Book Excerpts

The autonomy and accountability challenge

Updated on: Nov 27, 2021
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How leaders, managers and team members can raise their games to meet the challenges of the new age of working

Professionals today expect far more autonomy than the armies of semi-educated workers who powered the Industrial Revolution. Many managers have found this hard to deal with, because the old ways of command and control have been deeply ingrained in management for over 200 years. Managers have lost their coercive power in the face of skilled staff. The more skilled staff become, the more they are able to find work elsewhere if they do not like the way you manage; the number one reason for people leaving a job is to leave a boss they dislike.

Today, you have to become the manager people want to work for, not the manager people have to work for as a result of the assignment system. The pandemic accelerated this revolution because it is much harder to control people when you cannot see them. WFH eliminates your ability to hear, see and sense what your team is doing. You have to trust that they are working well and behaving well when they are out of sight. WFH and hybrid working is forcing managers to find new ways of managing in a world of high autonomy and low direct control.

Autonomy and accountability is also a challenge for team members. The joy of increased autonomy is balanced by the terror of increased accountability: you cannot have one without the other. Remote and hybrid working increases both autonomy and accountability for team members. Done well, this can be an undisguised blessing; done poorly, it is a recipe for anxiety, stress and overwork.

This chapter focuses on how your role as a leader changes as a result of the revolution.

Managing professionals remotely:

How do you manage people who don’t like to be managed and who you can neither see nor hear for most of the time? The answer is simple: manage less, lead more. Working in an office encourages management, not leadership. When you can see and hear your team all day, it is natural to believe that you add value by managing them. The classic tasks of management included assigning work, managing performance, checking quality, dealing with crises and conflicts, sorting out the most challenging problems and helping the team develop. In other words, the job of the manager was to interfere with the team’s work.

This was necessary when the team had fewer skills: they needed direction and checking; they needed someone to sort out problems, crises and conflicts for them. But these activities no longer add value when the team is highly skilled and highly motivated.

WFH makes close supervision, the hallmark of office management, impossible. You cannot see and hear your team all day when they are at home. You are forced to trust them more. As we have seen, trust is the essence of any team. If no one on the team depends on anyone else you do not have a team: you have a group of individuals working to their own goals. Teamwork is about dependency, and that means you have to be able to trust your team. The trust challenge for you as a team leader is delegation. The more you are prepared to delegate, the more you trust your team. The less you delegate and the more you check your team, the less you trust your team. Team leaders often find very good excuses for not delegating.

Below are the normal excuses and what the team hears, in brackets:

● I can do it better myself (I don’t trust my team’s ability).

● This report is vital and I am accountable for it (I am not dumb enough to trust my team on anything that actually matters).

● I don’t have time to train the team for this (I don ’ t trust them to do this, and I do not want my team to upstage me).

● My boss asked me for this personally (I don’t trust my team and I want to stay in control).

● This is a really tough problem (I don’t trust my team and want to be indispensable).

Lack of delegation is a negative doom loop. Low delegation is seen as low trust, which leads to low motivation, and it also means the team never learns or grows: underperformance is baked in, which then justifies the decision not to delegate. High delegation is a virtuous circle, signalling high trust, and leads to high motivation and team learning and growth, which enables them to do more and do it better. Hybrid working forces team leaders towards much more delegation than in the past.

The three keys to effective delegation are:

● Have the right team.

● Know what you can delegate.

● Know how you can delegate.

Have the right team

A core task for you as a leader is to pick the right team for the job. If you cannot delegate to your team, then either you have the wrong team or the team has the wrong boss. Selecting the ‘ right ’ team is about values as much as skills. Many bosses find to their cost that they hire for skills and fi re for (lack of ) values. In practice, you can train skills but you cannot train values. A team member with the right values is someone who:

● You can trust to do the right thing while you are not looking.

● Has the desire to learn and grow, to acquire the skills you need.

● Fits with or complements the values of your team.

Working in the office allows you to compromise on team quality. Because you can see who is struggling (perhaps because they are new in the role), you can shift work to more capable team members and you can provide close support for the struggler. Hybrid working is less forgiving of weak performance. You have to trust that each team member will deliver, without you looking over their shoulder the whole time. Team members understand this intuitively: they know that more autonomy means more accountability. That raises the pressure on them to perform, which is one of the reasons for stress rising during extended periods of WFH.

Know what you can delegate

Many bosses ask ‘ what can I delegate? ’ This is the wrong question. The answer is usually ‘ very little ’ . The ‘ very little ’ can be a toxic combination of routine rubbish and one or two unpleasant tasks which you want to offl oad. This sort of delegation is an effective way to demotivate your team. A better question to ask is ‘ Is there anything I cannot delegate?’

Instead of assuming that you start with all the work yourself, assume that you start with none of the work and then ask ‘what do I absolutely have to take away from my team? ’ Again, the answer will be surprisingly short, if your team is good. You probably have to take performance appraisals away from the team. Beyond that, your list should be short. The more you delegate, the more you focus your efforts on where you add most value and really make a difference.

Delegation makes for more interesting work for yourself, and for your team. The best delegators are often the most effective bosses:

● They show trust in their team, which increases motivation

● Delegation forces the team to step up and grow their skills and capabilities.

● The team leader has to focus on where he or she can add real value. If you delegate well you will find that you have to re-invent your role as a leader. Effectively, you have to promote yourself: your title will stay the same, but your role will be different.

Know how you can delegate

Many bosses don’t delegate for a simple reason: they don’t know how to do it. A sure way to demotivate your team is to delegate poorly:

● Delegate only the routine rubbish and one or two nightmare issues.

● Be unclear about what you want and when.

● Change your mind.

● Don’t give your team the resources and support they need to succeed.

Turn these problems around and it becomes clear what good delegation looks like. It starts by delegating the right portfolio of work: there will always be dull routine to be delegated, but you should also delegate challenging work which will allow your team to engage and grow. Be clear about what you want and when. This is exceptionally hard if you have to rely on the written word.

You may be able to write down the basics of what is needed by when, but it is nearly impossible to capture all the vital context:

● Who needs it and why do they need it?

● How much detail is required?

● How does this fit with other priorities?

● How does this dovetail with other work?

● Are there any precedents we can use, or no-go areas or must-haves?

● Who else needs to be involved, informed, consulted and who needs to approve what?

● What resources (time, money, budget, political support, access to decision makers and influencers) do you need to set this assignment up for success?

Instead of writing everything down, most bosses correctly discuss the assignment. If it is a significant assignment, it will require much more than one discussion. You will need a series of discussions to discover the whole context.

About the Book

Check out the book on Amazon

(Jo Owen has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations on our planet. He is a founder of eight NGOs which have a collective turnover of £100 million annually. This excerpt is being carried with permission from Bloomsbury)

Published on November 27, 2021

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