Tag Archives: autonomy

The one with nothing to do

I was recently involved in a conversation about how you prepare people for business continuity/crisis management. One of the comments made in the conversation was that at times (in both simulation and real life situations) people try to do too much or feel the need to do something/get involved. The drivers to this could be many fold but my thoughts at the time was that when it’s ‘all hands on deck’ all deck hands feel the need to be seen to do something (or else feel useless) but probably more importantly when in the grip of the tension and anxiety of such a situation people feel better if they are doing something rather than nothing. One of my colleagues (I think it may have even been my boss) came out with a great quote they had heard which was “he also serves who stands and waits” and I have since found out it’s from John Milton.

In the context of the conversation it was very pertinent and will definitely form some part of the support we give people in preparing for these situations but I have thought about it several times since in the context of management and leadership more generally.

I remember as a younger junior manager that my default setting was doing. In order to be seen to be running the team I had to get involved in every conversation, try and solve every problem and generally make a complete and utter nuisance of myself. With the advance of my grey hair I have become increasingly comfortable not just in holding people to account but more importantly allowing people the space and autonomy to complete their work – supporting them but not becoming an interfering pain in the arse on too regular a basis.

It was another recent conversation that brought the quote front of mind and it was with another senior colleague who was discussing a situation developing in his team. I can’t remember his exact words but he said something like, “there’s always a point like this where it can one of two ways – I’m letting them get stuck into it to see which way they go but I know I’ve got plenty of time to help them course correct if they need to”. I remember thinking how powerful his statement was and how it showed both his experience and his personal confidence at being able to let people make mistakes and knowing when it was necessary (and not just comfortable) to intervene.

There was definitely a lesson for me in his observations and it has already caused me to step back on two different occasions and think about the way I handle something. It also made me think with the triumph of competence over experience in how we assess talent that there was a challenge for those of us in HR roles to understand how this confidence and comfort should manifest in those we support in leadership roles.

Since today I am running an Away Day for one of our senior teams I will contradict myself and get on with a day where it’s unlikely I will have an opportunity to do nothing, but with that said I am sure there will be at least one moment today where I need to let the conversation move on and not stick my facilitation snout into it so maybe a Milton-Moment or two for me after all!


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The one with the grocery shopping

At some point in the last few months I heard a great quote. I have no idea where I heard it but if anyone has any suggestions then I’d appreciate it… The quote comes from a veteran of American Football management Bill Parcells. He managed several teams and has an impressive record including 2 Superbowl wins.

The quote goes:

“They want you to cook the dinner; at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries. Okay?” and according to Wikipedia refers to conflict Parcells experienced with the team’s owners and the impact it had on player selection.

On hearing the quote my mind immediately went to recruitment and how much of ‘a say’ HR should have in those being recruited by the organisation. The challenge I think arises in the overlap between the accountability placed on the HR team to deliver recruits and the accountability of the line manager to actually manage the employee to deliver once they’ve been recruited.

There’s a post all of it’s own probably on where the accountability/responsibility of a recruiting function ends and whether HR is try to enforce control or support the line manager in hiring the right person for their role. I’ve worked with managers who had an instinctive gift for spotting talent and likewise I’ve worked with managers who were overly focused on getting a pair hands to think through if they were the right pair of hands. As I said probably a whole post in itself…

However, on reflecting on the quote a little longer my thoughts switched to autonomy and how empowering managers and leaders in organisations actually are?

The balance between operational trust and task control is a fine line at times and I know from personal experience when the pressure’s on I can slide at varying rates towards control. I know there are people I’ve worked with who appreciate the clarity when the stakes are high but also colleagues who could have gladly punched me in the nose (god bless the disciplinary procedure) in order to get me to but out.

Where does supporting your team meet being a control megalomaniac? Where does the need to manage your own anxiety and need to feel in control neuter your team to the point they are merely carrying out instructions? Most importantly, how effective can you be at doing your own role if you spend all your time doing your team’s jobs for them?

It’s a challenge I admit – and in the spirit of openness, one I fail at as often as I succeed but as with many of these things the wonders of self awareness can of course help. Also giving your team permission or actually outright challenge to push you back when you are being a control freak and unempowering them to the point of inertia.

I remember running a workshop a few years ago and one of the topics covered was delegation. I had written a slide entitled something like “The Four Challenges of Delegation” (grandiose I admit) and asked the participants what they needed to do with each of the following: Responsibility,  Authority, Control and Accountability. Much debate ensued.

Where we landed (as planned) was to give responsibility, to give authority, to retain control and share accountability (the individual was accountable to you whilst you remained accountable to the wider ‘them’). One of the participants asked quite earnestly “how can you retain control whilst giving any responsibility?” and they won the $64,000 question award…


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