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I'm trying to adopt a coaching management style so that my team develops their skills and independence. I'm practising the common techniques of asking lots of questions, using active listening and resisting the urge to jump into situations with my "I can solve this!" superhero cape on.

One area I still find difficult is when my team asks for validation of an idea or approach they plan to take. Because they are a wonderful, smart bunch, the idea is often great. I want them to have the confidence to do it anyway, without checking for approval.

I've considered responding with "It's your project, I trust you to make that call.", but I worry it comes across as dismissive or disinterested. Does anyone have any tips for handling this situation?

In response to questions:

you don't want to manage?

I'm trying hard to be a better manager. I'd like to build my team's confidence in their own ideas, which I worry won't happen if I'm regularly involved in the loop to approve them.

I'm not trying to be unusual for the sake of it, nor to gain popularity. It seemed a reasonable goal to try and develop my team's confidence and ability to make autonomous decisions. FWIW, my team does actually invent things, but my question relates to the many decisions they take during their day jobs. Perhaps you can summarise your thoughts in an answer?

I just feel that if my team is regularly asking me to bless their smaller decisions, which are invariably correct, something is broken. I would think part of the reason I get paid additional "manager money", is because I try and improve this situation. I still expect to weigh in on lots of matters and ultimately to set the team direction. It's their confidence in the smaller stuff I want to improve. Ontamu's answer seems to describe a possible underlying cause in the "four stages" concept.

  • Did you possibly replace a manager who did micromanage and expect these decisions to be brought up prior to execution, or possibly disapproved of or disliked initiative in his crew? They might be used to working in that kind of environment, and it might just take time. – Steve Oct 4 '18 at 0:52
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I have some experience teaching people a specific work skill and managing them until they become independent and from what I have seen it usually goes through different stages. Keep in mind that my job was related to calculating prices and approval was required at the beginning. I will try to generalize as I believe those are the stages people go through with different tasks as well.

  • 1st stage: People need constant supervision and are unsure how to achieve the desired goal
  • 2nd stage: People know how to achieve the goal and ask for permission/confirmation in order to proceed
  • 3rd stage: People are confident with the process and will act on their own. They will run through the manager only the most tricky parts or what they have done after the fact to keep him/her in the loop.
  • 4th stage: People are confident enough to own and defend their decisions entirely and act completely autonomous.

From what you are describing your people are at stage 2. The way to let them progress is pretty much what you are doing plus some time and experience. I would usually ask people why they think that this is the best approach and just confirm it once they explain. That would build their confidence. It is a process and different people will progress with different pace. Just encourage them to bring solutions to you and not questions for starters and don't be shy to compliment the good ideas.

An important part of the issue is about who bears the responsibility if something goes wrong. If you want people to be comfortable holding responsibility you should be mindful of how issues are handled as inevitably there will be issues. If people are fined if something goes wrong they will be much more reluctant to take responsibility and act on their own. If problems are solved as a team without finger pointing and playing the blame game they will be much more comfortable making decisions.

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There's a fine line between micromanaging, good managing, and not enough managing. What you describe is the latter with ambitions of falling off the scale altogether.

First and foremost is your responsibility to your company, they pay you, then to yourself, since ultimately the buck stops with you in terms of your team. Then nurturing your team.

If they're asking for feedback it's because they either don't want to be responsible for something they're not paid to be responsible for, or they want some input. It's not purely a matter of confidence. I've done it many times confident that my solution is correct. But until someone promotes me I'm covering my back and doing things properly.

To achieve the same results you keep a loose rein, but you still oversee everything and make sure you're in the loop, that's your job. You need to be a part of everything going on within reason both for yourself and to protect your team members.

