Recently one of my friends shamefacedly admitted a story that left me not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Her son had to take a test to make sure he had reached certain developmental milestones. One of the milestones was combing his hair—but when given a comb, her son had no idea what to do with it. “I’ve never let him comb his own hair,” my friend confessed. “I’m afraid he’ll poke his eye out!” How old was the boy? Six.
Times have changed since I was a child, but I think we can all agree a six-year-old should be capable of wielding a comb. This incident got me thinking about an important parallel between managing employees and raising children.
No, I don’t mean that your employees need time-outs or an early bedtime—although some might benefit from both. But, like children, employees need to learn by doing things for themselves. And that means they need bosses who are capable of letting go.
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Many small business owners suffer from the common delusion that no one can do anything as well as we can. As a result, we try to do everything ourselves. Instead of letting employees answer their own questions, figure out solutions to workplace problems, or even make a few mistakes, we quickly jump in to make it all better.
I’ve heard stories about helicopter parents who call their children’s college professors to arrange the child’s schedule, accompany their adult children to job interviews or grill their children’s bosses about the working environment.
You laugh, but we bosses can be just as guilty of crippling our employees if we constantly step in to fix everything. Have you ever done something for an employee because it’s easier than showing him or her how? Do you frequently find yourself mediating personal spats between staffers? Then you just might be a helicopter boss.
So how do you break the helicopter-boss habit? Here are three suggestions.
- Make a rule. Let your employees know that from now on, they shouldn’t bring you a problem without also offering at least two possible solutions. Having them come up with some options offers a teachable moment. Together, you can figure out why their ideas will or won’t work, and how they can be fine-tuned.
- Shut the door. Kevin Eikenberry urges more businesspeople to adopt a closed-door policy similar to professors’ office hours. Whether you literally go behind closed doors, or simply get to work a bit later each morning or take a longer lunch, deliberately making yourself less available to your employees forces them to think things through themselves.
- Count to 10. Next time you find yourself ready to jump in, reply to an e-mail or otherwise do something for your employees, hold your tongue and count to 10. Chances are it won’t take much longer than that for your staff to arrive at the answer all on their own.
Just like raising children, encouraging employee independence requires lots of baby steps—on your part as well as theirs. Letting go may be the hardest thing you ever do as an entrepreneur, but if done right, it can also be the most rewarding.
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