How Leaders Can Let Go and Still Get Fantastic Results
Updated: Oct 8
When my two sons play with their train set, they set up wooden tracks in elaborate railways with bridges and elevated paths spread throughout the basement. A few weeks ago, my six-year old son instructed his nine-year old brother to build the tracks with two bridges. My six-year old came upstairs to where I was and informed me he was building a track with his bother. He needed to get more supplies to bring back downstairs and disappeared into his bedroom. After a few minutes of silence, he re-emerged from his bedroom, arms laden with trains and trekked back down to the basement.
Then came the unmistakable blood-curdling scream that only my six-year old makes. I rushed downstairs to investigate, hoping there were no broken limbs. Fortunately, both boys appeared to be fully conscious with all arms and legs fully intact.
"He didn't build the tracks the way I wanted him to."
“Yes I did,” my nine-year old said. He appeared to be on the verge of tears.
The track took up the entire train table we had bought for them years ago. It looked spectacular, with two bridges and routes that interconnected. There were even wooden trees set up to look like a forest in the center of one of the railroad loops.
"It looks really good to me. How did you want this built?"
“On the floor,” my six-year old sobbed. “So it can be longer.”
Now I understood. My six-year old was a micromanager who expected other people to be psychic.
“Did you tell him you wanted it on the floor?”
“No,” my nine-year old said before his brother could answer.
“Then he did exactly what you asked. You can’t get upset about it.”
My six-year old crossed his arms and stomped his foot. “But I wanted it on the floor.”
This interaction demonstrates the importance of clear communication, but it also demonstrates another important leadership lesson.
There’s More Than One Way to Build a Track
As leaders, we must accept the fact that we may not be the smartest person in the room. We’re not entitled to having it our way just because we’re in a position of leadership. And while we may have an idea of how things should be or how things should go, we have to let go of the notion that our way is the only way.
I get it.
You have years of experience and know what’s worked for you in the past. You are incredibly talented and work harder than most people. You are excellent at what you do and you have a track record of success. Why wouldn’t your way be the only way?
I would offer that your way is one way. Just like my six-year old’s way was one way, and my nine-year old’s way was another way.
Here’s something else to consider. As the leader, you’re no longer the doer. You aren’t on the front lines anymore, so you don’t know what’s going on at that exact moment. You aren’t familiar with other factors that may influence the outcome of a project or operation. As the leader you need to be aware of the situation but you don’t need to know every minute detail. As stated in Weick and Sutcliffe’s Managing the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World, “Be confident in your skills but humble about your grasp of the situation.”
Mindset of a Leader Who Can't Let Go
When we’re so set on our way is THE way, we tend to ignore evidence to the contrary, much like my six-year old did with his brother’s creation. The track was built and it met the intent of the assignment.
As a leader, it’s important to let your people find their way of accomplishing a task. Leaders who are reluctant to let go might have one or more of the following thought-processes:
1. What if they mess up?
2. They're already very busy, so I’ll just do this for them.
3. I don’t know if can trust them.
4. I’ll look incompetent if I’m not involved in every little detail.
5. They’re not doing it the way I would do it.
Let’s examine each of these mindsets in a bit more detail.
1. What If They Mess Up?
I’ve heard leaders worry about a project they have tasked their team to carry out, wondering, “But what if they mess up?”
It’s certainly a possibility.
But what if they don’t?
Besides, think back to when you were learning a new skill. Did you mess up? Chances are you did. But more importantly, did you learn from that experience?
You are there as a leader to help guide them through the process, but you aren’t there to do it for them. You should provide clear guidance and engage as necessary. By clear guidance, I don’t mean step-by-step control over what they’re doing. If they’ve been given the proper training to accomplish a task, and there’s more than one way to do it, let them figure out what works best for them.
Yes, there are times when people will make mistakes. Most likely the mistakes will be honest in nature, but if they are malicious or negligent, you will have to take the proper steps to address this issue.
People won’t be able to find their way and learn how to accomplish a new task if you’re constantly telling them what to do and how to do it. No one enjoys working for a micro manager, so don’t be one.
