I was delighted with Michael’s predicament: “It’s just that I have been so busy that I haven’t had time to keep checking in on how my people are supporting the line. I just have to trust them to get on with it and that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
“ Great” I said. “That’s great!”
“Yes,” he answered, “but it’s not so great when my own managers ask me for the detail of what’s going on. I just don’t have it.”
“Why do they want it?” I asked.
“Our operation is very complex and very risky and so the devil really is in the detail. That’s why people need to know what’s going on, in detail.”
I wondered what good knowing all the detail of things a few layers below them really did for these people! Maybe put them more at ease from just knowing.
Then I thought of a tip a driver gave me once about handling roundabouts in Lisbon in Portugal.
“The whole thing is to see the other car but not let them know you have seen them. If they know you have seen them, then they know there will be pressure on you to cede to them. Ignorance is bliss, and gets you through roundabouts far quicker.” he informed me.
But he had a point and he had a point for Michael’s predicament too. Knowing the detail of what’s going on – if that is ever even possible – weakens the ownership and responsibility of those directly involved.
Conversations that begin with: “I just want to let you know that…” or “Just in case, I wanted to warn you…” can be very important in keeping managers informed of big things that are going on. Equally, they can dilute ownership and responsibility and initiate whole cycles of unnecessary and damaging involvement from managers who should trust people to handle things on their own unless they explicitly require help. Yes, a problem shared is a problem halved, and that’s exactly the problem.
How much detail?
There is no template to help you decide how much detail you really need. But, you can be sure that if you are requiring a lot of detail, then you are not trusting your people. Worse still, you may inadvertently be doing more harm than good because of your distance from and lack of familiarity with the detail of the detail. Managers meddling in the detail of people’s work at ‘lower’ levels in an organization, which they don’t and can’t really understand, interferes with the wise judgment of people who do know the detail of what is going on. Yes, you can feel the need to know but that need may have no firmer basis than the strange comfort of you just knowing.
There is, however, one guideline you can use. It is the guideline which gets to the core of your role as a manager or leader of people and says that you have three responsibilities:
- Help people to KNOW what they have to do and what’s expected from them and why.
- Help people to WANT to do what they have to do, and really want to.
- Help people to be ABLE to do what’s required of them.
Asking yourself these three questions:
Do they KNOW
Do they WANT and
Are they ABLE
and doing whatever it takes to ensure that all three are met will keep you out of the detail or at least prevent you from doing more harm than good by disempowering people in order to ease your own conscience.
Michael is confident that his people KNOW, WANT and are ABLE. Now he has to convince his own managers that he is too.