How to avoid manager dependency

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Joel Sorrell/iStock
Guy Cooper
Managing Director - Public Courses and In-house Training
Euromoney Learning Solutions
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It goes without saying that managers need to be able to support and help those that they lead. Problems arise when leaders find it hard to release control and team members take advantage of the situation to shirk responsibility. Over time, this can lead to ‘manager dependency’.

With the benefits of operating a flexible working model accepted by most as the way forward, it’s more important than ever to foster independence in our teams, whilst maintaining a sense of support and hierarchy.

How can you achieve this delicate balance?

Here’s what to look out for and what you can change to get started.

What causes ‘manager dependency’?

There are a number of potential causes – it could be an issue with the leader, the team member, or in most cases a bit of both.

Micromanagement is one of the main culprits.

A micromanager is often has a controlling personality, is reluctant to fully delegate, and will often try to second guess everything.

This can leave team members feeling demoralised and with a lack of confidence in their own abilities.

Expert Business & Workplace Consultant, Alexandra Levit, who’s written extensively on fostering independence in the workplace, says:

“When managers find it hard to relinquish control, it’s important for senior managers to step in. Tell them they will be evaluated on how well they are able to delegate projects and assignments to their team, and then coach them on how to effectively move away from the micromanagement style.”

A micromanager is often has a controlling personality, is reluctant to fully delegate, and will often try to second guess everything.

Another frequent issue is when the opposite occurs and the manager is too lax in their approach. If team members don’t understand or aren’t confident in what they’re supposed to do, they’re forced to approach managers for more help out of necessity.

The issue can also stem mainly from the team member. If the person is lazy or unmotivated then they can see their manager as an easy way out of work, feigning a lack of understanding in order to pass work on to others.

Equally, if the team member has an inherent insecurity or lack of confidence, they may feel the need to constantly seek the manager’s approval, feeling unable to take responsibility themselves.

Identifying the cause of manager dependency is a key step before working out how to solve it. Once you’ve done that, here are some of the steps you can take to improve.

How to create a culture of independence

1) Recognise that everyone is different

Some employees may thrive in an environment where their manager is controlling. Some may find it stifling to the point where they can’t even come into work. People are different and it’s not always possible for everyone to get on.

Listening to your team is a sign of respect and will give them more confidence going forward.

As team leaders it’s our job to make sure that the work relationships existing below us are as mutually beneficial as possible. You can do this by thinking more carefully about your team structure. Who works well with whom? One way to get some insight into this is to ask your staff to complete personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

2) Say what you mean and mean what you say

This one has two parts. First, you have to make sure that your briefs are as clear and easy to follow as possible. This is a key part of delegation – your team need to know exactly what’s expected of them, and they need to believe they can do a good job.

The second part is making them feel confident about what they’re doing. Your confidence in them has to be shown not just in what you say, but what you do – otherwise your team will get mixed messages and won’t take your word seriously.

3) Keep your distance – diligently

One of the best ways to demonstrate your confidence in someone is to simply leave them to it.

The issue is that if your team member is used to you always being there, when they’re given more responsibility they may panic and try to fall back on you as a safety net.

Owen Morgan, Commercial & Operations Director at HR & People Management specialists Penna, said:

“A big challenge in the modern world of work is that we’re ‘always on’, making communication almost too easy, giving rise to overuse. An open door policy is all very well, but it can leave managers swamped with too many requests for help.

Make sure your team know that at certain times you won’t be available.

“To avoid this, there needs to be some sort of filter mechanism in place. Boundaries must be set as to the appropriate level of communication – this is especially helpful for younger staff who are used to 24/7, instant messaging.”

Make sure your team know that at certain times you won’t be available. Rather, schedule a regular time when you can both check up on the status of a project. Also think about your own communication: if a team member’s approach does not sit well with you, think twice about whether this is really going to negatively impact the project. If not, hold your tongue.

4) Accept that you’ll both make mistakes

The best learning environment is one where people aren’t scared to make mistakes. If your team member fears terrible consequences if they slip up, there’s no way they’ll have the confidence to work independently. When a mistake happens, sit down with them and have a kind and supportive conversation about what went wrong and how they can improve.

The best learning environment is one where people aren’t scared to make mistakes.

Donald Davidoff, author of ‘Parenting the Office’, explains how to approach the situation:

“Where corrective coaching is needed the best way to approach it is from a position of ‘love’. In the office environment, it may not be the kind of love one experiences in a family, but it can be the kind of love that comes from an authentic position of wanting the team member to grow from their mistakes and become a better worker, better colleague and better person.

“Helping team members reflect on what they could do differently and better is far superior to simply lecturing them on what they did wrong.”

At the same time, it’s important to get feedback from them on what you might have done wrong. How could you have supported them more? What could you have done differently to help? Listening to them is a sign of respect and will give them more confidence going forward.

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