How to Encourage Employee Independence

How to Encourage Employee Independence

Teaching your employees to be self-sufficient benefits the productivity of the whole team.

As I write this, the New York Times has just reported on a 30-year-old man who shot his rich dad because the father had the nerve to decrease his allowance a few hundred dollars. The dad had been paying the son’s pricey Manhattan rent and was also giving him spending money. He cut the latter down a bit and paid for it with his life.

This is obviously an extreme example of what happens with Baby Boomers overparent their Millennial children, hovering over them like helicopters and protecting them from any remote adversity or failure. But more generally, I fear that these parents (no offense Boomers) have produced a generation of employees who arrive at work completely unable to problem-solve.

Managers constantly complain to me that their reports need way too much hand-holding. Well, the truth is, we don’t help the situation when we bail them out more than we should because it makes our lives easier.

Remember the old adage: “give a man fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” When it comes to your team members’ productivity, it’s in your best interest if they are as self-sufficient as possible. Here are a few suggestions for making that happen.

Give Them a Blank Piece of Paper

Consider delegating things that you have traditionally done yourself. Provide any necessary training and after a complete debrief that offers a clear direction, assign a task that has clear boundaries but also allows your employee to be creative in exactly how she gets it done. Giving a report the freedom to be independent is an important first step.

Demonstrate Your Confidence

Employees who haven’t had much experience completing work or making decisions on their own are often insecure. Tell your report that you hired him for a reason, and that you have complete faith in his ability to successfully complete the task. If he starts to freak out, tell him that no one ever died as a result of your company’s daily operations. It’s just work, and work will always be there.

Don’t Check in Too Much

Realize that your report is likely to be in your office (or on your cell) every five minutes the first time you assign her something that requires some degree of independence. She will feel the burden of that responsibility, and she will reach for a safety net. Try not to be too available for these meetings, and don’t proactively contact her either. Nervous as it might make you, set up a weekly status appointment and leave it at that.

Resist the Urge to Step In

Inevitably, there will come the time when your employee’s approach diverges from your own. He won’t be doing things the way you would do them, and your instinct is to course-correct. Avoid this if you can. Ask yourself if a report’s process is going to negatively impact the project’s results. If not, hold your tongue.

Be Tolerant of Mistakes

Employees aren’t going to want to take risks if they think their jobs are on the line. Be clear that new responsibilities are learning experiences, and that some failure is expected and okay. When a mistake occurs, sit down with the employee and have her lead a conversation about what she’ll do differently next time. If you are kind and supportive, she’ll be motivated to try again.

Solicit Feedback

Once your report has some independent experiences under his belt, ask him what type of project he’d like to work on next. Where would he like to take his career and what skills does he need to get there? Customizing his assignments will encourage ownership over those assignments.

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  • Cheryl Becker

    This is hard isn’t it. It’s hard for managers, especially new managers, to find that fine line between guiding, leading, giving them the input they need, AND at the same time “letting them fish” after you’ve taught them. What if they don’t catch anything? But we have to do it, or they will never become productive members of the staff. You just have to find that balance, I think–and it may be different for every employee.