Good Managers Know When To Stand Aside

Teams can be most productive when managers leave them alone
Teams can be most productive when managers leave them alone
Image Credit: Sean MacEntee

Like most managers, you are probably pretty proud of yourself. You understand the value that you bring to the table and you know that your team is able to accomplish more because of you. However, feeling this good about yourself can sometimes lead to you getting in the way of your team. There are times that manager need to know when it’s time for them to step aside in order to allow their team to be more productive.

When No Manager Is The Right Manager

Wise managers know that, sometimes, the best management is no management at all. Unfortunately, most managers aren’t that wise. They don’t understand that there are times to give orders, dominate the conversation and express strong opinions. And there are times to be less assertive, ask what others think, listen and watch in silence, and basically get out of the way. When managers get this balance wrong, team performance and creativity suffer, and employee effort and commitment wanes. If you can get it right, then everybody can win.

The question, then, is what can both managers and employees do to help the manager get it right—at least most of the time? The answer is threefold. First, managers need to understand the damage they do by interfering when they ought to stand aside. Second, managers need to know when getting out of the way is best and how to do it. And third, employees need to know how they can reduce the damage when a stubborn or clueless manager continues to engage in misguided meddling.

The fundamental problem for managers is that many fail to recognize when their input is, at best, meaningless. There is no manager training that tells us how to do this. Managers are motivated to believe that everything they do and work on, or are simply associated with, is better for their having touched it. And the more effort that managers put into creating something, the more they will love it, even when they have no impact at all (or even have made it worse rather than better). Similarly, even managers who use the much-talked-about practice of management by walking around—known as MBWA—who devote big chunks of time to observing front-line work and asking employees to identify problems and solutions, may do more harm than good.

How To Help Your Team By Doing Less

Simply recognizing that their interventions may be counterproductive, of course, is only part of the battle for managers. The next step is even trickier: figuring out when it is best to get out of the way. For starters, managers can try to understand what it actually feels like to work for them. Managers who are in tune with how employees feel about them are in a better position to understand when they are seen as overbearing or squandering people’s time.

Another hallmark of skilled managers is that they understand their people and the work they do so well that they are masters of “flexing” the hierarchy to fit the situation. The best leaders don’t hesitate to exert top-down control when quick decisions and immediate actions are essential. And they switch gears and “flatten” hierarchy when they need to solicit everyone’s opinion, develop employee buy-in, and make it safe to discuss uncomfortable truths, criticize others, and generate half-baked and controversial solutions.

This all sounds great, of course. Unfortunately, too often managers won’t dial down their scrutiny, advice and demands, even when it undermines progress and drives people crazy. It isn’t that they are being malicious, rather, they think interfering is what being a good manager is about. For employees to do their best work, the best managers know when less management is better management. This is the best kind of team building.

What All Of This Means For You

As managers we are all quite proud of the value that we bring to our teams. We believe that because of our input, our teams are able to work together and produce better high-quality output. However, even given as good as we are, we need to understand that there will be times that perhaps we should all just take a step back and allow our teams to operate without our input.

It turns out that what our teams need is a balance: sometimes they need us and sometimes they need us to get out of the way. Managers need to understand that they can do damage when they interfere, they need to know when to get out of the way, and employees need to know what to do when their manager does not realize what they are doing. The problem is that we may not realize when our input is meaningless to our team. Managers need to realize when they should get out of the way. The best managers have the ability to change their hierarchy to match their team’s needs. Managers need to learn when less is more.

I think that this may not be all that surprising for most of us. We all realize that there are times that our teams need our input and times that they can do just fine without us. In order to become better managers we have to develop the ability to determine when we need to switch roles. If we can master this set of manager skills, then we have a good chance of becoming better managers.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Skills™

Question For You: What do you think would be an indication that we need to step back from involvement in our team?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So would you say that you are a good manager or a bad manager? If, somewhat oddly, you answered that you are a bad manager, I may have some good news for you. As we are all very much aware, the past year has been completely upside down. However, despite creating a great deal of uncertainty about what everyone should be doing and making the job of being a manager that much harder, it may have also created some opportunities for us. What this means is that if you went into the pandemic looking like a bad manager, you just might be able to come out of it looking like a good manager.

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