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Could a Hands-Off Approach Actually Make People More Engaged?

Former SunCor Development COO Duane Black says engaged employees don’t need to be micromanaged, suggesting that managers who act like ‘control-freaks’ will be less effective than those who function more like partners or  mentors

By William Keenan Jr.

Metrics can be a great tool, even in a hands-off environment. They help you to understand what adjustments you and your employees have to make in order to improve your performance and meet your goals.

We all know that engaged employees still have to be managed and directed. They may be self-starters, aligned with organizational goals, motivated by and engaged in their work, and able to think for themselves in complex situations, but they still have to be managed to one degree or another.

What they don’t need, however, is to be micromanaged. “They don’t need someone hovering over them and monitoring every word they say,” says Duane Black, former COO of SunCor Development Corporation and co-author of The Hands-Off Manager (Career Press, 2012). Old-school micromanagement that includes large doses of critical feedback and little else, Black says, is going to wind up killing any engagement efforts that are going on in an organization.

In order to maintain a culture of engagement in an organization, there has to be a new kind of manager as well. “Real power in leadership comes from partnering, not criticizing,” Black says. He calls the new generation of managers “hands-off managers” and says they are devoted to rekindling the human spirit in an organization by keeping their hands off their employees and allowing success to happen.

What’s The Difference?

What’s the difference between a hands-on and hands-off manager? Black points to their basic communication styles as a way to distinguish them:

Which approach do you take? And how can you improve your engagement efforts by being more “hands-off”? These are just a few of the questions that we raised with Black when we spoke to him recently.

It’s important to create a culture where it’s clear what your organization’s values are and what’s important to you so that employees don’t need minute-by-minute direction on what has to be done. If an employee knows the character and the foundation of the company, what it values and what goals are important, then that employee will know what to do in almost any situation.

ESM: What would you say a hands-off approach to management would look like in the typical organization?

Black: You would spend more of your time helping people on your staff. To some extent your employees have become your customers and you’ve modeled what you expect from them. So if you want them to be kind and courteous to customers on the phone, for example, you’ve got to be that way to them yourself.

It’s important to hire the right people to begin with, and I always say that finding a good employee isn’t just finding someone with the right education or the right background, but finding someone who has a natural ability in an area that’s in alignment with or consistent with what you’re asking them to do. Then just get out of the way and let them do their job. Letting someone work on their own and make their own decisions as much as possible is really a way of showing respect for an employee. It shows that you believe in them.

It’s also important to create a culture where it’s clear what your organization’s values are and what’s important to you so that employees don’t need minute-by-minute direction on what has to be done. If an employee knows the character and the foundation of the company, what it values and what goals are important, then that employee will know what to do in almost any situation.

In addition, make sure those values are reinforced on a regular basis. By regularly reminding people what you stand for, what you value, who you are – and taking the time to coach them when they aren’t performing up to par – you build a culture that’s more self-sustaining over the long-term.

ESM: Can a reward and recognition program play a part in reinforcing the core values of your organization and engaging people? Or is it more a matter of being out on the floor and available to provide that immediate positive feedback to employees?

Black: I think it’s very important to reinforce the organization’s values in whatever way you can, and there’s nothing better than acknowledgement – if you can acknowledge them individually, if you can acknowledge them in front of a group, if you can create incentives and rewards that reinforce those values. But you have to make the incentive something that’s controlled by outside considerations. I’ve seen incentives where the manager says, “I want you to improve in these three areas, and when I think you have I’ll give you a bonus.” Instead, it needs to be something that’s measured objectively by outside considerations, like your customers writing in and saying how happy they are. That’s an outside, objective evaluation. It’s not being done by the manager. If you make them objective, you can make acknowledgement and incentives an important part of your culture.

ESM: What would a routine staff meeting look like for a manager taking a more hands-off approach?

Black: It would be less about what we’re not doing right, and more about celebrating what we are doing right There’s a teaching technique that I love called “focus forward.” In a classroom setting, you set up chairs randomly and place the student in front of this random mass of chairs. And behind them you list all the things they’re trying not to do, all the things they’re trying to get away from. And on the other side of the chairs, in front of them, you list all of the things they’re trying to move toward – the things they’re trying to become, things that they want to accomplish. Then you say, “OK, I’m giving you two options: You can either walk through these chairs focusing only on the list behind you and see how well you do in getting through this maze. Or you can turn around and look at where you want to go and make that your focus and see how much more easily you get through this maze.” A lot of people have never had training like that. They’ve always been taught what not to do. No one ever told them what to do.

When parents talk about raising children, for instance, they often talk about getting discouraged because all they ever say to their kid is “no.” It’s the same thing. Take time to coach, take time to teach. It’s much more rewarding than trying to be Mr. Control. And your employees will thank you for it. I’ve had employees call me and say, “You are the best boss I ever had. What a great experience we had. Thank you.”

What could be more rewarding than that?

ESM: One of the problems in many organizations – whether we’re talking about creating a culture of engagement or focusing more specifically on using a hands-off approach to management – is that while you may understand the importance of what you’re doing at your management level, your company’s upper management may not be convinced. What can you do in that situation?

Black: Well, the first thing I would do is find another job. That not being an option, I have a thing I try to teach my people, and that is, “Don’t let the behavior of others set the tone for yours.” Choose to be what you value, don’t mirror what comes to you that you dislike. And you can start by caring about your employees just like you do your customers: This person is important to me. This person is part of the reason I have a job. This person affects my future. I want to work collaboratively with my employees. I want them to know that I appreciate them. And the more controlling and hard-driving and “results-only” you are without ever helping them to know how to actually get results, the harder that is.

In fact, if you find a way to yell and scream and to look over people’s shoulders and micromanage them and get results from it, please tell me about it because I’ve never seen it produce results. Ever.

ESM: Well, it might produce results, but not necessarily the ones that you want.

Black: Right, it will produce high turnover of employees and unhappy customers and other metrics that you don’t want to see coming your way. Speaking of which, a lot of people fear the performance metrics in their organizations. But it’s important – at least from my perspective – to find a way of communicating that differently. Metrics can be a great tool, even in a hands-off environment. They help you to understand what adjustments you and your employees have to make in order to improve your performance and meet your goals. In golf, for instance, what better way to know that you need to work on your swing than to see your ball in flight and where it ended up. Metrics are wonderful and can help you accomplish a lot, as long as they’re not positioned in a threatening way.

ESM: Use the metrics to help people understand what they’re doing right and what they can do better rather than what they’re doing wrong…

Black: Right. Some people don’t know how to alter their thinking. Part of the responsibility of a manager is to learn that. And to teach it to their employees.

You have to get up in the morning and say, “I am going to be happy today.” You have to understand that you actually have the ability to discipline your own mindset, your own well-being. You don’t have to be a product of their environment. You may not choose to be able to buy a new Mercedes this month, but you can certainly choose what your disposition is going to be on any given day. And you can literally tell yourself, “I’m going to be happy today. I’m going to take good care of my employees or my customers.” And you’ll be amazed at how much difference it makes when you make that choice.

ESM: Thanks for taking the time to explain how a ‘hands-off’ approach can actually lead to closer relationships and more engaged employees and customers.

Black: My pleasure.

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