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Myth #3 – Experienced professionals don’t need managing

This is the third in my series on workplace myths – those pervasive beliefs that contain a grain of truth but may not be as applicable as you think. Professional.jpgSome of you may be wondering why I’m considering this one as a myth at all. If you’ve suffered the horrors of a control freak micro-manager, you may long to be left alone to get on with the job. But for how long? When does that absence of management become a problem?

Research from a recent conference suggests that, eventually, Absent Leadership really gets people down. Absent leadership is where someone occupies a leadership role but doesn’t carry out the responsibilities. Incidentally, I’m now going to use the terms leader and manager interchangeably, which I suspect will infuriate some people. If it’s bothering you, substitute the word ‘boss’.

So what’s the problem with an absent leader?

Impact on the individual

In a survey asking what makes a leader ineffective, people complained about lack of praise, lack of constructive feedback, managers not making time for them, not getting to know them as people. Only one of the complaints was actively bad – taking credit for their work. All the others were about an absence of management activity. Sure there’s a balance to be struck between interference and autonomy. If you’re in doubt about how to strike that balance, have a look at this article on the dimensions of delegation. But management neglect is not going to be the answer.

Impact on the team/department

Management/leadership is not just about overseeing the work of individual staff members. It’s also about creating something greater than the sum of the parts. When a leader is absent, there’s a lack of co-ordination, important decisions get delayed, people don’t understand what direction they’re going in. It leaves a vacuum where political game playing thrives and conflict increases.

Impact on job satisfaction

A fascinating piece of research looked at the impact on people’s job satisfaction of different types of leadership. If you start working for a great boss, it has an immediate positive impact on your job satisfaction but after six months you take it for granted. Your job satisfaction after that is unrelated to your boss.

Start working for a tyrant and, unsurprisingly, it has an immediate negative impact on your job satisfaction, which is still there six months later. After two years, however, you get used to it (or leave). If you start working for an absent leader, on the other hand, it has no impact at all on your job satisfaction at first. After six months it starts to get to you and two years later it’s still having a negative effect. So this form of leadership is not benign neglect – it’s really harmful.

Why do people become absent leaders? 

There may be personality characteristics that predispose people to absent leadership. People who are strongly introverted and highly cautious, for example, may avoid difficult decisions and neglect the relationship building aspects of leadership. But often these are not the people who make it to leadership positions.

The most common type of absent leader I encounter is the individual contributor – the salesperson, lawyer, academic, engineer, accountant who’s promoted because of their specialist skills but doesn’t really want leadership responsibility. Their own work is more interesting, so that’s where they put most of their energy and attention. As I mentioned in the article on technical specialists as leaders, it’s really important to check that people going for leadership positions understand what’s required and actually want to do it.

There’s a lot of it about

Research seems to suggest that absent leadership is the most prevalent form of dysfunctional leadership. One of the reasons for this is that absent leaders cause no problems upwards. Organisations are more likely to deal with actively dysfunctional leaders as the problems are more visible and more likely to land them in an industrial tribunal. Absent leaders, on the other hand, may cause misery for years but be quietly ignored. In some cases, they may be highly valued by the organisation as individual contributors, e.g. some partners in professional services firms who bring in huge fees and add prestige to the firm, while neglecting those they are supposed to manage.

It’s really important for organisations to be clear about what they expect from their senior people and promote staff who have both the aptitude and the appetite to take on those responsibilities. If you’d like to talk through the implications of that for your organisation, I’m happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Myth #4 – Female leaders are more nurturing

This is the fourth in a series on workplace myths, Empowering female leaderthose pervasive beliefs that hold a grain of truth but might not be as widely applicable as we think. This one feels very 21st century to me. We’ve got used to seeing more women in leadership roles (until you get to the very top) and there’s a feeling that they bring something different to leadership, something perhaps more suited to the 21st century workplace. But is it true?

What to we mean by ‘nurturing’?

I think a lot of things get wrapped up in the idea of the nurturing leader: concern for people’s well-being, supporting people’s development, getting to know staff as individuals, giving praise and encouragement, showing understanding about the other demands in people’s lives, being supportive when things go wrong and so on. You could probably sum it up in two words: being nice.

