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Let’s Stop Underestimating What Others Can Do

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“I have to hold their hands.” “They need constant supervision.” “They don’t think!” “They aren’t creative.” Have you heard leaders and managers pass these kinds of judgments on employee abilities?

Frequently, as I conduct employee focus groups or review 360 results, leaders who make these kinds of statements receive the following kinds of comments: “What a micromanager!” “Constant meetings and checklists and interference keep us from our work.” “We’re treated like children!”

“But I tried giving more autonomy and it was a disaster,” many leaders say. Frequently, they provided autonomy without clarity of goals or the benefit of wisdom learned from the past. There’s a happy medium of structure AND autonomy, a polarity that leads to results AND happy employees!

Last weekend, I heard the best example of the right mix of structure and autonomy from Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey as they described a great teaching moment in a kindergarten classroom, fostered by a reading of The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. The methods the teacher used to ensure learning and unleash creativity can be used by leaders at any level.

Imagine opening your crayon box and finding, instead of crayons, notes from each one. Grey is feeling diminished because everything colored grey is big (think elephants and roads). Pink is seen as a girl color by the owner and never gets used. Red wants overtime pay for holidays filled with hearts and Santas. And so on. The teacher checked for understanding of this quite complex literary device. Which crayons are sad? What can we tell from the last picture? How is beige feeling? And so on. The teacher then asked students to respond to the story.

Fisher and Frey described the students’ actions. Two boys went to the computer to learn more about the author. He grew up in a funhouse; his parents owned a circus! Naturally, they next wanted to know more about the authors of other books they’d read.[quote align=”center” color=”#008080″]Another girl, inventive spelling and all, wrote letters from her shoes–remember, these are kindergartners![/quote]Yet another girl wrote about how she makes others happy by solving problems, illustrating her words with a picture of a yellow and orange sun, referencing the book’s description of how these two colors argue over which makes the best sun! Here’s four key ideas about leadership that I think this teacher illustrated:

  • Check for understanding. What questions are truly necessary to ensure your employees know where you want to go and the essentials that have to happen? The teacher moved to connections and interpretation as quickly as she could, but ensured everyone saw the cleverness in the writing and the actual personalities of the crayons.
  • Clarify the goal. The teacher’s goal for the students–making connections and digging deeper–was clear, leaving room for creativity. What would have been lost if every student had been asked to do the same thing? What do we lose when we micromanage adults? Yet we can insist on an end target or result or understanding. Think of providing the destination and a full map that allows route choices rather than a computer-generated set of destination directions.
  • Provide the resources, tools and skills. Kindergartners don’t naturally know how to do web searches or how to work together or how to write. These things had been taught. The children also knew about pens and papers and other things they could use.
  • Norm making mistakes. Cartoonist Scott Adams put it, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”(1) These children felt free to experiment and safe in trying new things. Are employees encouraged to take risks and ponder creative solutions, all within the goals and resources provided?

You’ll know you’ve stopped underestimating what others can do when you see them engaged through possibilities, empowered to ask questions, eager to try new ideas, and perhaps even going beyond your expectations.

How do you avoid micromanaging, especially when the stakes are high?

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Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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