The One Critical Skill That Most Managers Never Seem to Learn

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Let it go.

Since the beginning of time, those three words have never been repeated more frequently by more people or in more places than they have since the release of Frozen. Whatever else Elsa was singing about, however, she may as well have been delivering her primary message – let it go – to the modern manager.

Why is it that managers struggle to let things go?

There are a variety of reasons and the challenge manifests itself in many ways.

  • Some can’t let go because they never learn the distinction between leading and managing.
  • Some fear being overshadowed by talented direct reports.
  • Some try to do everything, losing sight of the fact that doing a mediocre job at a lot of things is less valuable than excelling at a few things. In each instance, learning to “let it go” will make for stronger managers, more engaged employees, and a better workplace.

Defaulting to micromanagement

One of the most common reasons managers don’t know how to let things go is because their promotion to management was made for all the wrong reasons.

For example, just because someone knows how to bake incredible pies doesn’t mean they know how to manage a team of bakers or run a pie shop. But when eating a great piece of pie, many people make the mistake of commenting to the cook, “You should start a pie shop and sell these!

It’s no different with managers.

Too often people are promoted because they are good at their current job, not because they have the skill set to do well in a management position. Suddenly tasked with managing people and processes, many managers will default to micromanagement. They know how to do the job they used to have and don’t know how to manage so they default to lording over what they used to do – which means micromanaging.

Leaders lead  … so let it go

They try to do a direct report’s job for them or, more accurately put, to get their direct reports to do their jobs exactly the way the manager would do it. This approach is inherently unscalable because managers can only micromanage so much before the system will come crashing down. They’ll frustrate their employees and miss huge opportunities to lead, inspire, and guide.

People need mentoring. They need direction. And they then need some space to learn for themselves.

How do managers avoid the tendency to micromanage and lead in such a way that people will want to follow them? Here are a few suggestions to help you develop as a leader and learn to “let it go.”

Be a player/coach

At Qualtrics we have a leadership principle we call player/coach. A player/coach is the opposite of being an overseer; rather, it’s a leader who mentors from the trenches, someone who is a top performer themselves, and who gives helpful feedback while sharing leadership.

To become a good player/coach, managers must first let go of two ideas:

  1. First, that they lead from ivory towers and never need to dig in the dirt themselves; and,
  2. Second, that they always know better than those on the front lines.

Just to be clear, however, a willingness to dig into the dirt is very different from micromanaging. It means not leading from an ivory tower as an absentee landlord who only swoops in at the tail end of a project, design concept, or planning cycle to insist things be done his or her way.

Rather, it’s working alongside employees while mentoring and coaching them along the way. It means letting go of the idea that a manager is someone who presides over a team and realizing that managing means leading a team. Sometimes that means leading the charge from the trenches and sometimes that means developing broad, strategic vision.

In other words, leadership means managers will be most effective when they are both a player and a coach.

Hire the best people, then get out of the way

Every organization wants to hire the best people, but unfortunately, not all managers are comfortable having smart, talented people reporting to them because they feel threatened by them and try to keep them from advancing.

Others struggle with letting people do things differently. Both issues can lead to paranoid managers who suck the ambition out of everyone around them.

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If you want the best people, you have to let go and give them room to spread their wings, push the limits, think differently, and try new things. Some of your employees might not do things the way you would. Get over it. So long as they get the job done and done well it’s OK if their methods differ from yours.

There’s the old adage that you can’t give people too much rope lest they inadvertently hang themselves with it. But that doesn’t apply when you’ve hired the right people.

If you’ll guide them in the right direction and get out of their way, you’ll be amazed to see the new and innovative things they come up with.

Do more by doing less

Most organizations move quickly and there is more to get done than there are people to do it. It’s easy to get sucked into the tendency to put your hands in a lot of pots – doing a little here and a little there but never really accomplishing anything substantial.

It’s not that you weren’t busy and it’s not that you weren’t working on a lot of things that needed to get done. But at the end of the day, someone else could probably have handled some of it, and some of it probably didn’t need to happen at all.

As Peter Drucker taught, “do first things first and second things not at all.

One of the most interesting exercises to go through is to look back over the past week and see what big initiatives or projects or deals you moved forward. Often, managers see that they have worked very hard, but have hardly moved.

While ownership is an important principle and while it’s always commendable to be the person willing to pick up the ball and own a situation, sometimes it’s even more important to let some things go.

The difference between managing and leading

You don’t have to be in every meeting or review every document or make every decision. Similar to hiring the right people and getting out of their way, managers will find that they will be able to do more by doing less.

The best leaders understand the distinction between managing and leading.

While both are important, a leader who only manages is not a leader at all and employees need leadership. They need vision. They need strategic direction.

Focus on the most important things and everything else will take care of itself.

Mike Maughan specializes in helping organizations understand employee development and engagement strategies. He is part of the leadership team for the Employee Insights business at Qualtrics. Mike is the former Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Evergreen Development Foundation and worked as a law clerk on the 2012 Romney for President campaign. He has also served in a variety of positions focusing on third-world development and healthcare access in the developing world.

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