So are women nicer than men?

No, don’t be daft. When you put it as starkly as that, it sounds a bit ridiculous. Obviously there are many, many nice men in the world and plenty of women who aren’t particularly nice. But if I asked whether women are more caring, chances are you’d say yes, mostly they are. What this suggests is that we have different standards for what we (all collectively) expect from men and women to qualify as ‘nice’.

What the psychology says is that, on average, women are more agreeable than men. That is, we’re easier to get on with, more co-operative, less confrontational, more sympathetic. Of course, that doesn’t mean all women are more agreeable than all men. On average, men are taller than women, but some women are six foot tall and some men are under five foot five.

Nature or nurture?

There is almost certainly some biology in there. For example, as we know, men are driven by their hormones* and testosterone can make them go a bit crazy – aggressive, prone to take unnecessary risk, particularly if their masculinity is threatened, a bit less nice.

But clearly, nurture has a lot to do with it too. Women are socialised to consider others’ needs and, perhaps, put them above our own. If you want a simple, real world demonstration, watch people walking on a busy street and see who adjusts their path to get out of others’ way more often.

*Yeah, yeah, we’re all driven by hormones, of course. I’m just counteracting the dominant narrative that suggests women are governed by their biology, while men run on pure unadulterated logic.

Are female leaders more nurturing? 

Maybe. The evidence for whether men and women lead in different ways is mixed. Some studies suggest women  leaders may be more nurturing, others that people simply perceive them differently. An analysis of masses of 360 degree feedback data, found that women leaders were rated more highly than male leaders by everyone except themselves.  And yes, they were rated as more nurturing and supportive, but interestingly the biggest differences were in areas such as taking initiative, acting with integrity and driving for results. In other words, women weren’t leading in a different way, they were just better at it all round.

Before we get too carried away about women as super-leaders, it’s worth bearing in mind that the data gets rather skewed. A lot of very talented men make it to senior positions, but so do rather a lot of average ones. It’s rare, however, for an average woman to make it that far. So the data is comparing a smaller number of highly talented women with a larger number of both talented and fairly average men.

Is being a nurturing leader seen as a positive?

Yes but… On the one hand, 21st century leadership is all about empowerment, inclusion, bringing people with you. We seem to be moving away from old style, command-and-control leadership where a powerful authority figure tells you what to do and you do it. Millennials won’t put up with that sort of thing, we’re told. (Although let’s be honest here, this applies mostly in nice workplaces, where nice people do nice jobs. There’s plenty of command-and-control in a Sports Direct warehouse).

This supportive leadership style seems to play to what are seen as women’s strengths (whether they actually are or not). I’ve always been slightly suspicious of this narrative, even when it’s well-meaning. If 21st century leadership requires skills that women are seen has excelling at, why are we not over-represented in senior positions?

Obviously there’s a complex mix of reasons, but I think it’s partly because, in the end, all that fluffy empowerment stuff is still seen as a ‘nice to have’ (even if research suggests it isn’t). The real work is still seen as being elsewhere – the vision and strategy, the tough commercial negotiation, the cut and thrust of business. And these, wrongly, are still seen as male domains.

There is a real risk of side-lining women. A nurturing female leader, who takes care of the people back at the ranch, is less threatening to the status quo than a powerful female leader, who takes the organisation forward out in the world.

More nurturing than what?

I deliberately left the title of this article vague. I suspect most people would take it to mean women are more nurturing than men. But it could mean women are more nurturing than they are strategic or analytical or business-oriented. I don’t think we even notice it, but when we talk about nurturing female leaders we imply that women’s primary contribution as leaders is to be nurturing and empowering. Sometimes it will be, but often it won’t. Some women’s key contribution will be strategic vision. Some will be fantastic at turning a vision into an actionable plan. Others may have a relentless focus on continuous improvement. As I’ve discussed here many times before, leadership requires a blend of different contributions and no one is good at all of them. It does women and men a disservice to assume that women will handle the people-y bits.

