Thoughts on the Absent Leader

On March 7, 2015, in Insights, Workplace Culture, by Phillip A. Jones

IMG_0836Delegation, autonomous teams, self-directed work, are they a cop out?

In 2015 the idea of directing every detail of a team’s work reeks of micromanagement and a sign of a poor performing team.

Of course each workplace and role is different, some positions require more direction that others, workplace organisation differs, and the experience of the person in the role will impact the level of management support required. In a knowledge economy the ideal is a team that gets on with the job to the required standard without the need of a supervisor, along with the expectation of a work-life balance culture.

In theory if you recruit well, and have good systems in place, then shouldn’t the appointment be perfect for the role and apply themselves with diligence? Of course its not that like in the real-world, we all being imperfect creatures and variable on a daily basis.

How far done the ‘hand’s off’ management road do you go before the leader is so absent that its every person for themselves in the workplace?

Having consulted across all sectors, there is no particular ethos for the public, not for profit, association or private sector. Sometimes the management style is laissez faire because the manager is simply too busy doing their own job to manage their team, other times its the culture of the workplace, sometimes its intentional and nearly always well-intentioned, but the results can be the same.

A few years back in conversation with a director of a a very busy commercial SME I was told that their management style was to allow their staff to get on with their job without their input, as to direct them daily would reflect a lack of trust on their professionalism.

There was no overall direction, no pulling together of the team on a daily or weekly basis,  no reflection on a job well-done or not, no vision or goals described, no motivation or accountability conversations unless asked.

There was just the annual performance review, or the opportunity to grab them for a decision or input on the fly.

The director applied the same approach to themselves, the result being the team not knowing if they were going to be in the office, and needing to manage upwards to get the input or decision point required, with a lot of energy second guessing what may be required on a daily basis. This resulted in a lack of relevance + authority of the leader to the team.

There was also a strategic impact on the organisation: with the workers acting independently, the potential of all the teams intellectual and professional capital being harnessed collectively to a goal was a missed opportunity.

The upside of this scenario was that the workers did collectively form a sort of accountability over several years. They made up for the lack of strategic + tactical direction themselves, with a token reference to the leader, which was admirable.

There was also a strong team culture formed by a core group – solidarity you may say.  The work ethic was strong, and this was just as well, for the workplace flexibility could as easily been abused.

But there was no overarching goal being worked toward, the focus was tactical, daily, weekly or project driven.  Like most organisations, I think, the only time anyone referred actively to the business or strategic plan was for governance reasons as a tick the box exercise.

It is said that most people want just a few things from their work:

  • Clear boundaries of what’s expected of them
  • What the professional standards required are of them: so they know when they’ve done a good job
  • Pride in their work and recognition
  • A positive work culture and association with their work
  • The opportunity to develop their careers and professionally
  • Reasonable work conditions, flexibility and renumeration.

Without an active and present leader in the workplace these norms cannot be established or applied consistently, and the vacuum is filled by subjectivity, personalities and short-term fixes, albeit often well-intentioned.

To my mind, its great to have professional autonomy in one’s work-life, and be treated as an adult who know’s what one is about. But without a collective vision of what the team is working towards on a daily, weekly or longer term basis, plus the accountability to ensure standards, the multiplier effect of a well-led team is lost.

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