Letting Go, Déjà Vu All Over Again

Posted by jlubans on November 10, 2019

An October essay/exhortation in the Wall Street Journal, “Bosses, Get Out of Your Employees’ Way” concludes, “wise bosses know that, sometimes, the best management is no management at all. Unfortunately, most bosses aren’t that wise.”
Reading it reminded me of my own efforts at getting out of the way.
In 1992, over 25 years ago, I wrote about what I termed “letting go” to improve one organization’s performance.
That bit of writing* confirmed for many of my professional peers that I was a silly ass, besotted and/or a traitor to their class.
For me, it memorialized a unique and successful effort to turn around a beleaguered organization. In other words, my getting out of the way worked.
What did I mean by letting go? I was not psycho-speaking about letting go of broken relationships or of burying workplace hatchets followed by a group hug.
No, my letting go was about changing how the boss (me) worked with subordinates, from department heads to front line staff.
Orders from the top down were no longer de rigueur.
I explained I was no expert when it came to what they did. Indeed, I confessed I knew very little and needed their help.
There was nothing phony about what I said; if they wanted a micromanager, I was not it.
Shortly after our first all-hands-on-deck meeting, the group gave me a three-page list of changes/improvements they’d been trying to implement for several years.
My predecessors - all expert leaders - had wrinkled their noses, sniffing, “How could workers know anything about improving what we tell them to do? I mean, really!”
Scanning the list, with a big smile on my face on seeing this bountiful harvest of low hanging fruit, I told them to go for it. All of it.
So my letting go introduced a democratic dynamic, a new trusting relationship between the boss and the staff. I trusted them fully in identifying problems, redundancies, dead-ends, and bottlenecks. And, most importantly the new dynamic gave them permission to act.
So, in letting go, my leadership role was to inspire, to make urgent, to lead competent people into making good decisions for the betterment of the organization.
However, don’t get the idea I was opting into some kind of hands-off laissez faire leadership. Hardly.
I was still the boss, or you might say, the democratic un-boss.
What did I bring? A willingness and ability to ask questions, some naïve and some taboo, such as “What happens if we stop doing this?”
And, as already alluded to, when obvious good ideas came my way, I took delight in saying: “Do it!”
Many staff found this freedom and enthusiastic support to their liking, especially those who thought about their jobs and wanted to improve, to make complex things simple and to speed up services to clients. They did, reducing turn around times from several months to a few weeks or days.
Of course, letting go may not work all the time or in all settings.
As the WSJ author declares, “the best leaders don’t hesitate to exert top-down control when quick decisions and immediate actions are essential.
And they switch gears and ‘flatten’ hierarchy when they need to solicit everyone’s opinion, develop employee buy-in, and make it safe to discuss uncomfortable truths....”
But, perhaps intentionally, the article infers most bosses are inflexible and won’t or cannot let go. Given this prevailing disability, the unaccommodating boss needs to be corrected or ignored by followers.
But, the boss is not always the villain; sometimes it’s the staff that’s seemingly intractable.
Not all staff are equal. Many want to be left alone to do their jobs – they have no interest or time to deliberate on how to do a better job. Their lives are full up with family and other matters.
And, in many organizations there’s a fair number of alienated staff – they do not agree with the leader’s vision and passively or actively seek to undermine and defeat that leader.
The WSJ article suggests five employee strategies when dealing with micromanagers.
The first of the five is commendable: be honest. Explain with examples to him or her how you would like more freedom and less micromanaging, less intervention. Be clear about what you offer in return!
If that fails, employ sabotage (my term):
Token obedience
Foot dragging
Constructive defiance, and
Malicious compliance!

(See my “Tips for Wrecking an Organization. Free!”)
This, shall we say, “resistance”, is potentially very destructive. I understand the resistance. Not everyone in my shop was on board with my approach or ready to join me on the barricades.
Of the 100 staff an alienated 20% were going to resist and they did – they’d been part of the telling others what to do and they were unhappy with my enlarging the pool of decision-makers.
Another 20% were keenly interested, appreciative, and all in. They were quintessential to our success.
The 60% in the middle were willing to go along but took a wait and see attitude. They’d been ignored for so many years they were rightly suspicious this letting go fancy of mine was another passing fad.
Many of this middle group, I think, eventually trusted what was going on and became a positive force.
What of the alienated 20%? They used each of the four sabotage
strategies mentioned above in attempting to short-circuit what I was trying to do. They declared streamlining to benefit clients was sacrificing quality for quantity. They believed “perfecting” – i.e. making more complex - our work process was more important than improving service to clients.
Albeit sidelined, the alienated hunkered down, stirred the rumor pot, and waited for a traditionalist rescuer. I’m sure they regarded themselves as heroic partisans saving the organization from ruin.
So, while some bosses never will let go, let’s not forget the staff determined to keep the status quo, however much in need of reform.
If I were to do it all over, I’d double my efforts to explain to the key alienated members what I was doing and why and to try to understand their opposition.
For that matter, I would spend much more time communicating to everyone what we were doing.
In any case, I’d be careful not to spend too much time with the gripers informing me of how awful I was. To counter this I’d invest even more time on working side by side with those wanting to improve the organization.
And, I’d reflect some more on my role in an organization when the employees can rightly claim “We did it ourselves!”
Maybe that’s the real reason why managers avoid letting go: becoming superfluous. Besides, top management may already see them that way! If you are the only one getting out of the way in a top down traditional organization, it’s unlikely you will survive without a CEOs support.

*"Productivity in Libraries? Managers Step Aside!", Journal of Library Administration, 17: 23-42, 1992.
Reprinted as Chapter 32 in my Leading from the Middle book.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

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