If you’d like to talk about the mix of leadership in your organisation, I’m happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Myth #2 – Geeks have no social skills

This is the second in a short series exploring workplace myths. Having started my career as a computer programmer, this one is close to my heart and I use the term geek affectionately. Geeks.jpgIT departments are, of course, Geek HQ, but similar stereotypes apply to other specialists. For example, how can you spot an outgoing auditor? They look at your shoes when they’re talking to you. So if you’re a bit of a geek, or you work with them, here’s an exploration of some of the stereotypes and misconceptions that lie behind this workplace myth.

1. All geeks are introverts

This just isn’t true. For starters, introversion/extroversion isn’t an either/or, it’s a continuum*. Most people are somewhere in the middle. It’s true that technical specialisms, which require a depth of concentration, tend to attract people who are more introverted. But that doesn’t mean all geeks are introverted and certainly not that they’re all extremely introverted.

*Despite it being a continuum, I’m now going to refer to introverts and extroverts, just because it’s easier.

2. All introverts are shy 

Some introverts are shy. So are some extroverts. The key difference is that introverts like quiet while extroverts crave stimulation. I’ve met some very socially confident introverts who are perfectly happy interacting with people, they just sometimes choose not to. Extroverts often mistakenly assume that if introverts just came out of their shell a bit, they’d see how much fun it is to be outgoing. Actually, many introverts are quite content where they are, but have to function in a world geared around extroverts.

Introverts often prefer to have a smaller number of close relationships rather than loads of acquaintances. If you’re a geek trying to build a professional network, you’re likely to be better off arranging to meet people on a one-to-one basis, than trying to work the room at those big events where you have to talk to loads of strangers while juggling a plate of canapes. Research suggests this strategy may actually be more successful – quality not quantity counts.

3. Extroverts are naturally more socially skilled

No one is born socially skilled. We all have to learn to get on with others. Because of their desire for more social contact, extroverts get more practice. But it doesn’t automatically follow that they’re better at it. As an extrovert, I know I’ve been guilty of all of the following:

  • Saying something out loud that really should have stayed inside my head
  • Talking over the end of someone’s sentence
  • Taking up too much air time
  • Mindlessly chattering in a place where people were trying to concentrate

Perhaps it’s not surprising that research suggests extroverts have slightly more difficult relationships with colleagues than introverts. Rather than introverts needing to become more like extroverts, there’s a lot that extroverts can learn from introverts. Take a look at Susan Cain’s work on the power of introverts for a different perspective.

4. Geeks only talk ‘Geek Speak’

Most jobs have some level of jargon – just look at how complicated it is to buy a coffee these days. But inevitably, specialist jobs have more of it and it’s more complex. While it’s entirely appropriate to talk to other geeks in the same language, it is important to learn how to translate it for the non-specialist. Some people are brilliant at this. For those that aren’t, it’s often a problem of being so immersed in a way of thinking that it’s hard to see it from the outside.

Here’s a useful checklist – whether you’re a specialist trying to explain something or a non-specialist trying to understand them:

  • Is the context clear? Do we both know what this is about?
  • Is there a concept to be explained here and if so, how clear is it? Analogies and diagrams often help.
  • How much jargon has been used and do we both understand it?
  • Is this the appropriate level of detail? Err on the side of too little; specialists have a tendency to go too far.

Incidentally, the place where communication is often hardest is with someone who knows a bit about it, e.g. a generalist accountant talking to a tax expert. There’s some shared jargon and it’s much easier to make (wrong) assumptions about how much someone knows, so take particular care here.

There are, sadly, some geeks who can’t be bothered to explain things clearly. It makes them feel smart to know stuff other people don’t understand and they don’t want to give that away. I’d say that strategy will backfire. As well as seeming unhelpful, people may assume that the geek is not capable distilling complex ideas into straightforward language. They could end up appearing less smart, not more.

