“Throw back the pens but manage the knives”. One of the best principles I have come across to build initiative and empowerment

One of Steve Job’s most famous quotes is: “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Do you spend too much time answering and solving problems for your team?

This article shares a model around assessing which decisions to delegate and which to keep. It focused on helping managers, team leaders and aspiring managers build clarity on which decisions to delegate, problems to pass back and issues we need to address.

Micromanaging or making too many decisions for staff can be one of the most damaging habits a leader or manager can have. Teams get bogged down with process, individuals withdraw and can lose confidence, and a culture of negativity can foster.

1 in 2 people leave their role because of their manager.

Giving teams and our leaders the ability to be able to make decisions and feel like they are making a difference is a key component to them feeling satisfaction in what they do.

I often work with managers who wish their staff would show more initiative and come to them with solutions rather than problems.

However part of the equation is which problems we take on. If we solve problems that our teams are charged to solve for themselves, they will often come back to us for more.

I remember coaching a school principal and him telling me the story of some of the issues that he had to manage. In one case, a child brought a knife to school.  Now this was not a problem to be delegated, it was one that needed to be addressed then and there. No question.

A similar example of this is included in a great leadership video by David Marques where he shares about being a submarine captain and how he empowered his crew with almost everything, except the missile launch button. He defines leaderships as “embedding the capacity for greatness in the people and practices of an organisation, decoupling it from the personality of the leader”.

Below is the spectrum of problems we can solve or be asked to help solve by our teams.  It classifies problems into the large and important (the knives) and the small and non-important (the pens).

Knives and Pens.jpg

If we end up solving team problems that have little importance, risk or impact (I call these the pens) – we end up bogged down managing the minutia. We end up on our desk a whole pile of random pens that suck up our time, energy and resource – meaning we don’t do the work we are meant to do.

However, if we then go too far and do not assist in addressing the major issues (I call these the knives), we run the risk of major incidents occurring on our watch as a leader.

So on the spectrum of problems where do you sit most of the time?

"Leading" means working through others and requires a specific set of skills. 

One of the best ways to pass back the pens is through effective coaching and delegation. In the Forbes article on micromanaging and why it is so important to stop it, coaching is listed as one of the key tools of effective leadership and is a skill set to be developed. As an aside, I do assist managers on how to use coaching as an effective tool, giving the tools, questions and techniques I have honed down from 1000+ coaching conversations.

Other tools for helping teams confidently manage decisions includes helping them understand their natural way for making decisions. Strengthsfinder is a great tool for this as it points to areas that people are naturally wired and have the most potential. Some people are stronger in the strategic space, while others have natural preferences in the relationship or influencing areas. Growing self-awareness builds self-confidence how to communicate and work with others, respecting the way they work and that these may be different to our own.

In conclusion, where we sit on this spectrum of what problems we take on and solve for our team, will impact the number of problems they then come back to us to solve. There are problems and decisions that we cannot (or should not) delegate. However for the rest, we can empower our teams to confidently solve them.

If you are keen to discuss how to use Strengthsfinder to empower your team or learn coaching as a tool for effective leadership, email me at grant@sparked.co.nz and request a free “team initiative review”. Alternatively reach out and give me your feedback on the article – I would love to hear.

grant verhoeven