It’s a slippery slope that leads team members to feel they must always be on and reachable. This creates a dull, grinding stress that over time wears people down.
Instead, setting aside intermittent stretches to go offline lets you de-stress and return to work feeling recharged. As Dr. Travis Bradberry points out, this kind of active stress management is one of the traits of successful people.
6. In Fact, You Should Hire People Who Look to Disconnect
There’s ample evidence now that workaholics and always-on employees don’t deliver better business results. Instead, TWT Group founder Shawn Freeman recommends looking for “lazy” employees who have hobbies and passions outside of work that take up their free time.
These are the people who will invent new, efficient processes and workarounds so they never have to stay late. These are the people who are happy to remove themselves as bottlenecks, and these are “the employees who will propel your business forward,” Freeman says.
7. Don’t Skimp on Training When Introducing New Processes
Brent Gleeson, founder of TalkingPoint Leadership, says he’s had to learn the hard way that any new systems, software or processes require patient training and onboarding.
Unfortunately, too often organizations budget too few resources — both time and money — to getting their team members comfortable with these new processes, Gleeson says. But that kind of thinking is costly: Rather than spending upfront to reap the benefits new systems create, these companies spend a little less upfront but never actually realize those benefits.
8. Give Employees Dedicated Time Each Week to Think Creatively and Innovate
Think of this tip as a cousin to tip No. 7. Just as it’s important to give people the time they require to get caught up to new processes, it’s also important to give them time each week to work on some big-picture problems.
“The most forward-thinking organizations don’t stumble upon innovative ideas by chance,” Classy’s Elizabeth Chung says. “They build a framework within their teams that supports consistent creativity and innovation.”
Chung cites as an example Project Concern International, which has a policy that gives employees the freedom to spend 15 percent of their week (a little less than a whole workday) thinking creatively and tackling bigger projects. This has allowed PCI to foster the kind of culture where people feel comfortable going above and beyond. In other words, they get comfortable sticking their necks out to drive meaningful results.
9. Let People Define Success and Failure on Their Own
Each project will be guided by organization-level definitions of success and failure, but at the personal level it’s important to let the employees who have decision-making power judge their work for themselves.
Imposing your own opinion just creates another bottleneck, as with imposing sign-off authority. “The moment you try to push your opinion on others about what defines success and failure, you take a step back in the process of developing authentic relationships,” says Haril Pandya, Principal of CBT Architects. “You can’t expect people will subscribe to everything you say. We’re all wired differently in the way we absorb, retain, and react to information.”
10. Break Up Bigger Teams Into Smaller Ones
Finally, your team members might feel constrained because they’re part of large, unwieldy teams. There’s an old Silicon Valley rule of thumb that says teams must be small enough that two pizzas will feed everyone. If your teams are bigger than that, consider breaking them apart.
“Smaller teams provide a good environment for meaningful work,” Connecteam’s Eyal Katz writes. “Think about it — when a manager isn’t around, who do employees turn to for support or questions? Their fellow employees. Creating smaller teams can create an environment that is more personal, secure, and one that facilitates support shared experiences, challenges, and successes.”
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