5. They might ‘on the spectrum’

In the last decade or so, we’ve all become much more aware of autism. With that awareness has come whispered asides – “I reckon he’s on the spectrum”. It is likely that fields like IT and accountancy, with their emphasis on logic and order, will have a higher proportion of high functioning autistic people than average and they are likely to find social interaction a challenge. But they’re still likely to be a minority. I’m wary of amateur diagnosis. On the one hand, it seems to introduce a little more tolerance – “Oh that’s why they’re a bit odd; I’ll make allowances”. On the other hand, it creates distance, making the other person seem alien, someone with whom you can’t have a normal working relationship. I hope we get to a point where we value the many varied ways the human brain can be wired and adapt to work with people who see the world differently. But we’re not there yet, so I’d just say be wary of sticking labels on people. If you do need sound information about autism at work, the Autistic Society is a good place to start.

So there you go – a few geeks may have real challenges with their social skills; many don’t. For those introverted types who lack confidence in their social skills, things may not be as bad as you think (I really do recommend Susan Cain’s book – most  introverts love a good book). And for those of us who are naturally more outgoing, it may be worth reflecting on the fact that, sometimes, we’re the problem. We can all improve our social skills. If you’d like some support to reflect on the way you relate to others, I’m just a click away: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Myth #1 – Technical specialists make lousy managers

This is the first in a series on workplace myths, many of which are based on stereotypes – soft female leaders, socially awkward geeks, psychologists obsessed with feelings. TechnicianLike most stereotypes, there’s generally a grain of truth in them. There’s a reason we talk about German efficiency and Italian style, not the other way round. But stereotypes don’t apply in every case, as I discovered when using the Bavarian rail network this summer (couldn’t even manage a queue for a replacement bus service). It’s the same with workplace myths – something which has some value as a generality can be unhelpful when looking at an individual.

So let’s start with this old chestnut, which I hear all the time in IT, engineering, accountancy, law – never promote your best technical specialists; they make terrible managers. Why might this be true?

1. They can’t manage people

Actually this seems to be the key complaint about specialists. If someone has spent up to 10 years honing – and being rewarded for – their technical excellence, it shouldn’t be a surprise if they haven’t developed an entirely different set of skills the minute you promote them. People management skills need to be learnt. I’d suggest starting with delegation, as that’s often the first bit of management responsibility a specialist gets and one of the main places they go wrong.

It’s true that some people take to people management more naturally than others. But I sense an unspoken assumption that the greater your technical expertise, the less likely you are to have any social skills. This is such a pervasive myth that it’ll be the subject of a later article in this series. Suffice it to say for now, that really knowing your stuff doesn’t automatically mean you’re socially awkward. In my experience, this focus on people management obscures other issues which may hold technical specialists back, such as…

2. They may need structure

Although technical specialists work with complex subjects they often have quite a lot structure to guide their thinking. There may have been taught specific methodologies or have clear procedures or precedents to follow. This isn’t always the case when looking at issues managers deal with, particularly when it comes to strategic thinking. Some technical specialists will  be capable of working in a less structured environment and some will struggle.

3. They may over-emphasise precision

In many technical disciplines, precision is highly valued and rightly so. No one wants to entrust a nuclear power station to an engineer who says “oh that looks OK, give or take…” Often there’s a right answer, which takes skill, technical know-how and ingenuity to work out. Even when there isn’t one right answer, there’s generally a small range of possible answers and people can ‘show their workings’ to justify how they came to a particular conclusion.

This is absolutely not the case with many management decisions. Often managers have to work out the questions for themselves – “Should we develop a new product or invest more in our marketing?” – never mind the answers. There’ll be some information to analyse but the answer won’t just pop out at the end. You have to use your judgement. This takes some getting used to and is particularly difficult for people who fear criticism. If they can’t prove they did the right thing, how do they justify their decisions. In my experience, this is at least as big a hurdle as people management for technical experts moving to management roles.

