How to teach employees to be independent. Part 1
Let’s talk in detail about the delegation process. Together with IIDF, we have prepared a long-read article on how to teach employees to be independent.
The article is divided into two parts, and it will be especially useful to anyone whose work involves managing people and projects.
The first part is about why and how to teach employees to be independent, how people learn something new, and what tasks at what level of responsibility can be delegated.
Have a read!
Let’s start by defining delegation. Delegation is the transfer of some responsibility to another person. When leaders delegate tasks to performers, they do not entirely relieve themselves of responsibility but only transfer a piece of it. Such transfer is directly related to independence: the more independent is the performer, the more responsibility can be shared.
In this article, we will talk about how to teach a person to be independent, control them less, and assign high complexity tasks. Let’s also figure out how the level of autonomy is related to delegation.
Not everyone needs delegation
Let’s start with the disclaimer: not everyone needs to delegate. For example, it is unnecessary to delegate to those who are engaged in business to self-realize through work.
Imagine a family-owned custom shoe workshop: if craftsmen like to make shoes by hand, if they enjoy the process and do not want to turn into a shoe corporation, then delegation will only hinder self-realization.
If the primary motivation is to get joy from creative work, the business is not focused on rapid growth, the system is compact and plans to remain so, then you can continue to do everything yourself.
Another situation where delegation is optional is small companies with a team of up to 15 people. We are talking about those teams that are engaged in approximately the same and understandable tasks; for example, 15 employees are working on three sites. In this case, the structure is usually flat; everyone obeys the leader, and it is expected that he or she makes decisions.
When the team grows, for example, up to 25 people, the leader no longer has enough resources or the capacity to pay attention to some areas of work. To do so, they will have to delegate. However, if a small team is working on atypical, risky, or urgent tasks, you will have to start delegating earlier.
In this article, we will talk about delegation in the context of a fast-growing system.
The time of competent managers is the most scarce resource
The most scarce resource in any company is the time of competent managers. By managers here, we mean executives and entrepreneurs. The growth of the company depends on how much time and attention the skilled manager is spending. And if a manager does not delegate tasks, he or she becomes a bottleneck.
Imagine: an entrepreneur is talented in finding new niches that can be quickly scaled up. If he or she does everything — looks for a niche and location, tests marketing channels, keeps accounting, hires and monitors specialists it will quickly turn out that the growth of the company is limited by the time that an entrepreneur can spend on these tasks. And in order not to turn into a bottleneck, they need to delegate.
Eliyahu Goldratt is the author of the theory of constraints; he suggests looking at the organization as a system of links. The key idea of the theory is that there is one bottleneck in the system. The efficiency and stability of the entire system depend on the efficiency and throughput of this weak link.
If we are talking about innovative entrepreneurship, it is always in an area of high uncertainty; otherwise, it would not be innovative. In innovative companies, there is no way to foresee everything in the regulations — the rate of change is too high, and there are many decision points. There are no standard instructions; people themselves make decisions in their area of responsibility, which means they should be independent subjects.
Some kind of call center in which you need to answer calls using a script would be the opposite. The assignment to answer calls can hardly be called delegation because, in this case, people cannot make decisions: they act according to instructions, like robots. By delegation, we mean assigning a task to an independent subject and not to a human machine.
It turns out that delegation is closely related to such a term as independence.
The independence of the performer is measured by the time that the manager spends on them
Self-reliance is measured by the amount of time a manager needs to spend to get results from the performer. The less time a manager spends on a person and the more complex tasks this person can solve, the higher the degree of his or her independence, and hence the value for the company.
For example, a company has two people assigned to find new customers. One accepted the task and returned with five clients. The second accepted the assignment but did not start doing it until the manager reminded. Then he or she started wasting time on social media during working hours, although the company’s rules prohibit this. The manager had to intervene again. Then he or she brought five clients, but it turned out that they did not need the services of the company. The manager intervened again, recalled, corrected, and after a while, the person completed the task.
The results in this example are the same, but the manager spent an hour on the first person and eight on the second. It means that the first performer is more independent.
To give a person a task and get a result without unnecessary management, you need to teach them to be independent.
Here is more about the delegation algorithm:
Self-reliance needs to be taught
Self-reliance is a quality that needs to be nurtured. A person cannot reach a high level of independence if he or she does not have experience working with tasks in the proximal development area. For example, they spend all their time doing only what they already know how to do. And there is no experience in working with complex tasks, for example, in an area of high uncertainty.
You cannot teach a person to be independent if you:
- Do not give them challenging tasks;
- Do not provide the right to make mistakes;
- Do not let them make their own decisions;
- Do not give feedback.
It turns out that he or she needs to be given complex but feasible tasks, the right to make mistakes, and high-quality feedback to grow as an independent employee.
