Like many senior managers, Dan Ray is driven to produce results that will exceed customers' expectations. But he didn't realize until recently how his own expectations were driving him to micromanage a key staff member. He discovered, to his surprise, that simply letting go of a few of his own assumptions was what it took to cause his staff member to reach higher levels of performance.
Dan, 38, is manager of software development at an IT services firm in Greensboro, NC. He is also a graduate of the Landmark Forum, a weekend seminar that aims to empower people to achieve breakthrough results in their professional and personal lives.
Dan attended the Landmark Forum, the company's introductory seminar, in January 1999, and today serves as a seminar leader for Landmark courses. At a recent Landmark Education seminar in Charlotte, he shared how a startling realization about his own management style created freedom for his staff to demonstrate greater leadership and responsibility.
When Dan took over as manager of his department in January 2012, he delegated day-to-day operations to his project manager, Mark, so he would be free to focus on the bigger picture of generating sales and revenues for the department.
“The department from way back had been a breadwinner, but for three years before I came, it had been in the red, and was kept afloat by other departments in the company,” he recalls. “I was brought in to turn that around.”
Dan had a lot of success in sales and bringing in new work. But he noticed that he was struggling with delegating authority, mainly out of fear that key tasks would not be done properly or on time.
“At some point I realized that I no longer trusted that the work I had been selling would be delivered as promised,” he recalls. “Every day I would walk out past the whiteboard where all our work is written, and I would worry.”
Not only did he worry upon leaving each day, but he found himself feeling anxious each morning, too.
“Every Monday morning I would walk into my office, get a cup of coffee, and expect my project manager to come in and tell me where things stood with our current projects,” he says. “I never told him I expected that; I just expected it. By 10 a.m., I was officially mad. I would walk over to get the information I needed. I would leave that conversation satisfied, but there was an edge to it, like, 'How come I had to come to you?’"
When a new project came in, Dan would tell Mark “in rigorous precise detail” how to do it, he recalls.
“I would wait to see him deviate from that, and then when he did, I would be upset. What I had was frustration, worry, and a tense relationship with this guy who is a friend—e went to lunch every day—yet I had all this tension. How I was being was judgmental and untrusting.”
Dan's breakthrough came when he brought some of his Landmark experience to bear on the situation and stopped to consider how he could change the dynamic.
“I asked, ‘What is missing in who I am being in this relationship—not what is wrong, but what could I bring?’” he recalls. “The trivial answer would be, being trusting. But that was a little too obvious, and it didn't shift anything when I thought that, so I kept digging. If I could be any way about this, how would I want to be that I never get to be now?”
“I was worried and anxious, so obviously being peaceful was missing,” he recalls. “And there’s a really clear way it seems it’s supposed to be, and I have no flexibility about things going any other way. So creativity and flexibility are missing. And most importantly, I’m not at all free to say how it is for me. Freedom was completely missing.”
“I actually declared that who I am going to be in the matter is free, peaceful, and creative. I asked Mark into my office and I said, 'Look, I need to apologize to you. I have been completely in your way in doing your job.’”
“I know,” was Mark's candid response.
Dan then told Mark: “Well, I apologize and I am done with that. I completely trust you and know you have all that it takes to deliver what we have promised to our clients.” Mark responded by telling Dan his vision for how the department could work better and more efficiently.
“He had this whole vision for our department all along, but I just had no room for him to share it with me,” Dan says.
After that talk, Dan noticed an immediate change in himself.
“I walked out of the office that day and looked at that whiteboard, and for the first time in months, I was crystal clear that everything was under control,” he said. “The whole ride home I was asking myself, ‘How long have I been avoiding this conversation?’”
Suddenly Dan was inspired to deal with some other things in his life he’d been avoiding:
“So that night I sat down and did my taxes. Then I put my running shoes on and went for my first run in six months. And I have been running three times a week ever since that day. It freed me up across the board to tackle things I have been setting aside.”
Dan says he now sees micromanaging as “an expression of fear.” Department heads make promises to customers or supervisors, and then are afraid that their staff will not take those promises as seriously as they do. In his case, this attitude resulted in him nitpicking Mark's performance. That changes when a manager relates to their staff with the expectation that they are just as serious about fulfilling promises.
“If I can relate to them as being just as committed as I am, then they are left bigger by that interaction, and I am left bigger by that interaction,” he says.
While intuitively it’s easy to see how that shift in the dynamic can make all the difference with an employee like Mark who is intrinsically motivated, Dan believes it also works with employees who seem less so.
“I have found from my own experience with this that there is something really magical about communicating your trust for people. I actually reject the notion that there is any such thing as a ‘motivated’ or ‘unmotivated’ person. I take the case that they are as motivated and capable and committed as I am willing to see them.”
Sometimes it's about taking a stand for people being something other than our first reaction to them, which is often a problem or an obstacle. As an example, Dan recalls an occasion when he attended Landmark's Advanced Course. About 20 minutes into the program, it was clear that the production team, working behind the scenes, was making mistakes. Instead of ignoring the problems, or expressing frustration, the seminar leader took an entirely different approach. He stopped his presentation, and introduced the production supervisor to the participants. Then he spoke directly to her.
“He said, ‘I know the last few minutes of this have not gone the way you intended, and I want you to know you are completely trusted, and you have everything it takes to make this a success,’” Dan recalls. From that point on, for the rest of the weekend, the production was impeccable.
“Everything was lighter, and it was a 180-degree turn in the performance of that team,” he said. “That was a revelation to me about how you could be with people at the moment of their lack of performance. The idea that it is possible to respond to failure with love and trust was an epiphany for me.”
Dan has no illusions that this approach absolves managers from making hard decisions. One of his first acts when he took charge of his department was to let go of an employee who was chronically underperforming. In that case, he says, “It wasn't so much the lack of job performance as the unwillingness or inability to rise to my trust in him. I now see that more as my failure to have him see himself as capable of fulfilling my trust, than his not meeting my expectations. My job now is about seeing my people as big, powerful, and capable, and then working with them until they see themselves that way.”
Dan acknowledges the friction began with him. Mark's leadership style differed from his in a “perfectly valid way.” But Dan, driven by fear that his department might not live up to the promises he had made, responded by micromanaging.
Since Dan and Mark talked, the atmosphere in their department has changed, Dan says: “It is much lighter and more fun than it was a month ago; the space is much more relaxed. And not because we don’t have plenty of work. In the last week, I’ve hired two new developers, and I need one or two more.”
Meanwhile, they continue to exceed expectations, Dan says. “In 2012 we doubled 2011 revenue, and we are on track for a huge 2013. And we’re having a lot of fun doing it!”