4. They’re not actually interested

Many technical specialists go into their profession because they enjoy it. Being a systems developer, an engineer or a lawyer may be a huge part of their professional identity, one they may be reluctant to give up. And yet, in many organisations the only way to feel you’re progressing is to move into a management role. Many people find themselves on track for promotion without really thinking about whether it’s what they want. Then they keep getting too involved in the technical stuff because they find it more interesting or they’re unwilling or unable to engage with the messier, less clear cut management issues. Some technical experts can find great satisfaction in broadening their role to encompass responsibility for maintaining technical excellence, exploring trends in their field and developing the next generation of experts. But general management, responsibility for performance and for the commercial aspects of a business is often of little interest.

Undoubtedly some technical specialists overcome all these hurdles and become superb managers. Others don’t. There should be nothing wrong with pursuing a specialist career – one of depth rather than breadth. So if you’re thinking of preparing a specialist for a management role, first check whether they really want to do it. Then try and work out how comfortable they are (or could become) working with less structure and making decisions which require judgement. Then look at how you help them develop their people management skills. And if you’d like any help working any of that out, I’m happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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Delegation – the art of self-management?

Last month, I discussed the dimensions of delegation, which prompted one reader to tell me that, for him, the hardest part of delegating is managing his own responses – Courage-anxietydealing with frustration and reining in his inner control freak, for example. I recognise from my years of coaching that this is something many people struggle with. So this month, I’m looking at what to do and, more importantly, how to manage yourself in various delegation situations. So what if…..

They just don’t get it

No matter how often you explain it, they just don’t seem to grasp what to do. Try asking them to talk you through it, so you can see where the gap in their understanding is. Or break it down into smaller chunks. Or you may just have to accept that you’ve delegated this task to the wrong person. Your task in managing yourself is to handle your frustration and be patient without being patronising. Imagine how you’d like to be treated if you were struggling with something. If you’re super smart and rarely struggle to understand things, treat the person with the sensitivity you’d want if you were learning something you can’t pick up quickly, like ballroom dancing or playing the clarinet.

They’re not getting on with it

There could be many reasons for this, so don’t make assumptions. Maybe it is a tedious task that they’re not motivated to do, but it could be that they don’t know where to start, so keep putting it off. Perhaps they’re a last minute person who pulls out all the stops just before a deadline or maybe they’re just juggling a lot of other priorities.

Find out what’s going on. Clarify the deadline and your priorities. Check whether they need any support, then leave them to it. The lack of activity may be particularly anxiety-provoking if you’re the kind of person who never leaves things to the last minute. But that’s your problem, you need to manage it. And really, you should see us deadline-driven people go when we need to! (It may soothe your nerves to give a deadline a day or so before you really need it).

They don’t do it your way

Or, as you may see it, they don’t do it properly. Be clear up front about any methods that have to be followed, for example if there’s a standard report format. But be honest with yourself about this. Does it really matter if they do it differently? Who knows, they might come up with a better way. If you struggle with this, then your job is to manage your inner control freak.  Many of my clients find it easier to let go of this degree of control if they focus on higher level issues. Once you realise that freeing up time means you can get involved in strategic decision making or winning new business, then the font size on a PowerPoint presentation may seem less important.

They get it wrong

People make mistakes. They’re only human. Maybe they missed something important or their conclusions are faulty or their sums don’t add up. The key thing here is to treat them like adults. Go through their work, highlight the good bits and show them how it could be improved. If you get frustrated easily, then your job is to keep control of yourself and resist the temptation to give them a good telling off. If you’re using a tone you would use with children, you’ve gone wrong.

Just as common as the frustrated manager, however, is the awkward one. If the thought of pointing out someone’s errors fills you with toe-curling embarrassment or gut-wrenching anxiety, there’s a risk you’ll tiptoe around it, without being clear about the problem. Or worse, quietly correct their work without telling them. If you’ve got to a position where you get to delegate, then it’s your job to have awkward conversations when necessary. You need to develop your capacity to give difficult feedback.

They’re perfectionists

People talk a lot about perfectionist managers who set unrealistic standards, but what if it’s the other way around? What if the person you delegate to spends waaaaaay too long on something, endlessly fussing over minor details. It helps to agree upfront how much of their time you expect them to spend on the task. But it’s also about setting expectations about what you want from them. Perfectionists are often anxious about being criticised for making mistakes. Part of your role is to help them see that there are penalties for overplaying their perfectionism and to show them what ‘good enough’ looks like. Obviously you then need to be careful not to send mixed messages by harshly criticising them if they make a mistake.

