Question: I am a senior manager at an engineering firm heading a team of six. My wife is due to give birth to our first baby and I want to take time off when the baby comes. However, I’m worried about missing too much time at work and not being around to support my junior team members. How can I prepare them to work efficiently and confidently while I take extended paternity leave?
Answer: Firstly, congratulations on the impending arrival of the new addition to your family – an exciting time for you. You do need to be able to have confidence that your team will continue to work effectively while you are away. Employees need guidance but also need to be empowered to make the decisions necessary to be productive, and carry out their duties when their manager is not present. This is what you need to work on now.
Managers will say they want to empower their employees, but few actually do. This can be the result of a lack of trust on behalf of the manager who may think that the employees will not perform equally as well when they are not there or fear that employees will become too independent. Some managers fear that if they let the power go, then they may not be required any longer. On the other hand, many employees are afraid to take on added responsibility and be held accountable for their decisions.
Empowering employees requires a great deal of trust by a manager – they must be willing to hand over the decision-making process, and elements of a task or project, to allow others to come up with the solutions.
Empowerment will happen with varying degrees of accountability or responsibility being handed over to an individual or a team. However, be mindful of the risk that the individual or team will become overwhelmed or ‘bogged down’ with all that is on their plate.
Communicate: Have open discussions with the team – identify the key tasks and responsibilities, have clarity around what they need to do and what the manager will do to aid the process. Discuss how willing and ready they are to be accountable for the task and the decision-making.
Categorise: Consider colour coding into areas where the employees have full decision-making powers; areas where you need to be involved; and areas that management has to sign off on. Some employees might not have the right skills to take the correct action alone in certain tasks. If the risk is too high to leave the decision solely in the hands of the employee, this needs to be clarified.
Boundaries: The manager needs to respect the categories that have been set out. If an employee comes to the manager requesting their opinion on a non-critical issue, the manager should put it back to them and ask them to come up with the solution. The employee needs to think the issue through and make their own decision.
Urge to help: Most managers feel compelled to counsel the employee to prevent a mistake from happening, but this can make employees less inclined to take risks in the future. You must sometimes allow the team to make a mistake, which can be a major learning experience.
Clarification: Ensure the team knows the difference between responsibility and accountability. An employee has ‘responsibility’ for the tasks he or she is required to perform as per their job specification. ‘Accountability’ is where they are answerable for their actions regarding a particular task or project. It is important that the manager does not hold the employee accountable for the more serious tasks in the project – they can only be accountable for the tasks they are competent to carry out.
The process of empowerment should start at the recruitment stage. This follows into induction and training when the goals, direction and responsibilities are clearly outlined. The manager must truly trust, respect and have confidence in an employee’s ability to make appropriate decisions and take actions when they are absent. If successful, then micro-management is a minimum and it’s a win-win for everyone.
This article was originally published in the business section of The Sunday Independent on the 5th of November 2017, and this version can be seen here.