In my experience in dealing with various businesses, I often meet business leaders who are either a helicopter boss or worse still a micromanager. They are hands-on and controlling and overrule an employee’s decision if they don’t like it, but, these two archetypes do differ in their tolerance for failure.

Helicopter bosses tend to manage by exception, maintaining a distance and being mostly hands-off until an employee “fails” or creates cause for concern. They take over to get things back on track, bark out orders, exert pressure and control and once things are stable, go back to being hands-off. On the other hand, micromanagers seek to stave off failure by being highly involved and controlling most or all of the time. While each might have its place, for instance, in times of crisis when the employee lacks either the will or the skill to adequately do what is required, neither approach is very empowering.

For leaders with a more controlling, autocratic style, it often seems that they show their “trust” and “empowerment” by being less involved, which leads to the misconception that empowerment means being hands-off. The basic problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of what empowerment means and what it requires of leaders. Many managers think delegating to others and empowering them means leaving them alone to make decisions; but successful empowerment requires involvement, it means being hands on, just not directive – playing the role of inspiring coach and servant leader and providing guidance, but not making the decision. This is very different from the “laissez faire” hands-off leadership style.

So genuine empowerment requires leaders to be involved, to be of service, to coach and mentor, to guide, to inspire – it means frequent, highly involved interactions, just of a different nature than the autocratic and controlling style. But why is genuine empowerment so difficult to achieve in an organisation? Here are some of the reasons:-

  • Managers incentivised to be controlling and “in front;” allowing others to make and learn from (acceptable) mistakes.
  • As a Manager you need additional time and effort spent investing in others to help them do what you already know how to do.
  • Lack of tools and reinforcement from leadership/performance management systems which tends to reward and support strong leadership and the avoidance of failures much more than innovation, learning, coaching and servant leadership.
  • Employees feeling that stepping outside of the safety provided by the ‘cover’ of an accountable manager is challenging.
  • Managers often feel pressured to move faster and thus it can be easy for employees to slip back into the comfort of co-dependent relationship playing more of a support role, rather than taking the lead and learning through feedback and coaching.
  • Low tolerance for failure, with the result that employees end up getting penalised for failure disproportionally more than rewarded for success. This creates a disincentive to ‘step up’ ending up in a cultural formation that employees can’t or shouldn’t step up.

So what are concrete actions leaders can take to empower others and improve the speed and quality of decision-making in their organisation? Below are a few pointers:-

  1. Provide clear rules – Clearly communicate who makes which decisions and establish specific criteria for when decisions must be escalated for approval.
  1. Establish clear roles – Make it clear to others what their roles are
  1. Don’t be a complicit manager – Say no if asked to step in to take a decision. Avoid escalation in the guise of advice-seeking; instead give options, ask questions, discuss how to make a good decision, highlight important facts or considerations in an unbiased way. If a decision has been delegated to a team, and the team disagrees, allow the assigned decision maker(s) to determine if and how to escalate Managers should only escalate if they are truly stuck (not simply concerned that not everyone with input is in unanimous agreement)
  2. Address culture and skills- Understand and address root causes, (e.g. avoiding or spreading accountability). This isn’t a one size fits all approach and it will take time to develop the capabilities in your managers and employees to empower and be empowered.

Occasionally, when decisions are important and there isn’t a highly capable person, the only option might be closely directing the work, since building stronger capabilities takes time and for decisions that must be made in the meantime, micromanaging can be the answer. However this can only be acceptable for a temporary period.

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