Everything’s fine

Wait, what?! Why have I included this? There’s nothing to manage here. Indeed, but some people can’t help doing it anyway. Energy-sapping, demotivating micro-management is a frequent complaint about bad bosses. Sure, do a little light monitoring, offer support, be encouraging. But if it’s all going swimmingly, get out of the way. Ask yourself what you should really be focusing on (probably something less operational or immediate), instead of interfering with people who are quite capable of doing the job without you.

They do it better than you

Well this is a shock. You knew they were good. You thought they were ready for whatever it was – important client meeting, writing a proposal for the board – you just didn’t expect them to be this good. You know what you need to do – congratulate them, praise the quality of their work. You probably know how you’re supposed to feel too – pleased, perhaps proud, if you had a role in their development. But what if you feel envious, threatened or insecure? That’s OK. You’re allowed to have those feelings. But you also have a responsibility to deal with them. They’re not the other person’s fault. Don’t be tempted to bring them down a peg or two to make yourself feel better.

Something catastrophic happens

If you’re unlucky, there may be a disaster because of something you delegated to someone else. If you’re lucky, no one dies. It can be worth reminding yourself of that to keep a sense of perspective.* But if they have lost a client or derailed a critical project, how do you handle it? Once you’ve put things right to whatever degree you can, I’d say you have two key tasks here: to extract whatever lessons you can, for you and the person you delegated to, and to manage your feelings. The former is harder if you can’t manage the latter.

In my book it’s OK to be angry – particularly if the person was careless, reckless or negligent – so long as it’s clean anger. “I am really angry/disappointed in you. I expected better” is clean. “You stupid, worthless idiot. What the hell were you thinking?” is not. They almost certainly feel terrible about it already and don’t need you adding to the criticism they’re heaping upon themselves. And if they’re not accepting responsibility, they’re more likely to get defensive if you go on the attack. You may have to process a lot of feelings to get through this situation. As the reader who prompted this article made clear, it goes with the territory.

When delegating, managing yourself is at least as important as managing the people you’re delegating to. If you’d like any support in thinking through how you do that, do get in touch: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

*If someone has died, I’m very sorry you’re having to deal with this. You’re into a whole other level of collective responsibility and grief, which is beyond the scope of this blog. You might find this article or this one helpful.

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Giving it all away? Seven dimensions of delegation

Getting someone else to carry out tasks on your behalf is a key management skill and one that a lot of people struggle with.manager They micro-manage and interfere too much or they abdicate responsibility and leave people floundering. There’s no formula for good delegation – it depends on the task and the individual you’re delegating it to. But you may find it useful to think more carefully about what exactly you’re giving someone responsibility for in any given situation. I’ve come up with seven dimensions of delegation to help you work that out.

1. Process

Who decides how the task will be done – you or the person you’ve delegated to?  We all know the stereotype of the control freak manager who gives step-by-step instructions to ensure the task is completed precisely the way they would do it themselves. If one of the aims of delegation is to develop people, then this is clearly unhelpful.

But the opposite extreme can also be problematic. You might be the kind of person who loves to work out what you’re doing from a blank sheet, even (or, perhaps, especially) if it’s something you’ve never done before. If so, you may underestimate the extent to which others, including very capable, intelligent specialists in their field, need some sort of structure to guide their thinking. I’ve seen situations where a manager gives no guidance for fear of seeming patronising, only to find weeks later that the person has literally no idea where to start.

Working out how much explicit guidance the person needs is the first step in delegating effectively. If you’re not sure, asking how they plan to go about it is a good starting point.

2. Standards

Whose standards are they working to? Who decides what’s good enough? Obviously, I’m not suggesting you accept errors in calculations, red penfaulty logic or grammatical howlers – though it’s better if you don’t point them out by going through someone’s work with a red pen, as I’ve seen some managers do. But does it matter if a report is not worded they way you’d phrase it or a PowerPoint presentation isn’t as jazzy as you’d like? Maybe it does. Perhaps your organisation has specific standards for work – branded colours, particular fonts and so on. If so, be really clear about your expectations from the start. If not, can you let them do it their way? This one is particularly difficult for perfectionists.

