The Secret to Managing People

View of business meeting through privacy glass.
View of business meeting through privacy glass.

For 20 years I’ve been using a management “trick” to help me overcome the challenges involved in leading people.

Early on, this management trick helped me overcome lack of experience. It worked like a compass for me…Always pointing me in the right direction and giving me tools for digging myself and my team out of holes.

Later, as I taught this trick to others, I came to better understand its subtle power. And it helped me to better understand and manage myself.

The trick eventually became a habitual practice for me. Now, when I’m thrown into any leadership situation, I rely on this tool more than any other to find my way. I’ve wanted to share this trick with my team for years. Last month I had my chance, as we hosted a leadership workshop for 23 managers in our business.

My trick is something called Situational Leadership. It’s not something you can fully learn in a 2-day seminar, let alone a short essay, but it will still be helpful to give you a brief overview…

The basic idea behind Situational Leadership is that there is no single perfect method of leadership. Instead, managers should be flexible and train to adapt their leadership style to the individual and the task. Whenever somebody starts talking about management, people wonder, “What does this mean for me? Is my life going to get harder? Is it going to be more work?”

Let me ease your worries. This approach to management makes your job better, not worse. Situational Leadership is about giving team members what they need to succeed and feel great about their work.

Have you ever felt micromanaged? Have you ever felt overwhelmed in your work and gone to your boss for help only to have your comments fall on deaf ears? Have you ever wondered what it is your boss does all day as you plug away, bored with the same old tasks you mastered long ago?

If so, your boss was not a Situational Leader.

Situational Leaders engage with their direct reports. They understand the work they do and the challenges they face. They provide encouragement. They teach new skills. They advocate for you and your career with their peers and supervisor. And Situational Leaders leverage their authority to overcome team challenges.

Being a Situational Leader begins with diagnosing the development level of a team member. This typically happens by asking questions and observing the work of the team member.

For example, imagine you’re responsible for planning the company’s holiday party this year. In order for me to use the right style of leadership, I might ask a series of questions. “Have you ever organized an event before? If so, tell me about that event? What was the hardest part? What did you like about it? What would you do different next time?”, etc.

All of these questions give me insight into your level of competency and motivation related to event planning. This is important to understand. People often get defensive when asked probing questions. It’s natural to feel this way, but it’s a mistake. You see, there is no wrong answer. There is no judgment. Instead, it is an effort to understand so we can serve you and our mission properly. It takes a leap of faith at first, but I implore you to try it. I’m certain you’ll see the benefits.

Situational Leaders identify the development level of their reports by asking questions and observing behavior over time. From there, Situational Leaders adapt their management style to provide what’s needed to reach the goal and move the individual to the next stage of development.

There are four leadership styles: Coaching, Directing, Delegating, and Supporting. Each style is a different blend of support and direction.

Let’s return to our holiday party example. Consider these two scenarios.

Scenario A: During my questioning I learn you’re excited about the opportunity to plan the party. I also learn you have planned parties in the past for groups of 20 or fewer people.

Scenario B: During my questioning I learn you have organized several events in the past. One of those events was a friend’s wedding with 200 guests. I learn you planned all the details and managed all the vendors. You’re willing to take on the project, but you understand it won’t be easy.

If I tried to manage these scenarios using the same style, I’d be making a big mistake. Clearly my report in Scenario A needs more direction. On the other hand, the more-experienced report in Scenario B only needs my support. It’s likely my report would feel “micromanaged” or “hung out to dry” depending on how I handled the situation.

Despite the leader’s faults, a committed employee could still pull it off through hard work and dedication, but it would be unnecessarily miserable. Hard work and dedication is critical, but it’s only part of the answer.

Situational Leadership is our “trick” to unlocking the best in every team member and making their progress more visible so they find their job more enjoyable. That virtuous cycle is a win-win for everyone and is the best way to manage people.

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