Define What’s Optional (and What’s Not)

When my children were young and it was past their bedtimes, I used to give them a choice: Either walk to your room, or be carried. While this gave them control over how they would go to bed, it left them no choice about the end result. In other words while I wanted to give them options for some things, it was clear that others were non-negotiable.

Managers often have this same kind of parental dilemma. They need subordinates to achieve a certain result, but want them to have a choice about how to do it. This issue is particularly acute in organizations that emphasize empowerment and engagement, and in professional firms where it is difficult to order colleagues around. If a manager is too directive, subordinates might go through the motions to comply, but won't do it wholeheartedly. On the other hand, if the manager is only "suggestive," the instruction may not be taken seriously.

Take this example from a research services firm: In response to eroding margins, the president of the firm asked her business areas and support functions to find a way to either reduce costs or grow their higher margin offerings. Four months later the president was dismayed to learn that only a few managers had taken strong actions to actually change the numbers. Others were either admiring the problem or had reasons why they couldn't do anything different.

The president discovered that although she had given her managers plenty of choice about how to improve margins, because she hadn't given them a specific target and time frame they considered the entire exercise to be optional. She assumed that each manager would do his or her best, and the combined effort would be enough. The problem was that people had different views of how much improvement was needed overall; and most had a parochial perspective about how much change was needed in their own area. Only when the president gave each manager a top-down target that had to be built into the next budget cycle did the margins start to improve.

It's easy to criticize the president for not exhibiting stronger leadership. But in many organizations, forcing goals on subordinates is a last resort. In fact, in this kind of culture, managers who take this route are considered failures because they couldn't motivate their people to change voluntarily. And while this might be an extreme point of view, top-down goal setting also shouldn't be the norm, since it will eventually disempower your team. There needs to be a balance.

Finding this balance brings me back to the solution for putting my children to bed. To be effective as a manager, it's important to be clear about areas where subordinates have choice, and where they do not. In the case above, the president was unclear about where her managers had choice, and so the entire effort suffered. She would have gotten results sooner by making it clear from the beginning that margin improvement was not an option (just like going to bed) — but that each manager could achieve it in his or her own way.

What's your experience with clarifying choices for subordinates?

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