The Semco Style 5 Principles to transform the way we work

Step Back Management

The right kind of mistakes happen when managers learn to step out of the way

Moreover, in my view, obtrusive and intrusive leadership becomes counterproductive by interfering with the free interplay of individual talent and interest – Ricardo Semler


In a Nutshell

If someone were to ask us to name the most important people in a company, most of us would name one of the C-level executives. That’s because we’ve been conditioned to believe that organizations rest on the broad shoulders of managers. However, in reality, the most important people in a company are the ones who do the actual heavy-lifting – the technical and creative employees. Managers are, by definition, persons responsible for administering an organization or a group of employees. And, by administering we mean serving or enabling.

But, like Peter Drucker says, “So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work”. It is one of the biggest hangovers from the Industrial era that managers are often unable or unwilling to shake off. Very often managers feel important when they are involved in every decision that’s made; when people come to them for approval before doing anything; and when they lead multiple meetings in a day. However, in reality, they’re doing nothing but getting in the way of people who’re actually doing the work.

The original purpose of management is to clear the obstacles that prevent people from working effectively and efficiently. In essence, their job is to find people who are skilled and have the right kind of talents to do the job. And then, to enable them in every way to get the job done. Simply put, managers need to accept that people on their team are more capable of getting the job done and that the only thing they need to do is trust them to deliver.

Doing so will empower teams with more autonomy and people will be more motivated, creative and engaged at work. The success of a manager should, therefore, be measured by the agility of their teams in the face of a fast-changing market; their courage to experiment, make mistakes and learn from them; and their capacity to drive results through the roof.

Nothing else should matter.


What

Managers should take themselves out of the equation and step-in only when it’s absolutely necessary.


Why

If managers learn how to take a step back and cede their perceived control, then it becomes easier for teams to deliver top performance with very little hand-holding. When managers openly communicate with their teams, they enable teams to have foresight and expertise to make the correct decisions. When teams knows that their manager encourages experimentation and that even their failures will be converted into learning moments, they’re likely to be more innovative. It promotes better alignment between all stakeholders when the people doing the actual work get to make decisions as and when required. The role of a manager should be to create clarity on the company’s overall vision and goals; and to step in when their intervention is crucial. In this way, leaders will be increasingly identified by their attitudes and behaviors rather than their titles or place on the company hierarchy. It enables organic development of leadership and entrepreneurship within the company.


How

 

Take a step back into the shadows: As a manager, you may still be the person responsible for your team’s results and achievement of goals. But, that doesn’t mean you need to be at the center of everything that happens everywhere. You need to willingly let go of any perceived control and take a step back into the shadows. Doing so will offer more autonomy to your team members to function as thinking adults who are capable of doing the right thing. It can’t happen when you, their manager, are breathing down their neck all the time and make yourself the biggest obstacle in their way.

Help create clarity with open communication: Before you can put your feet up and expect your team to perform like a well-oiled machine, you need to clarify a few crucial things. Like, what are the jobs that need to be done; what will be the clear deliverables and outcomes; and, what metrics and indicators will be used to measure the success of their efforts. As always, this cannot be a top-down decision, where you assign the roles, deliverables and the metrics without any inputs from your team. Instead, it needs to be a joint decision that everybody agrees with.

Enable extreme stakeholder alignment: Apart from clarity over the goals, deliverables and metrics, there needs to be an extreme alignment of stakeholders. In other words, everyone involved needs to know their roles and responsibilities and fully understand the social contract. There should be no gaps in communication and everybody must be on the same page in terms of what’s expected. Otherwise, it can get very challenging to create successful, self-steering teams.

Refrain from the urge to micromanage: It’s one thing to want to let go off control and an entirely different thing to actually do it and for a lot of traditional managers, ceding control may seem apocalyptic. However, the success of this practice solely depends on your capacity to refrain the urge to micromanage things. For, if you keep checking up on people to get status reports, you’re doing nothing but crippling that person’s innate sense of ownership and responsibility. He/ She will come to depend on you to keep them in line, instead of their own them managing themselves and being their own leader.

