by Maura Nevel Thomas
As a leader or manager in your company, you have abundant responsibilities. But how much of your day do you spend actually doing your most significant work? How often are you interrupted by employees who want your input, approval, or direction to do their jobs? How often is your attention to your own work sabotaged because others want your help with problems that arise during their day?
Have you ever evaluated your own behavior in these situations? Are you sure you’re not contributing to the bottlenecks in your organization by enabling, or even encouraging, your employees to come to you frequently throughout the day?
When I begin a conversation like this with leaders, they often say to me, “Yes, I tell my team, ‘Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions.’” The question I hope to prompt you to consider with this article is this: “If they know the problem, and they know the solution, why do they need to come to you at all?”
Leadership Requires Attention Management
By helping your team become more independent in their decision-making, you help yourself by freeing up more time for you to put your attention on achieving your own significant results. And in the process, you may be keeping your team from taking the initiative and trying out their own solutions, undercutting their ability to improve their job skills.
In my work with business leaders, supervisors, and managers, I help them discover attention management as the best, most efficient way to improve productivity. The leaders in the organization are the ones whose jobs most require insight, analysis, creativity, and other work that requires deep thought. But my clients often lament that their attention is too frequently diverted by their teams’ questions and need for decisions. How can leaders find the extended time they need to focus attention on their own projects?
Being available for your team is part of a leader’s job. But “being available” doesn’t mean all the time, every minute of the day. Whether you’re in the office, or working and holding meetings remotely, you may feel that being available to your team is one of your primary responsibilities as a leader. But think about how authority figures in other professions handle this. A good example is a college professor. Professors have regular office hours when they’re available to their students for help, or conferences. No matter how much help students need, they know that help is available during the appointed times, not all day, every day. As a result, they may work a little harder to discover the answers on their own.
Are You Micro-Managing?
If your team is used to seeking your approval for their actions, you’re creating unnecessary “speed-bumps” that are obstacles to employees learning how to be creative and innovative, and solve problems on their own. Too much guidance from a leader also hinders the leader’s ability to focus on important work, be focused and mindful, allow their mind to wander and create insights, and achieve that most productive, “flow” state.
The first problem could be the style in which leaders manage their teams. Although sometimes difficult, a little self-analysis may be in order—are you a bit too controlling? Do you micro-manage? Are you quick to solve everyone’s problems, even though they may be minor, and don’t really need your input? Are your team members afraid that a decision you didn’t approve may get them in trouble with you? You may actually be disempowering your team, and creating a “CYA culture” (“cover your @$$”) by your management technique.
Be a Leader Who Inspires Self-Confidence
Instead, inspire workers to be more confident. Let them know that you trust their ability to do their job, with this simple phrase — “I trust your judgement.” If they believe you feel they are competent, you will not only boost morale, but also encourage creativity and innovation.
Develop a schedule of regular meetings with the people who report to you directly. Use the time most efficiently by having your team update you on their progress, and offer constructive feedback to help them learn and grow.
Mentoring individual team members is one of your most important roles as a manager. It enables you to provide a good role model for leadership. It also helps to prepare workers to advance their positions within the company. But it’s important to remember that people learn best by doing, not by listening to someone else tell them what to do. Therefore, it’s much more effective to “mentor in hindsight.” Schedule one-on-one meetings with employees. Ask questions such as, “What problems/challenges did you have this week? How did you deal with them? What was the result?” This will give you an opportunity to reinforce good decisions, congratulate their creativity, and offer constructive, experience-based guidance when employees are stuck or make a mistake. By sharing your own lessons learned, you will inspire your team to generate new ideas, see things in different ways, and be willing to take risks.
Be sure to create an environment where employees understand their responsibilities, and feel safe to make mistakes. Empower them to use their best judgement by giving them parameters in which to work. Encourage them to find solutions within these parameters, without feeling the need to run everything by you first. If they’re successful in their problem-solving, their self-confidence will grow, and they’ll be more willing to rely on their own judgement in future situations. Promote a culture of accountability, and hold them accountable to mistakes by asking them about lessons learned and how they will do things differently next time.
Embrace the Tough Decisions
You may have a person in your organization whose judgement you don’t always trust. Try to find a way to make that person more trustworthy by analyzing the reason for your feelings. Could it be that this employee needs more training? Uncover that skills gap and help them fill it.
Maybe that person is new to the company, and just needs more time to learn your business. In this case, maybe you can assign a “buddy” to help who has more tenure in the company. The hardest questions to face are whether you have the right person in the wrong role, or whether the person isn’t a good fit for the organization. It’s hard to admit hiring mistakes, but the company will benefit when you don’t drag your feet on decisions like this. Make it a win for you and the employee by helping them find another job. This will help develop your company’s reputation as a good place to work.
By considering the points I’ve outlined, you’ll be able to find more time for the thoughtful work your leadership position demands, and minimize interruptions by others. In the process, you’ll be inspiring confidence, innovation, and creativity in your team members. It’s a great leadership quality to hone that ultimately results in a more successful organization.
About the author
Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely-cited authority on attention management. Her proprietary Empowered Productivity™ System has been embraced by the likes of the U.S. Army, L’Oreal, and Dell. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of three books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker in Inc. Magazine. Maura is frequently featured in major business outlets including Business Insider, Fast Company, and Huffington Post, and she’s also a regular contributor to both Forbes and the Harvard Business Review, with articles there viewed over a million times. Follow her on Twitter @mnthomas.
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