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Getting your direct reports to make decisions

3 min read: In 2008 I met a commercial manager called Andy who was close to breaking point. He had somehow gotten himself into the position where he was pretty much doing the job of all four of the people that worked for him. Throughout the course of each day various members of his team would come to him with problems and they would leave with solutions or even better with him taking the action from them. It was only when he learned about how we shape other people’s behaviour over time that it occurred to him that this might not actually be about them, but rather more about the behaviour he was unintentionally encouraging. Now this is an easy and a very common trap to fall into. As the most experienced member of the team he had many of the answers. It was much quicker and easier in the short term to just do it himself rather than take the time and effort to coach his people for future benefit. But what he was teaching his team was that every time they went to him with a problem, they came back with a solution. Over time they were learning to defer upwards since the behaviour worked for them. The problem was compounded by the fact that by solving their problems for them, he was in effect dropping down a level, getting too involved in the detail, leaving him even less time to think about developing his team. Over the last nine years I have met lots of managers in a similar situation. But by taking some simple steps, many people are able to make significant improvement, leaving them much more time to concentrate on the role they were employed to do. Here’s how to make a start:

Collect some data.

Start to collect simple data on the nature of the problems your team defer to you on, you should record topic, frequency and team member. This will give you an insight into where you are best focusing your improvement efforts.

Analyse the current behaviour.

Step into the shoes of each team member to understand what’s driving the current behaviour of deferring to you: Ask yourself (or explore with them) these questions:

  • Have you ever set an explicit expectation as to what you’d like them to do?

  • Is there an issue with knowledge or skill? What on the job coaching have they had?

  • What feedback or encouragement do they get for solving their own problems?

  • What feedback or encouragement might you be unintentionally be providing when they defer to you instead?

  • Are they avoiding something, such as a poor response from you if they make a mistake?

  • Are there any barriers that are getting in the way, such as confrontation with a colleague?

Develop a simple shaping plan for each person and type of issue.

If they know what to do and how to do it, you just need to set some new expectations moving forward and provide lots of positive reinforcement, encouraging any small attempts in the right direction. If this seems like too big a step, instead of having them come to you with problems as an interim steps ask them to come with some solutions that you can then talk through and give them feedback on. Where there is a knowledge gap consider on the job coaching or further development opportunities. Your job is to set clear expectations, provide appropriate knowledge and skill development, identify and remove any barriers that get in the way and most importantly ensure that you are regularly feeding back and encouraging the behaviour you want, this is the step that most people miss. I recently bumped in to Andy and the first thing he talked about was the impact this learning had had on him at such a formative stage in his career. Fantastic feedback for me, but also a great story to share.

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