More power, more problems
Short article today about authority in managerial roles, since I just spoke on the topic in the Critical Channel podcast last week.
Authoritarianism kills productivity
Conventional wisdom is that as we progress vertically in an organisation, we hold more power and can get more done. Indeed, as managers, we’re expected to deliver results that far exceed what a single individual can achieve. We’re entrusted with entire teams and must somehow direct their efforts.
One of the ways to do it is through the authority that comes with our role. The ability to give orders, make decisions and veto things as we see fit.
Authority is a two-edged sword though. The micromanaging boss is an entire meme, and for good reason. We simply can’t get the best out of people by telling them what to do, or by forcing them to go against their will. Developers deliver their best software when they are engaged, empowered and supported. Giving orders is not supporting. Making decisions for others is not empowering. Unsupported and disempowered people can’t engage their full intellect and creativity.
It’s easy to disempower people as a manager. For example:
Demanding to approve every release, design document, RFC or pull request. We simply won’t have the bandwidth, will become a bottleneck, and won’t be giving anyone opportunities to own initiatives and develop themselves.
Only accepting our own ideas. If no one else gets to pursue theirs, why put in any effort? Soon we’re trapped by having to solve everything, as our team disengages more and more. Motivation tanks, performance plummets, product delivery suffers, and we’re working nights and weekends trying to keep up.
Especially these days, when companies can’t get as many experienced developers as they need, it’s easy for managers to feel trapped. Their stakeholders demanding more and more, their teams delivering less and less. It’s very tempting to step in, take charge and save the day by dictating how everything needs to happen.
Under pressure, it can be irresistible to use our authority for good, to do things right. And then we overwork ourselves under the bus. And then our people start quitting.
Ideally, we want to avoid situations where our individual contribution would be the best. We do that by enabling and empowering our teams, so that over time they become better at the IC job than we could be. Achieving that is our actual job as managers.
We need to strive to create absolute clarity of purpose, so that teams can settle in and pursue well defined problems for a long time. We need to guide people towards opportunities that match their interests. We must provide all the tools, training and access.
When we succeed, we get teams of people who are motivated to solve those teams’ problems, have the time to dig in and learn, become experts, and soon start coming up with far better answers than we could. When we fail, nothing good gets done and everyone hides quietly in their JIRA tickets.
Sometimes the status quo is such that we find ourselves chronically stuck using our authority to get things done the right way. Some ideas that might help get unstuck:
1. Mind the Senior:Non-Senior ratio
When we find ourselves unable to delegate and having to make too many decisions, we might have too few experienced people in our teams. Make sure the hiring plan is balanced. If unable to hire seniors, invest even more in training your best people.
2. Shift decisions left
Technical designs should be in step with product ideation. Technical decisions get more expensive the closer we get to delivery, both in terms of time, and in terms of the authority needed to change them. We must engage our Product counterparts and technical delegates actively, and make all the big decisions as early as possible.
3. Let people fail
Not everything is high stakes. We can identify initiatives that are non-critical and allow our team to try their craziest ideas there. We must be clear on delivery expectations and success criteria. If things fail, our team will learn something valuable. We’ll be thorough, data-driven and kind with our debrief. If things succeed, we will learn something. Be humble.
4. Operate just outside our comfort zone
A former manager once told me: the right amount of delegation is when it just starts to feel uncomfortable. This is because it’s the zone where our delegates will sometimes fail. But that’s ok (see above). it’s where the learning happens.
5. Do step in when needed
But only when needed. When something is massively delayed, when the team is stuck and unable to make a decision, when a costly mistake is about to be made. If we do a good job of letting our teams work autonomously, our “goodwill bank account” will be full and people will generally be receptive to our commands or at least willing to give us the benefit of the doubt.
Authority is a tricky subject. The more we use it, the less we have. Abusing it destroys our teams. But it’s not easy to step back and watch when our instincts tell us mistakes are about to be made. Hopefully, today I shared something useful to help you make the most of your authority while avoiding its pitfalls.
If you want to learn more, Episode 16 of the Critical Channel podcast is precisely about this topic. Have a listen!
The Critical Channel: Episode 16
And if you’re new to management, you might be interested in The First 90 Days, by Michael D. Watkins. It’s mentioned in the podcast and for good reason.