Leadership That Lends a Hand: Why Hands-Off Isn't Effective

Joan is a flawless boss. Chief Medical Officer at a highly regarded Biotech firm, Joan is a seasoned pro who knows her stuff. She leads her team with a compelling strategic vision, clear directives, and then she lets them run with it.

It’s a gorgeously mature leadership style.

It works beautifully. Until it doesn’t.

Her style implodes when members of her team fail to execute.

I don’t like to hover over them, Joan explains to me. I would hate to be the micromanager from hell.

There is a beautiful playground between being the leader who nurtures and the micromanager from the dark side. The leader who nurtures helps, coaches, guides, sets her team members up for success.

Taking a completely laissez-faire approach, on the other hand, doesn’t serve anyone. It will likely keep you anxious and wondering. And you will quickly become the leader who isn’t actually leading.

I hire professional help and then micromanage them until they walk out the door.” - Anonymous

A 2021 article in Harvard Business Review - How to Help (Without Micromanaging) by Colin M. Fisher, Teresa M. Amabile and Julianna Pillemer (HBR January/February 2021) – got me thinking about this perennial dilemma. The authors hail from University College London’s School of Management, Harvard Business School and NYU’s Stern School of Business. They spent the last 10 years studying how effective leaders offer help without micromanaging.

Their research suggests 3 specific strategies that will help you to be a hands-on boss who doesn’t micromanage:

  • Time your help so it comes when people are ready for it.
  • Clarify that your role is to be a helper.
  • Align the rhythm of your involvement – its intensity and frequency – with people’s specific needs.

In my experience as an Executive Coach, this is not as easy as it sounds. Joan, well-intended as she is, is the leader who eschews the subtleties of helping. Helping well requires, as the authors suggest, situational astuteness and finesse. And the ability to slip in and out of different ways of inhabiting your leadership role.

Make HELPING Part of Your Culture

Talk about the notion of helping others to be successful. Make it explicit. Explain that help comes in many forms and moves in many different directions. Demonstrate that you are not a know-it-all boss or the smartest person in the room. Talk about how you receive help – from your own boss, from a coach or an advisory team. Show how asking for help and receiving help are not a sign of weakness.

Approach your team members for help when they may be able to do so. Live the famous Steve Jobs quote: It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. These are all ways in which you create a culture of help where you helping your team is just that – HELP, not micromanagement.

Relate Beyond the 1:1

Think of venturing beyond the traditional “standing 1:1 meeting” with a member of your team. You run the danger of having a predictable work cadence with this team member - and then you suddenly swoop in and hover in the midst of a perceived crisis. Anxiety levels rise, as do the endless possibilities for micromanagement.

Most of the executives I support opt for a different engagement style with their team members. More frequent short calls. Impromptu, unscheduled. Texting. Just to say hi. The chat can be about work or personal matters. 10 minutes or less. The intent is not to check up on your team member. No, you choose to stay in relationship. The relationship is informal and unforced. Needs for help and support have a forum to easily emerge.

Do NOT Help Preemptively

You mean well. Your team is about to embark on a critical project, and you want them to be prepared for everything that might derail things. You gather for a meeting, and you “lay it all on them” in this meeting. Cover all potential scenarios. You let the team know what you have done in the past when “things went wrong." You shower your team members with tips and advice. You’re proud of how pro-active you are.

You think you’re helping. Please note: You’re helping when no help is needed yet. You have created alarm when no alarm has sounded yet. You’re micromanaging before any of this micromanagement is possibly warranted. Thinking of potential challenges can be helpful, of course. Let you team drive this conversation, not you. Otherwise, it is more likely a case of your Ego running amok. Stop yourself, please.

Contract Your HELP with your Team

If you notice that in the midst of a project one or several team members are struggling, resist the urge to swoop in and take over. Consider a more collaborative approach. Tell your team members what you observe and brainstorm possible ways of addressing a challenge or bottleneck. Make it a “together” conversation.

If you have an idea for getting involved in a hands-on way, propose it. Be clear about the depth of the involvement you propose and the length of it. Test to see if the idea of your help resonates. Chances are, your team members will feel a bit of inner pressure to accept your help. Understood. When they do, however, you have established explicit boundaries for your help. You have consciously contracted. And you have not become the jerk-boss who took over because, well, you could.

The urge to help is primal. Honor it. Being the boss who disappears buries this very primal part of you.

But please get your Ego out of the way. Be clear that, at times, helping might mean you allow the other person to learn from making a mistake. At other times it might involve some in-the-moment coaching. Or sending a team member to a training class. Hovering is NOT help. Constant correction is NOT helping.

If you have any inclinations toward micromanagement, notice how much more enjoyable it is for you to lead without doing so. Notice what a relief it is. And how much more they appreciate your leadership style.

Go and help well. And feel the relief.

Related: The Courage To NOT Know