(Difficult but feasible tasks + the right to make mistakes + high-quality feedback) * repeat until ready = an independent person
In addition to difficult tasks in the proximal development area, there is another source of independence — when a person takes an entrepreneurial position and goes to study in the outside world. But such people usually run their own business, rather than work for hire. Therefore, this method is not suitable for the company.
In hiring, people can only learn to be independent in the environment the company creates. And the more complex and aggressive this environment is, the more independent the people in the team are. But there is an essential condition: people should want this complexity and perceive it as a challenge, not as idiocy. The company will be able to raise independent people only under this condition — namely, those who will solve complex problems in an area of high uncertainty.
The task should be feasible, just like in the gym. If a beginner squats with a bar of 100 kilograms, he or she will get injured instead of building muscles, and if the person starts with an empty bar and gradually increases the weight, he or she will enjoy the growth of muscles and strength.
Suppose a company wants to get a team of independent people in a few years, for example, to enter the world market or assemble a large team. In that case, it is necessary to delegate and allow mistakes today. The less often a company gives people responsibility, the slower they grow. Yes, today, it is easier to do it yourself than to explain to someone else what to do, how to do it, and how to check the result and correct mistakes — but with this approach, in five years, the person will remain dependent.
The example of the army, where orders are not discussed, fits the story of delegation and independence. If a soldier thinks that the general gave him or her a stupid or incomprehensible order, a soldier cannot ask questions or argue but must do what he or she was told.
In this way, you can solve simple or fictitious problems, for example, to paint the grass: the same order is given to a large number of people, the general says: “All of you have paint and a brush, go ahead and color the grass, in two hours I’ll come and check it.” Why paint the grass with a brush, whether this problem can be solved more efficiently, for example, by using a spray gun or planting a regular lawn — it does not matter.
Any manager, regardless of the management style, saves their resources; otherwise, the system will choke. But there are two ways: you can save resources by standardizing the order, as in the example above, or by increasing the level of independence of employees and the complexity of the tasks that can be entrusted to them. For fast-growing companies, the second option is more suitable.
From trainee to leader: how people learn new things
There is a ladder that shows how a child learns the world. This ladder is not an invention of the author of the article, but a reworking of material from the psychologist Elkonin, a student of Vygotsky, who is considered an iconic Soviet child psychologist. It is difficult to say how scientific knowledge about the ladder is, but it is definitely applied.
The ladder shows how a child learns the world, but in the same way, anyone learns a new subject area, including designers, programmers, and doctors. The type of tasks and the format of the feedback depend on which step of the ladder a person is on.
The ladder has seven steps, which can be divided into three areas: learning, a dialogue of equals, and a source of expertise.
The learning area
Step and features:
1. Subject level: a person gets to know the basics; for example, they learn what font and color harmony are.
2. Interaction Level: he or she learns to combine objects, such as combining font and color in a logo.
3. Action Level: a person recognizes and reproduces mentor patterns. They learn to do as the mentor does, while not yet understanding why to do precisely that and this way.
What tasks can be set: Educational or practice ones — those that are not in the critical area, or tasks with a low cost of error. These tasks are compared with the standard: you need to do as well as experienced comrades.
The dialogue of equals area
Step and features:
1. The level of dialogue: it is necessary to take into account the position of an employee, talk with them on equal terms, and evaluate their work by the effectiveness of decisions, not in comparison with a standard.
2. Feat level: a person wants to receive confirmation of their exclusivity.
What tasks can be set: Combat tasks and real problems.
The source of expertise area
Step and features:
1. Theory level: a person generalizes experience in the subject area and receives a coherent theory about how everything works. There is a risk that a person will think they know the truth. The Dunning — Kruger effect explains this distortion in more detail.
2. Paradox level: a person understands that any model is not complete, and other people’s worldviews may differ, then takes the difference into account in reasoning.
Mastering the level of paradox allows a person to treat other people’s experiences as more valuable and to be a good mentor.
What tasks can be set: Problems of high complexity in the area of uncertainty and mentoring.
Next, we’ll talk more about each area, and then we’ll talk about goals synchronization, feedback, and layoffs.
The learning area: just do as I do
There are three levels inside the learning area: objects, interactions, and actions. Compared to how a child studies the world, at the first level of objects, he or she learns that there are apples, pyramids, shoes, legs, and so on. A programmer, for example, learns about operators, syntax, and the system environment.
Then comes the level of interaction of objects. The child learns that he or she can kick the pyramid with their foot, and the programmer learns that by using the operator and syntax they can display “Hello, world!” on the screen.
The next level is action. At this level, a person begins to be interested not in objects and their mutual arrangement, but in actions and their sequence: he or she is looking for an answer to the questions, “What are we doing? In what order I should do this to get the result, like in the recipe?”
