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MANAGEMENT: ncreasing Impact Through Releasing Staff Potential
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Most managers tend to focus on getting work done through people, but wise business leaders focus on developing capacity in their people through work. 
 
One of the most significant characteristics of highly effective leaders is that they spend less time doing the work themselves, and instead prioritise developing their employees and teams. “Leaders may impress others when they succeed, but they impact others when their followers succeed.” (John Maxwell)
 
When this topic came up at a recent training event, one department head proclaimed, “It is not rocket science. So, why don’t we do it?”
 
Re-orienting our priorities and shifting our style
One of the most common barriers to developing one’s team is that most managers are already busy and over-extended. Releasing the potential in others begins with managers re-orienting their priorities and shifting their style.
 
Frequently, it is easy to fall into the temptation of doing certain tasks oneself rather than training another to do the task. In the short term, this may seem better because it is quicker, but this approach fails to consider the long-term benefits of having someone else take over that task and freeing you as a manager for other things. In addition, when done wisely, the employee will learn more than a new skill. They will have learned to take responsibility.
 
As managers, re-orienting our priorities means regularly looking at our calendars. What if the first things that went into our calendar were meetings with key employees, focused on developing them to maximise their potential? What if we regularly made time to be available to our employees for follow-up conversations and reflective learning? What if we made up a detailed “stop doing” list and then really stopped doing the things we had written down? Do we really believe in the principle that if we do less we can focus on doing more through others?
 
“To create a high performance team, we must replace typical management activities like supervision, checking, monitoring, and controlling, with new behaviours like coaching and communicating.” (Ray Smith, CEO of Bell Atlantic)
 
We need to give less advice and instead allow employees to take greater ownership for decision-making and greater responsibility for their results. Of course, this doesn’t have to happen overnight. But it won’t happen at all unless we are intentional about empowering our staff. We need to let go of our need to control their choices and activities, and train them to make decisions for themselves.  
 
One simple and important way to do this is to ask for their perspective on issues. When an employee comes to you and asks, “What should I do?” instead of immediately sharing your knowledge, and thus closing down the conversation, try seeing the situation as an opportunity for a learning conversation. Respond with a few questions back to them, such as: “What do you think you should do?”…“What are the best options?”…“What information do you have that can help you make a good decision?” In taking time to ask them questions, you are teaching them to think for themselves, and to better own their decisions and their work. 
 
Wang Mei’s direct report, John, came to ask for input regarding a conflict on his project team. Wang Mei caught herself from her habit of offering an immediate solution and took a breathe before responding. (She had been to a training seminar and was challenged by the idea of helping employees to think for themselves.) She asked, “What are the key issues that you need to address?” After Wang Mei helped John to reflect on the situation for 5 minutes, he left with greater clarity about the dynamics and how his own conflict-avoidant tendencies were contributing to the problem. He vowed to take initiative to bring the team together to discuss the conflict and to experiment with being more direct in his communication style.
 
Empowering our staff begins with changing ourselves
Something inside of us shifts as we learn to recognise that an employee’s discovery is more important (and transformational) to their development than our advice. People grow when their awareness is increased and they take responsibility for their goals and duties. Both awareness and responsibility are best raised through asking questions rather than giving advice. So, how might this principle best be applied in your work situation?
 
Wang Mei’s typical response to employees’ problems was to address the problem as if it were her own, and try to solve it as quickly as possible. She saw these kinds of situations as a necessary but unpleasant part of her job. Now that Wang Mei has begun to try new ways of communicating, she sees such situations as opportunities to help develop her employees on-the-job. Taking a few minutes to help an employee to think things through beforehand is also saving her time and energy in the long run, as employees like John learn to carry more responsibility.
 
This empowerment posture can also change how we interact when a task or project is completed. We must avoid the temptation to bypass the work of evaluation or simply providing feedback. We need to make time to debrief our staff in order to increase their awareness and learning. 
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Try asking, “How did it go?”, rather than give your impressions, observations or hearsay. If the employee responds positively, don’t stop there. This is the place where learning happens. Follow-up by asking things like: “What in particular was good?”, “What did you do that contributed to it going so well?”, “What did you learn?”, “How can you apply that learning to other projects or areas of your work?” If the feedback was that the task or project didn’t go well, then maybe try asking: “What did you learn?”, “What will you do differently next time or in other projects because of what you learned through this experience?” It is all about the learning and the intentional invitation to be more self-aware and responsible.
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People are your most valuable resource
Of course, these kinds of conversations are only the beginning of a greater empowerment process. We need to repeatedly facilitate this kind of communication and to prioritise employee development. We need to consistently demonstrate to our staff that we believe in them, that we see their strengths (see February 2013 Management article by David Zovak) and that we trust them (see March 2013 Management article by Ric Schoon). We do this directly and indirectly each day through the things we say, the trust and responsibility we extend, and the work environments we create.
 
Our posture and attitude make the difference. If we see our staff as workers to direct and control like cogs in a system, then that will likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, however, we see our employees as our most valuable resource, and we see our task as managers’ key role being to develop them (with all of the strengths, gifts, talents and competencies they already possess, even if sometimes only in latent form) toward making a greater contribution (at work and more broadly), that too can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our posture, attitude and habits set the tone that our employees will follow.

By Dr.Kim Zovak
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