Wednesday, August 09, 2020

Practicing Restraint

Restraint isn’t usually seen as a leadership virtue, especially today, when headlong action is typically rewarded. But doing something isn’t very difficult. Doing the right thing (and knowing what that is) is far harder. When leaders rush into action, goaded by impatient bosses or investors or misinterpreting their real role, the likelihood of making unnecessary errors is far greater than the chance of getting anything right.

The tendency to rush into premature actions isn’t solely the result of impatience. Today’s typical corporate culture is permeated by an unthinking preference for action (of any kind) over thought or reflection, based on the assumption that busy, active people are more productive that those who spend more of their time considering what to do and less of it doing what then turns out to be useless.

Among senior managers, action nearly always means making decisions. Their roles rarely require them to do any direct work, so their lust for continual action can only be quenched by a non-stop series of decisions, large and small. They can’t stop themselves. They feel it’s what they’re employed to do. That’s why they spend so much of their time listening to presentations and working through spending proposals and policy papers. Each one represents a decision of some type, and decisions mean action and busyness.

When this gets out of hand, the executives’ unfortunate subordinates are required to send a continual stream of items upwards, each one requiring some fresh decision to be made. The bosses sit in conclave, skimming through piles of paper and making decision after decision, though they’re typically too far from the point where the decision is needed to have much insight into what is best. Their subordinates are rendered impotent. Nearly every decision must be passed upwards, while staff spend their time composing memos and presentations instead of getting on with what needs to be done. Bureaucracy blossoms as never before and the smallest decision takes days or weeks to obtain.

The proper role of senior managers is twofold: to set a direction and purpose for the organization, and to provide the means for their subordinates to achieve it. No decision should ever reach senior levels if it can be handled effectively lower down. To let this happen is to waste the time of senior people and prove that those lower down are either incompetent or not being allowed to do their jobs. Too many top executives today are overburdened by making decisions that should not even reach them.

It’s their own fault. What they’re experiencing is “punishment” for unexplored corporate assumptions about the nature of the executive role, the precedence given to action over everything else, and their communal lack of restraint. Every hour spent making decisions that aren’t properly their responsibility is an hour less that is available for thinking about the direction the business should be taking. Every meeting spent watching PowerPoints is time that should have been devoted to mentoring their staff and getting to understand more clearly what is needed to allow them to do a better job.

Executives who truly want to be more productive should start by questioning every decision they are working on: Not what the answer should be, but why the decision has reached their level at all. Subordinates who refer decisions upward without real need should be told to stop. Those who cannot handle such choices themselves should be helped to improve or find more appropriate roles. And any senior people who cannot restrain themselves enough to stop wasting their time interfering in what should not concern them directly should be fired. The last thing an organization needs is top people who cannot hold themselves back from doing the work of their subordinates.

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Sevenoaks said...

"...The proper role of senior managers is twofold: to set a direction and purpose for the organization, and to provide the means for their subordinates to achieve it. ...".
Even if I do agree and, as a manager I try to apply this principle, this implies something that's hardly found in modern corporates: trust.
Subordinates should be trusted while the most common assumption is different. It's common to think that, without constant supervision, subordinates will steal their salary spendint time on their own.
Sad but true.

1:28 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Sevenoaks.

I agree with you that trust is essential to good relations between leaders and their teams—and that it is more common to find organizations where distrust is the norm.

Does it have to be like that? No—it's just a bad habit that managers have fallen into, derived from the paranoia of a command-and-control management style. Now it's up to all of us to change it.

6:29 AM  
JKB said...

While obviously some will seek to take advantage, most people will rise to meet your expectation of them. It is the manager who must trust first. Assignments must be precise but not specific in how to achieve the assignment. I discovered long ago that as a leader if you try to do a subordinate manager's job for him, he'll let you. In fact, he'll let you do it from then on.

The hardest lesson a leader must learn is to trust his subordinates to accomplish the job even though they may no do it the same way he would. Even though the subordinates way may not be the most efficient. We learn by the experience of doing, but not by experiencing the constant interference of micromanagement.

Leadership is about being aware of what is going on, but not being involved in everything going on. It is about providing guidelines in which decisions can be made rather than making the decisions. A successful leader is not a man of action but rather a man of preparation.

9:35 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, JKB.

Yes, the manager must trust first; and, yes, many subordinates will happily delegate upwards if given the chance.

I agree with what you have said wholeheartedly. It's a shame so many managers fail to notice these simple—but extremely important—truths.

9:43 PM  

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