3. Decision making authority

The more complex the task, the more decisions are likely to be involved. How much of that decision-making authority are you delegating? Supposing you ask a team member to organise a team away day. Do they choose the venue or recommend a shortlist? Who sets the agenda for the day, works out the timetable, picks the menu? Being clear about decision-making latitude at the outset avoids a lot of misunderstanding and resentment later.

4. Resource requirements

All tasks require some resources, even if it’s only the person’s time. If you’re in professional services or consultancy and monitor billable hours, you’ll know that’s a very important resource. MoneyOther resources may also be necessary, such as other people’s time, use of meeting rooms or equipment or actual money. Who decides what’s required for a task, you or the person you’re delegating to? Do they have an overall limit of money or time that they have to manage within or do you approve the resources required for each stage of the task? There is little more frustrating than being given a task without the resources to complete it, so make sure there is clarity around this. A loyal reader has pointed out that I should add timescale in here – regardless of how many hours or days the task is going to take, who decides when it’s got to be finished by?

5. Progress monitoring

Of course, you will need to monitor progress but how often? To what extent can this person keep themselves on track without you checking up on them? What should determine the degree of monitoring vs self-management is the person’s ability and motivation to manage themselves, combined with the duration and nature of the task. Daily checking is likely to be OTT for a task that will take a month, for example, but maybe not if it’s high risk and mission critical.

In reality, what often dictates the degree of monitoring is the personality of the manager. At one extreme you have control freak micro-managers who spend so long checking up that they might as well do the task themselves (and frequently don’t delegate at all for precisely that reason). At the other extreme, I’ve known managers who don’t so much delegate as throw ideas out and hope someone picks them up. Often big picture thinkers, they forget the detail, follow up inconsistently and are surprised when, months later, nothing’s happened. In a working life of conflicting priorities, people are unlikely to focus on the thing no one is chasing.

6. Accountability

When you delegate work, the ultimate accountability still rests with you. But that doesn’t mean the person you delegated to is totally off the hook if things go wrong (or indeed that all of the credit is yours if everything is a success). I’ve seen managers approach this from both extremes. At one end, you have those who dodge accountability, pushing it all downwards. So, for example, imagine an MD quizzing an area manager about poor results. The director (the area manager’s boss) abdicates responsibility and metaphorically, and perhaps literally, sits with the MD, saying “yeah, why didn’t you achieve more”, rather than sitting with the area manager and accepting a share of responsibility for the poor results.

At the other extreme, I’ve known managers take a philosophical stance that says “the buck stops with me; if it went wrong, it must be my fault”. Whilst it’s admirable that they look at what they personally could have done differently, there’s a risk of infantalising people. How will people learn from their mistakes if their manager, like a kindly parent, makes it all better? I’m not suggesting draconian punishment for honest mistakes, but surely adults should be held accountable for their actions? For the manager, this seemingly noble act can be a way of avoiding difficult conversations about performance. The same is true of managers who quietly correct people’s work and don’t tell them.

7. Pressure

One of the reasons you delegate as a manager is because you have more work than you could possibly do on your own. This creates pressure. How much of that pressure do you push down? The obvious wrong answer is all of it. The manager who makes everyone stay late and then swans off at 5pm is not going to be popular. I expect these people exist, but what I encounter much more frequently is the opposite – the manager who is reluctant to pass on any of the pressure.

I need to tread carefully here because I don’t want to sound like I’m encouraging exploitation.shock stress.jpg I think work/life balance is important and no one should be constantly working long hours. But there are times when the pressure is on – ask a tax accountant in January or an IT person before a go-live date. What I often see is managers protecting their staff from this pressure. They either don’t give people extra work or they take it back and finish it themselves, often late at night, if people can’t meet the deadline. If, at a time of peak demand, you’re the only one working extra hard, something’s wrong with the distribution of work. You could even see it as unfair to your staff – if they’re ambitious people, wanting to progress, shouldn’t they get used to working under a degree of pressure? If you constantly shield them from it, they’ll get a hell of a shock when they go for promotion.