2. They're Already Very Busy, So I’ll Just Do This for Them
I’m guilty of this one. There have definitely been times throughout my career where I took on the work of my team members because I had a certain way I wanted things done. I wrote very detailed minutes for one of the meetings our department ran. It wasn’t my job, but no one else wrote meeting minutes like me. I didn’t want to seem like a micro manager and tell someone else how I wanted these meeting minutes written, so I just did it.
I justified my actions by telling myself I was saving them time because they were too busy to do it anyway. I was a micromanager in disguise.
Then one day, I was unable to attend this meeting, which meant I couldn’t write the meeting minutes. The problem was, the person whose job it was to write these meeting minutes had no idea where to even begin. I never let her learn, nor did I ever bother to show her.
You can’t expect people to learn if you never let them. I had a difficult time letting go. I realized my mistake and gave her some pointers. After writing the minutes a couple times, she figured it out and the meeting minutes were just fine. The resulting meeting minutes weren’t how I would have written them, but the intent was met. And no one cared that there was a significant difference in writing style for these meeting minutes.
3. I Don’t Know If I Can Trust Them
Consider the reasons why you feel your team is untrustworthy. Have they hidden information from you before? Did they sabotage a previous project? Or did they lie about a status update? If this is the case, then you will have to address this behavior and make your expectations clear.
However, if you have no reason not to trust your subordinates to take care of a project, then let go of your fears and trust them. You must show your trust.
Don't hover as they're working. Don't question everything they do. Don't force them to prove they know what you're doing. They won't believe you trust them, and likely won't trust you either.
Sit back and let them run with the project. Ask them to give you regular updates. Be available to provide clarification or additional guidance when they need help. If you know you’ve provided them with clear guidance, adequate resources and time, and the right training, then you should feel comfortable trusting them.
Let go of the idea that you need to be intimately involved in order for the project to be successful.
4. I’ll Look Incompetent If I’m Not Involved In Every Little Detail
This is a fear that can consume insecure leaders. I get it, no one likes to be put on the spot when asked a question they don’t know the answer to. But there’s no shame in holding that thought while you find out. However, there are people who act as if knowing everything means they are in control, and they equate that to competency. The thing is, leaders like this can be very suffocating.
If leaders have time to be immersed in every last detail, they’re doing it wrong. It’s okay to ask about details to learn the process, but it’s not okay to interrogate people about details because you want to look good in front of your boss.
But how much information is enough but not too much? I recommend that you learn as much as you need to know to be able to best support your people. If knowing the 5-year back history on an ongoing project is necessary for you to acquire resources or connect your team to the right people, then get to know the 5-year back history. If the 5-year back history is irrelevant to the status of the project today, then don’t inject stress into your team by requiring a written summary about it.
5. They’re Not Doing It The Way I Would Do It
Things change all the time. The changes in technology over the past several decades have been astronomical in changing the way we do things, but even changes over the past twelve months can be significant. Leaders who are no longer working at the lower levels likely aren’t going to be up-to-speed with the latest and greatest. If you’re in this position, you should make an effort to understand what the changes are.
Don’t get mad because it’s not the way you remember things. Don’t be embarrassed because you didn’t know. Instead, take the opportunity to learn about the changes and be available to support your people in the way they need to be supported.
Trying to get people to do things the way you were taught is counterproductive and will simply cause frustrations all around. As mentioned above, your way is one way. And it may no longer be the right way. Learn to let go of how things used to be and figure out how to adjust to the new way.
Letting Go Can Be Difficult to Do
It's simple to say that we don't want to be a micromanager. But it tends to be challenging to put it into practice. It’s tricky to figure out how much involvement is too much, not enough or just right. It can vary depending on the person, but that’s why it’s very important for you as the leader to be in tune with what each person’s capabilities are.
Learn to let go and see what happens. Maybe the train tracks you envisioned won’t be what gets built, but maybe the results will be just as fantastic!
Comment below: What is your biggest fear about letting go as a leader?