The Courage to Let Go

A client I advised a few years back complained that his senior people were not ready to assume responsibility, and asked if I could coach them. I interviewed his senior team, and along the way discovered that he wasn’t giving them enough room to express themselves. Clearly, he needed coaching too.

Getting him to understand how he wasn’t enabling their growth, and convincing him to change his leadership style wasn’t easy. Apart from the usual resistance to change, he quoted years of successful business growth etc. as proof of his methods. Finally he agreed to try a different approach, and everyone benefitted. First, he had to learn to let go.

He isn’t the only one harbouring doubts about his team’s readiness to take on responsibility.

In the process of coaching him and a few others in similar situations, I’ve observed some common issues and behaviour among people in supervisory positions. I’ve also noticed that unless addressed, this behaviour progresses with time, and actually gets worse. Subordinates do not get empowered, they do not take on responsibility, the manager gets concerned, holds back even more, and no one grows. It’s a vicious cycle.

Why does it happen? Broadly speaking, there are three reasons: Comfort, Control, and Anxiety. It’s not a linear progression, and an individual might display behaviour linked to multiple reasons simultaneously. Usually, one reason is the main driver.

1. Comfort is the primary reason supervisors are unable to let go. Familiarity with tasks performed over time gives supervisors a false sense of security. They seek the comfort of routine and its predictability. They would rather continue doing what they have been doing for a long time, than delegate that to the person who is now supposed to do it.

Individuals recently promoted are usually at this stage during the first few weeks – perhaps months – into their new role. They are grappling with new responsibilities, themselves, and that is understandable. Some of them continue to hold on, well past the first few weeks. That’s not on!

2. Control is not easy to spot, though it is easier to understand. Supervisors, regardless of how long they have spent in a position feel it necessary to be involved in certain tasks. It’s usually because the task is crucial and they want to ensure all goes well.

As a motive, it’s understandable. It becomes serious only when the desire to control the outcome morphs into a desire to control people executing the task. It’s tough to distinguish, and often supervisors will convince themselves that by controlling the individuals, they are indeed controlling the outcome. This might be true sometimes, but often it’s an alibi for over-supervision.

3. Anxiety is perhaps the most counterproductive of the three reasons. In its best expression, the supervisor can alert his team to possible errors and set-backs. At its worst, it creates panic among team members who were otherwise carrying on, diligently. The usual impact is somewhere in-between.

No matter how well intentioned, in reality the supervisor transfers his anxiety to his team, creating doubts where there weren’t any. It usually ends up making the team more wary and more likely to play safe. This is not always wise, as the team will probably lose confidence over time.

So what should one do? Quite simple: Align on objectives and get a broad sense of how your team plans execution. Get commitments on deadlines and let go. Let people get on with what they are meant to do. If you believe the team isn’t ready to take on the task, the solution is training. Not over-supervision.

My learning: After a winter holiday on the Dalmatian coast, we drove back on Jan 2nd. My son and I split driving duties, and he drove from the Bosnian border all the way to Zagreb. Hilly roads, made more challenging by bad weather – fog, rain, high winds and snow. I was so tempted to step in and take over. I didn’t. It was tough not to, but I’m glad I didn’t. When we got to Zagreb, my son said that he learnt a lot that day, driving on those roads through that weather. “You and me, both”, I said to myself. “You and me, both!”

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