As my kids get older and begin to transition to their life of independence, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. For my two in college, they leave for school in the fall and for five months, they are able to function completely autonomously from mom and dad. Sure, we get calls with updates and requests for money but they somehow manage to get to class, do their homework, wash their clothes, feed themselves, make it to practices and generally get things done. Fast forward to summer break. Domestic independence seems to vanish – laundry, dinner, chores at home, summer job searches and a variety of other decision making activities all of a sudden seem to be dependent on mom and dad. What happened? Am I failing as a parent?
Well, the jury is still out on my capabilities as a parent, however, I do recognize the phenomenon and I like to call it the “Backtstop Effect”. The notion that otherwise independent individuals suddenly seem incapable or hesitant to take care of things that they would normally handle simply because you are there to take care of it if they don’t. It is easy to see with growing children as they transition from dependent kids to independent adults. Old habits die hard and it is so easy to let mom or dad take care of those annoying details.
How does this manifest itself in the office? I’ve noticed a slightly more evolved version of the same effect. When I am in the office frequently, there seem to be certain things that flow to me that otherwise get managed by others when I am not in the office. Is it because the team is not capable of making decisions? Not at all. The reason it occurs is because I am the “boss”. It is normal for team members to let decisions pass to me because my nature is to own whatever falls on my desk because, ultimately, the buck stops here. The challenge is to push back and force my team to make as many of those decisions as possible. I’ve found that things actually run quite well when I am out of the office and not “backstopping” decisions or activities.
Here are some thoughts on how you can remove the backstop to better empower your team:
- Give employees clear guidance on their scope of decision making. Recognize that there are some things that simply have to come to your desk. Everything else should be pushed down. Make it clear that you expect them to own those decisions.
- If something comes across your desk that should have been handled by someone on your team, send it back. An application with missing data that requires your signature? Don’t complete it, send it back. Even if it would be far quicker to just finish it yourself, force your employee to own it.
- Leave frequently. Heresy! I realize that it is hard for most of us to fathom that things might actually function when we are not around but they will, if you’ve put the right team in place and empowered its members. One of my biggest responsibilities is communication – to customers, partners and employees. I can do 90% of what has to be done by me out of the office. Yes, there are times when I need to be physically seen and heard but there my absence seems to quite empowering. The right players will find a way to get it done.
- Realize that mistakes will be made. Yes, it’s true! The humans on your team will make mistakes and you have to let it happen. Your job is to create limits on the potential damage of those mistakes in assigning scope of responsibility. Let your team own their mistakes and correct them. If the same mistakes keep getting made, then you may have a learning disability and other steps will have to be taken.
The bottom line: recognize that the greatest reflection on you as a leader is your team’s ability to function without you. This isn’t an abdication of responsibility, ultimately the buck does stop with you. However, you will get more out of your team, and yourself, if you remove the backstop and let them feel the empowerment that comes from fully owning their successes and failures.
[…] What a frightening concept! We talk a lot about empowerment. We intuitively understand that it is necessary for our organizations to thrive. Yet, we still struggle with actually empowering our people. We could go into many psycho-social directions with this but I don’t want to address control issues in this post. (Check out these two posts for more on this particular issue: Our Need for Control Leads to Disappointment and Unleash Your Team: Remove the Backstop) […]