At the learning level, a person has no experience yet, but there is a recipe, an instruction, and an example by which they repeat the mentor’s pattern and solve problems. It’s like driving a car. Until a person passed their driving test, got a license, and began to feel confident on the road, their opinion about which driving style is better is not competent. They haven’t mastered the basics yet.
The same thing is in design: if a designer does not understand what a visual language is, what a composition is, how a font works, and how people perceive a frame, their opinion on the choice of visual techniques is compared with the reference opinion of an art director. The designer’s opinion is considered acceptable if it is similar to the “correct” reference opinion.
In this area, there are interns, and the company is giving them educational tasks. It doesn’t have to be urgent, critical, or with a high price for error.
How to give feedback: there is a standard — the pattern that a person should reproduce, which means that feedback can be provided in the categories “good/bad” or “right/wrong.”
The dialogue of equals: a trainee becomes a full-fledged team member
In this area, a person forms their style and own way of solving problems. They have already learned to reproduce the patterns of the mentor and have moved into the category of the junior or early middle. The person can be assigned to combat missions. There are two levels here: dialogue and feat.
The dialogue level. The manager avoids the assessment in the “correct/incorrect” format and assesses the solution, not for compliance with the standard, but efficiency. A field for the dialogue appears, and the conversation must go on an equal footing.
At this level, a person enters the state of “talk to me.” They may not directly declare this but expect that when setting tasks, the leader will take into account their position. For them to grow further, you need to make them feel like respected professionals and listen to their thoughts.
How to give feedback: There is no benchmark at this level, so feedback should be based on an analysis of the experience of the person to whom it is given. For example, you can say: “Alex, let’s figure out how the problem is constructed, how it works, and whether your solution is effective.”
The feat level. If we continue the comparison with the development of a person as an individual, this would be adolescence. At this stage, a person needs to receive confirmation from the world of their exceptionalism. Therefore, adolescence is usually considered difficult: to do something destructive is easier than constructive, and the amount of attention from the world is about the same.
How to give feedback: At this level, a person wants to receive confirmation that they have done something outstanding. It doesn’t have to be a World Cup of design or money — the manager needs to remember about the person. “Thank you, Alex, you are an awesome designer; where would we be without you?” — such praise is sufficient.
The source of expertise: theory and paradox
The source of expertise area can be divided into two levels: theory and paradox.
The theory level. At this level, the person understands how the subject area is arranged, sees patterns, and begins to systematize them. They may have the feeling that they have learned the truth and are ready to carry it to the masses.
At the theory level, the person wants to share the truth and thinks that this is feedback. But in the “I know the truth” state, a person expresses their opinion not to help colleagues solve their problem but so that everyone understands how cool he or she is. The difference is this: the person does not analyze what happened with their colleagues, what the task and the context are, but tells what conclusions he or she made based on their own experience. They do not take into account that their experience may be irrelevant.
Usually, people react negatively to the opinion of the theoretician: “Are you the smartest? You seem to be the same specialist as we are. Or do you have some special shoulder straps? Is your halo glowing? No, it seems. Then why are you telling us how to do it, if you don’t even know the context of our task? Back off.”
And then the person has three options:
- Find a congregation to pray for them;
- Be under constant stress and stress their colleagues;
- Move to the next level of development.
How to give feedback: you are already experienced, and you know how everything works here. But let’s figure out how people hear you and what they want from you. Let’s try to look at the situation through the eyes of different participants.
Sometimes people get stuck at the theory level. It is better not to solve this situation on the spot but to prevent it; otherwise, you will have to break the person. You can say
something like this: “First, you are a part of the team. By yourself, you can be as fabulous as you like, nobody cares. The only important thing is how you work in a team with other people: whether you strengthen or weaken them. My task as a leader is to make sure that you strengthen each other. If I cannot do this, even though you are valuable, we will part. Because a team consists of molecules, not atoms, and an atom that does not combine with others, even if it is precious, didn’t bother anyone.”
The paradox level. At this level, the person understands: no matter how harmonious the concept of the world they may have, there are other realities, and they have the right to exist. At this moment, they grow up as a professional, they deeply know the subject area and understand that there is no single truth for everyone. The person continues to learn and grow and will respect other people along the way.
If the person has reached this level, he or she can be entrusted with the role of a mentor or with the education of other people. Usually, problems and conflicts arise because the people who lead the performers are on the previous steps: they either want a feat or prove the truth to everyone. And the person who has learned to work with someone else’s picture of the world as an important one, though different from their own vision, will not have such problems.
How to give feedback: the way it helps the person to achieve their goals — this is a general rule. We will talk about it and also about goals in the second part of the article.