You could be getting delegation just right in some of these dimensions and missing the mark on others – giving the right amount of direction but being over-zealous with monitoring or being clear about decision-making latitude but not about resource requirements, for example.

If you’d like to explore the way you delegate, I’d be happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk.

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Think you understand the workplace? Five ways you’re probably wrong.

I like to keep up with psychology research. I feel it’s part of my responsibility as a practising psychologist to have at least some idea of the latest findings. What’s struck me recently is how often the research has confounded my thinking, suggesting something counter-intuitive. So here are five pieces of common sense, received wisdom about the workplace that recent psychological research suggests are wrong:

1. Leaders should embody their company’s culture

This is just obvious, isn’t it? What could be worse than having a leader who’s out of step with the culture of the organisation? Black leaderWell in terms of the performance of the organisation, having one who’s aligned with it can be worse. If your culture is already very results-focused and a competitive, there’s little for a task-focused leader to add.  The same is true with a people-focused leader in an organisation that values relationships. Culture substitutes for leadership. According to this study, leaders should bring what’s missing. The researchers did stress that they looked at only the broad dimension of task- vs people-focus and there are ways that someone could be too misaligned. I’d imagine that a total mismatch of purpose or values may be unhelpful. But the research does reinforce the idea I’ve talked about here before that leadership requires a balance of different skills.

2. We all thrive in a co-operative workplace

Who wouldn’t want to work in an environment where people are mutually supportive and team-oriented? High performers, that’s who. A high performer in any team can be seen as an inspiration or a threat. When they’re seen as a threat, they’re more likely to be on the receiving end of negative behaviour, such as belittling comments designed to bring them down a peg or two. Research suggests that in a highly co-operative environment, star performers are more likely to be seen as a threat and to be on the receiving end of harsh treatment. If we’re concerned about the group as a whole, we’re more likely to resent someone who shows the rest of us up.

3. The best hedge fund managers are probably psychopaths

At the other end of the spectrum from the highly co-operative workplace, we have the Wolf of Wall Street. Related imageWe all know the stereotype – superficially charming, competitive, ruthless, willing to take risks, not bothered about the impact of their decisions on anyone else. We may not like them but you’ve got to admit that your archetypal psychopath makes a great investor. Except it turns out they don’t. Research tracking the performance of hedge funds over a decade found those managed by people categorised (from video footage, so there are some caveats) as displaying psychopathic behaviour performed 15% worse than average. Those managed by people displaying considerable psychopathic behaviour performed 30% worse. The researchers suggest that good hedge fund management is quite collaborative, drawing creative ideas from others in the team and that the bullying management style of the psychopath stifles this.

4. Employees should always be encouraged to be good corporate citizens

No one likes a jobsworth. Organisations don’t want people who just do their jobs exactly as dictated in the job description and nothing more. They want people to help out their colleagues, to come up with ways to improve the organisation, to be good corporate citizens. What they’re looking for is discretionary effort – effort people choose to expend above and beyond what they’re required to expend. But what happens if the pressure to behave in this way becomes so great that it no longer feels like a choice? Well, surprisingly, people can then start to feel they’ve earned the right to act badly Petty theft, cheating and rudeness may increase if people feel compelled to do good works. As the research puts it, demanding we behave like saints risks turning us into sinners.

5. Open plan offices encourage face-to-face communication

While it’s known that a lot of people don’t really like open plan offices, open plan officeat least they have the advantage of making it easier for people to talk to each other. Except they don’t. Recent research looking at organisations which moved to open plan offices found that face-to-face interactions (tracked electronically) fell by over 70%. Email and instant messaging usage went up correspondingly. It is thought that having the rest of the office listening in was the biggest inhibitor. It’s unlikely the world is going to return to private office spaces any time soon but it seems important to have places available where people can go for a quiet chat, without that being frowned upon.

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John Blower