Why managers need to engage and empower their teams
Alison Craig discusses why managers might be doing more than necessary and why a shift in mindset can be a win-win for everyone.

Do you often find yourself taking on a relatively easy task in the knowledge that, by the time you brief your team, it would be quicker to do it yourself? If the answer is yes, you’re certainly not alone.

Alison Craig has seen this pattern in numerous leaders she’s advised over the years – both in her long career working in learning and development at the John Lewis Partnership and in her current roles as director of Alison Craig Coaching Ltd and as leader of the WorkL for Business consultancy team.

“There’s a tendency for managers to think it’s easier to do it all themselves – especially when they’re up against it,” says Alison. This tendency has been exacerbated during the pandemic where managers are working from home: “They are separated from their teams and don’t have people right in front of them to talk to about taking on small tasks and challenges. They also think it’s harder to delegate and give feedback via virtual means.”

However, Alison says: “This can be more about perception than reality. True success can only come by delivering through your people.”

The do-it-yourself mindset

Commonly, a manager’s DIY mindset can stem from the simple fact that they have been promoted to a managerial role without any management training says Alison.

“Often people have been promoted because of their technical skills – they might be a brilliant lawyer, for instance – but they might not really know how to get the best out of people and then get no support around how to do that.”

The result, says Alison, is that they go from individual contributor to manager, but they never really let go of the individual contributor part: “They try to carry on doing all the stuff they did before because they don’t really know how to get other people to do it well, at pace – it’s more comfortable to do the day-to-day stuff than manage people.”

Without a clear understanding of their new role and responsibilities, managers may also fear making themselves dispensable.

“One of the things we used to think about at John Lewis was ensuring that our department could run successfully without us,” says Alison. “That often worries managers because they think, ‘If my team is doing that, what am I doing? I will make myself redundant.’

Driving your team forward

“What managers should be thinking about is making sure they are enabling and allowing their team to do all the basic running of their department or area so that they can step out and look at strategy – at how they can keep driving the business or organisation forward.”

While a DIY mindset can plague any manager, it can be more common in small or medium-sized businesses where managers might not have the same internal access to the training, coaching or mentoring that they might get in a larger organisation, says Alison.

“A lot of smaller organisations I work with don’t have that infrastructure of support that we had at John Lewis. Our focus at Alison Craig Coaching and WorkL for Business is on helping managers get the best from their team, their colleagues and themselves.”

Alison works with clients in a wide range of sectors including retail, care, finance, law and charity.

“I often have to counsel managers that they can’t do it all themselves and that in fact, it’s a risk to the business if they do,” says Alison, highlighting the danger of one person holding all the knowledge and responsibility. “I help them make the mind shift as well as change the activities they are actually doing.”

Alison advises managers to think about what it is that they can do that their team can’t. “If you boil it down, it’s about understanding where you add most value, but making sure you really support your team to develop so that they can do everything else.”

“It’s about trusting your team and feeling really proud of them, not meddling in all the stuff they are perfectly capable of doing.”

Supporting employee well being

A manager can make a massive difference to an employee’s well being, says Alison. “If you are asking for their input and giving feedback so that they can grow, the employee is going to feel valued – you’ll be showing you care about and respect them as an individual.

“It is critical that their experience is a good one for their sake as well as for the community. If they’ve had a bad day or not felt appreciated, how’s that going to feel to their loved ones who are hearing them feel really miserable and upset?”

While people are working remotely, it’s even more important that employee well being is front of mind for managers, says Alison.

“When we are working face to face, we rely on the water cooler moments and on Josie saying that John’s not quite right today. There are also tiny things we can pick up on just by being surrounded by people.

“When we are working remotely, we’ve got to make more of an effort to check in and do that in ways that are comfortable for people. Essentially, employees are inviting their boss into their home – not everybody will be happy to do that. If we suddenly rock up on video and it’s not a good time for them, that could compound their worries.”

Alison also urges managers to remember that not all team members will have the same set-up or support that a manager may have. “At the beginning of lockdown, I had problems with my internet cutting out halfway through delivering an online leadership development programme,” says Alison. “That can’t happen in my line of work! Luckily I have a techy husband who could help me sort that out and I now have a CAT cable from our downstairs wi-fi box to my laptop upstairs. On my own, I wouldn’t have known what the problem was or how to sort it out”

“If an employee freezes in the middle of a video call with their boss or the senior boss, that will be so stressful for them.

“Managers need to use their emotional intelligence to try and gauge what’s going on with an employee but without guessing – check in and find out for sure and think about what you can do to support them. Ask them: What do you need right now? What’s the best thing I can do to help you? Who can I put you in touch with? What’s getting in the way of this for you?

“Questioning is one of the great core skills of a manager – asking really good open questions and then listening to the answer.”

Use a range of leadership styles

One of the areas Alison often covers with managers is ensuring that they have a range of leadership styles at their disposal.

“I help make sure managers know what those are and how they would use them,” she says. “For instance, quite often at the moment, managers are setting out instructions via email and not understanding how that is landing with people at the other end.

“Think about what’s the most appropriate method of communication and language for what you are talking about and for the recipient – and not just what is comfortable for you.”

That doesn’t just benefit the employee, says Alison. “It’s also about you getting the result you need as a manager – is the person actually going to get the work done from the way you’ve communicated it?”

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