Trust and empower: This is the fourth in a series of blogs on adaptive leadership.
It is my belief that foundational leadership principles give leaders the ability to build teams capable of handling whatever might come their way. This series is based around what we at Level Five Associates have as one of our foundations: “The Big Six.”
The Big Six are the result of years of personal experience and observation of what make great teams work.
Part of what we consider so important about The Big Six Leadership Principles® is a belief that these concepts are, essentially, universal and unchangeable.
The underlying principles are always the same, giving us as leaders a foundation to build resilient — and adaptable — teams.
We’ve all heard the classic phrase: “Put Me In, Coach!”
What does that mean in the context of being an adaptive leader?
This leads us to the third principle of the Big Six, which is: Trust and Empower. We need to trust and empower our team members to do their best work, regardless if they are right next to us in the office, or miles away… with us only seeing them on a screen. We have to be prepared to trust and empower these team members equally: put them in, coach!
Begin Empowering Through Better Meetings
We’re now expecting people to deliver results without them necessarily sitting around a table with us.
It’s more important now than ever that we have a meeting discipline, which helps to empower others. This includes sending out agendas in advance. We’ve talked about that in the past, but too often it doesn’t happen. We really must to do that now, especially in a hybrid remote/in-person world.
During the meetings, we need to direct power questions to participants to bring them in and prompt them to deliver their answers during the sessions. We need to give them the ability to be innovative and voice their ideas. We need to establish the ground rules. I call them FARs, which is a little Army term for “flat-ass rules.” These are the rules you establish for meetings that every participant abides by. I’ve seen organizations in which people actually sign an agreement to follow these rules. Their signatures indicate their commitment to the ground rules. It’s important that you provide an environment that’s psychologically safe for people to respond.
- Sending the agenda ahead of time,
- challenging participants individually with questions,
- and then listening to the results that you get,
those are essential elements for success in meetings held in today’s distributed environments.
As I’ve mentioned previously, it’s essential to backbrief the team on what you think you heard (or backbrief the individual, if it’s a one-on-one), on what you think the individual said, stating what you heard. That helps people understand that they’re free to communicate their ideas as long as they’re within the spirit of our azimuth, mission, intent, values, and culture. The message you are sending is “I want to know what you think, and I want to know why you think that way.”
If you’re not familiar with a decision tree, it’s basically a matter of saying, “Okay, these are the decisions I’m making,” and you list those decisions. Then you say: “The rest of the decisions are yours.” That takes some courage. Now, more than ever, in this atmosphere of anxiety and fear, we must demonstrate personal courage that says, “I’m willing to underwrite some of your ideas. I’m going to listen with the intent to understand. I’m going to trust and empower you to accomplish some difficult tasks that, earlier in my career, I would have probably told you how to do. Now I’m going to ask you, within our intent, what do you think we should do? And how should we go about doing it? We may adopt some innovative approaches that I didn’t come up with. As leader of this team, I’m going to support its members.”
When you allow people to process some of the questions in advance (get the agenda to them ahead of time!) and then present their ideas during the session, and you listen carefully and use that backbrief tool to confirm what you heard and even underwrite ideas that might be a little different than yours, I think you’re going to find that the buy-in level goes up. As the buy-in goes up, the commitment goes up, and so does the accountability. We often think of accountability as a vertical, top-down process, but I don’t think it is.
I think accountability is really a horizontal process. The most powerful form of accountability is mutual accountability, that is, when we hold each other accountable because we’ve made a commitment to this team and to what we’re doing and to our mission and our intent and our values and our culture, and “we’re going to get through this.” That level of buy-in is going to be an enabler for us to achieve far more than we could if we simply defaulted to “this is hard and I’m a little anxious and I’m not sure how we’re going to do what we’ve always done and still be successful at it.”
One question I was asked was: “How do you feel about skip-level check-ins with indirect reports?” (In other words, checking two levels down, skipping a team member’s immediate supervisor.) I personally like it as a tool. You can’t use it all the time, but checking two levels down is one way to reinforce the leadership of your direct reports. If you approach it that way and not as a “gotcha” on whether or not your direct reports are doing what they’re supposed to do, then I think you can get some real traction there. What I like to do in the two-levels-down check is ascertain the value of the one-on-ones in terms of the effect they’re having with their direct reports. One-on-ones are the most important meetings that you can have. When I ask two or three levels down what they fund most valuable about the one-on-one, sometimes I get less-than-interesting responses, which tells me I need to get back with my direct reports and reinforce a little bit more of the value of the one-on-ones.
Another question was: “How can we get the buy-in from our direct reports with regard to horizontal accountability?” I believe the way you get that buy-in, and it’s not going to happen overnight, is through this one-on-one forum I was talking about. The one-on-one sessions are where you and your direct report really have the opportunity for a conversation that other people shouldn’t be in on. I think that’s where you build trust as well. As you ask the “power questions” of them and learn about what their concept of accountability is, I think that’s going to inform you in some ways as to how you can promote their sense of that accountability. Or, if they lack that sense of accountability, you can help them understand how important it is to have it—because horizontal accountability is mutual accountability.
Oftentimes I think folks don’t understand that there is real value to mutual accountability. Again, the common perception is that accountability is just a ‘gotcha’ technique. It’s important for them to understand that in fact it is: “Hey, we’ve all got obligations here that we’re committed to” and “The benefit of the team is only going to be realized when each of us pulls our weight.” I think that as you’re getting them used to the idea of mutual accountability as a positive experience, they’re going to become more supportive of the concept of holding each other accountable.
This blog is based on my eBook “Who Saw This Coming?” You can get a free downloadable copy of the entire eBook here.
Enjoy the Journey!
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