Make it safe for teams to experiment: Creativity and innovation cannot thrive in an environment that’s steeped in anxiety about going wrong. Team members who constantly look over their shoulders and worry about making mistakes create the perfect condition for stagnation. Managers need to shed their image of a punisher and position themselves as facilitators who encourage people to experiment. They need to make their team members feel safe about trying new approaches and failing.

Convert mistakes into teaching moments: Internalize this one rule – there’s no right or wrong. The decisions that people make follow complex reasoning and can never be black or white. So, when there’s is a mistake, a manager should convert it into a teaching moment instead of playing the blame game. First, attempt to understand the thought process behind the decision that went wrong and then try to challenge it with different angles, points of view and approaches. Show the person where they went wrong without making them defensive. And make it clear that there are no punishments for going wrong and that every mistake is an opportunity to discuss rationales and ideas that can sustain top performance. When your team knows they won’t be penalized for failing, their motivation and creativity levels will definitely soar.

Be a team player and know when to step back in: This practice can sometimes make people feel like the manager has abandoned them and that he/she doesn’t really care anymore about what happens. But that isn’t the truth: The intention of this practice is to give teams the space and autonomy they require; to give them the freedom to be creative and bold in their decision-making; to make it safe even when they fail; and to help them learn from the mistakes they make. However, if there is a problem and the manager knows how to solve it, he/she can jump right back into the fray and support the problem-solving. However, they need to offer support like a coach/mentor/facilitator and not as a know-it-all manager from the Industrial era. They should remind themselves not to pinpoint every pitfall and solve every problem on their own. What they shouldn’t do is quite simple: They cannot passively watch from the sidelines when their team encounters a problem that has the potential to sink the proverbial boat.

Respect and trust situational leaders: Although the manager has way more experience and is still accountable for the performance of their team, they need to trust the capacity of their team members to step up and take the lead wherever they can. The manager needs to respect the situational leader, who’s organically emerged out of a demand to solve a specific problem. While it’s necessary for the manager to be in the loop about what’s going on in their team, they cannot be typical managers who believe their opinion eclipses everybody else’s.


Level to implement

 Medium


DO’S

Get out of the way of people doing the actual work

Trust and respect people who take the lead to deliver results

Use clear and open communication to achieve alignment between all stakeholders

Give people the chance to be their own leaders and take responsibility

Help people learn from mistakes

Offer timely support in problem-solving when necessary

DON’TS

Micromanage people or processes

Penalize people for failing

Be a passive observer when the team really needs your support and guidance

Forget that you’re still accountable for your team’s performance

Pros

Empowers employees to become leaders on demand

Fosters trust, extreme stakeholder alignment and creative problem-solving

Pushes existing boundaries and makes way for innovation

Cons

Mistakes may happen more often and harm the business initially

Some people might read it as a lack of availability/commitment from the leadership

There may be some gaps in communication

Traditional mid-level managers, who just took control of their teams, might find it quite challenging to step back into the background


CASE

At one point, Guilherme Gusson, a Semco manager, needed some time off from work. Luis Fernando Moreira, who is now part of the Procurement department, was at that time a part of Guilherme’s team. Recalling how the team rallied together and defined how they’d function in the absence of their manager, Moreira says they knew Guilherme’s absence would usher in a whole new situation. “We started to ask ourselves how we were going to meet the demands that will likely come up,” he says.

The discussion started before Guilherme went away on leave and explored how the team would be structuring things; the new hires they’d be making; who’d be training them and so on. So, for instance, someone who had the confidence and the relevant experience to train new recruits, assumed the lead on developing the training program.

In the end, different members of the team had assumed the lead on different things and their new responsibilities had naturally emerged. “Nobody came up to the team and assigned one person as the supervisor or the other as the coordinator. There was no need for that,” says Moreira. Instead, the new situation, and the challenges it embodied, organically defined processes and the people who took responsibility for them. Over time, these newfound responsibilities often increased in value and sometimes became a permanent part of someone’s job. In such cases, they were officially included within the definition of the role.


Changemaker

Expert avatar

Borges, Ian

Co-founder at LeadWise | Partner at Semco Style Institute | Entrepreneur | Lifestyle Strategist | Digital Nomad

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Portuguese, English, French, Spanish

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