  • 9
    "I've done it many times confident that my solution is correct. But until someone promotes me I'm covering my back and doing things properly." +1 I hadn't seen it from that perspective before, thanks. – Duncan Jones Oct 3 '18 at 10:06
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    I hate to be that guy but I think this is where a "space" could change the meaning of a word. apart vs a part – Patrick Gregorio Oct 3 '18 at 15:21
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    I agree, a good manager is in the loop and interjects only when necessary. If you've seen a mail and have not responded negatively within a reasonable amount of time (i.e. a few days at most, a day at least) then it is also reasonable to think that I've got your approval to move ahead (unless the mails or the matter at hand concern you directly). – John Hamilton Oct 3 '18 at 19:10
  • "But until someone promotes me I'm covering my back and doing things properly." - this may work, but it may also end up with you never being promoted precisely because you're "the guy who appears to be incapable of working on his own as he always has to ask someone else for confirmation". (Which case it is probably depends considerably on company and team culture and the general expectation of how autonomous the developers are.) – O. R. Mapper Oct 4 '18 at 12:06
  • @O.R.Mapper depends how you do it, if you're presenting well thought out solutions is one thing, rather than annoying for help constantly or half baked ideas that 10 minutes thought would show to be rubbish, then it's different. – Kilisi Oct 4 '18 at 12:09
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I've considered responding with "It's your project, I trust you to make that call.", but I worry it comes across as dismissive or disinterested. Does anyone have any tips for handling this situation?

Well done! Sadly not many managers are confident enough to do this - we have lots of complaints about micromanaging bosses here. Empowering your team to make decisions is a great thing.

This sounds neither dismissive nor disinterested to me. You might want to add something like "You have great instincts on these projects." if true.

Saying that you trust them to make the call is very important and you are very smart to mention that. You need to also back them up once they make their decisions - even if the decision turns out not to be optimal.

You also want to coach your team to be able to distinguish the types of decisions they will be empowered to make on their own, and the types of decisions for which they still need to seek guidance and/or approval.

Once your team starts to feel safe in making these decisions on their own, they'll do more of it.

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    I like the attitude you have on this. Your response taught me that there is an important distinction in good versus bad management. I'm a very confident and independent worker and I've had leadership that won't back anything up, they simply react to issues. Their upper management get frustrated because middle management doesn't push their teams to improve, they stagnate. I've also had managers that support and back up their employees—allowing the teams to implement highly valuable changes—I think that's the distinction OP needs, and supporting your team is just as hard as managing it. – Nathan Goings Oct 3 '18 at 20:59
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As their manager, when they ask you about a plan or idea. This is courtesy that they ask you before potentially ruining something important. If anything, you would want to have this oversight on things in case anything ever does go wrong and it didn't go through you yet you receive the blame.

Obviously on the other hand, you don't want them to ask for assistance or "Is this a good idea?" every single time they have a thought.

You could give them more responsibility when dishing out projects. For example

I'm making you in charge of this project, any decisions are up to you and I will check up when I feel the need. Unless you have major issues I trust your judgement to make decisions.

This way you give them more sense of belonging rather than seeming disinterested as you're giving them the project meaning it has some sort of importance, rather than seeming disinterested when you've already given the project.

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Actually, you are the decider.

From an accountability perspective, you actually do own these decisions. You own the team composition, the process, the training, and the agreement to do the project. So whether or not you wish to let them make their own decisions, you still own them.

You don't want to be seen as passing the buck. The team may be afraid they will not be supported if their decisions come back to haunt them. To mitigate this concern, you must participate in the signoff process.

That doesn't mean they lose their independence

The technical team can still be completely autonomous with your supervision. Important technical decisions can take the form of recommendations that you sign off on. (You might not call them recommendations; you might call them working requirements or just requirements).

If these recommendations are trivial, they just go into a design doc or work item and you sign off on the doc or promote the work item in batches.

If these recommendations involve critical design points, that is when my final point becomes important:

Make them show their work

You don't need to know if all of their decisions are correct. You just need to know that they were asking the right questions. They need to know that too, so that they can be confident in themselves and know that it is not unearned confidence.

So for very important decisions, make them show their work. Ask them to list all of the alternatives they considered, or describe the brainstorming/decision making process they followed, or summarize the research that they did, etc. And if they didn't do the work, withhold your signoff and make them do the work. This toll gate serves two purposes:

  1. It builds their confidence (because they earn it)
  2. It covers your arse
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What I do not see in your question is the seniority and age of your subordinates.

People evolve over time, and certain profiles are more prone and comfortable working without guidance than others.

What can improve when defining projects in fleshing out an abstract and possibly a Gant chart. Be clear that it might be just for organizing the thought process.

Revising then the document will also convey your approval and involvement.

The other issue is ownership. Delegate, of sort of delegate. While ultimately you might be the responsible person, define a formal project manager inside the team, even if informal for the organisation.

Book regular meetings in longer projects.

The last issue is appraisal. Support and appraise them on their achievements. Challenge them into presenting their project to the team.

Try to pass them some responsibility and they might surprise you.

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