In this week’s HR Headaches post, we discuss how to reskill employees to have more autonomy — and know the right to time to call for reinforcements.
The best employees are independent thinkers who always make the right decision on the ground. For most business owners, the only employee who consistently fills that bill is themselves. You need to depend on staffers to keep your own professional and personal lives in balance, but some never stop calling, texting, and emailing. Getting them to a place where you can take the weekend off without worrying or being bothered is possible.
We want our staff members to have autonomy, but it can sometimes be as difficult to get them to take responsibility as it is for us to give it to them. There can be a happy medium: a place where workers understand how much authority they have, when to use it, and when to call in for reinforcements. Getting them from here to there won’t be an overnight change, but it can happen with a bit of coaching and guidance.
Why do they keep calling?
There are reasons why employees don’t rely on their own instincts and turn to you for answers to even the easiest problems. They may have fear of failure and its fallout, or they’re trained to be micromanaged. Both are reversible, but you need to understand which is causing the constant questions and calls before you can reverse the trend.
Fear of failure
Staffers who understand that you’re risk-averse will mirror your actions. If you don’t allow them to make decisions that are occasionally wrong they will avoid making even the smallest choice on their own. When you correct employees, which has to happen occasionally, keep an ear to your tone. Are you admonishing them, or using the experience to grow and progress? If you train them to be afraid of making decisions, they’ll comply and you’ll never get a moment’s peace.
Under your thumb
Other employees are so micromanaged they can’t make a decision on what to order for lunch. These staff members are trained and they don’t trust their instincts because someone else will be making choices for them. Again, you may need to look to your own interactions with staff members to recognize this phenomenon.
Whether it’s fear or micromanagement employees have become accustomed to, you can reskill them to take a more autonomous role.
Are you responding, sometimes by rote, to questions the staff member should know how to resolve? When you respond, are you giving instructions, or even doing it yourself (because it’s faster than explaining), so they don’t learn and grow? The micromanaged employee will never be an independent thinker, because you’ve trained it out of them. It’s time to retrain it back in.
Whether it’s fear or micromanagement employees have become accustomed to, you can reskill them to take a more autonomous role. The result will be happier employees who are more valued to the organization, and your own ability to get away from it all.
Retraining for responsibility
Once you’ve figured out why an employee isn’t taking responsibility, it’s time to reskill. Take steps to build their confidence as well as their autonomy. Set boundaries within each employee’s circle of responsibility, and prepare for a shift of your own boundaries, as well. Here are some ways to get the process started.
Set guidelines for autonomy
Are you getting the same (or same types) of questions every time you leave the building? Create guidelines on “what to do if” that outline what the staff member should do based on the scenario without having to contact you for approval.
An example might be when a customer asks for a discount on something damaged or close to expiration: let staff members know they’re authorized to give up to a 10% discount on their own. Anything more than that would need approval from a manager. Most customers will take the quick 10 rather than waiting, and you’ll be empowering employees to make that decision on their own.
If the questions you get are repetitive, create an FAQ sheet for staff members. Write down the questions you often get and the answer. Give staffers that cheat sheet and ask them to look at the FAQs before they call to see if they can resolve the issue on their own.
Delegate specific tasks
You might not want to elevate one staffer to assistant manager in your absence, but you can delegate some authority. The employee who typically refers to the FAQ sheet before they call you could be your first line of defense. Tell the group to ask that employee their questions before they call you. If they still can’t come up with a solution, then give you a ping.
Some tasks may not come up frequently, but require a common solution. If staff members run out of ingredients, for example, delegate authority for the most senior member on the team to deal with the situation. They’ll be in charge of taking an approved amount out of the register to go get what’s needed. Remind them you’ll need the change and receipts.
Set “need to know” and “when to tell” guidance
Authority is good, but that doesn’t mean surrendering management of your company. Set parameters on what you need to know and when. If an employee is calling a worker to fill a shift when someone has called off, you don’t necessarily need to know until you return to work. If there’s a fire in the kitchen, you’ll want to be called immediately. Set a structure of what constitutes a “call me now” situation” and what employees can tell you about — or leave you a note about — when you return.
Involve them in planning
Involve staff in the plan to build their autonomy and lessen your burden. Let them know you need your time off as much as they do, and that you need to give them more responsibility. This will boost their confidence and their value to the company while helping you with work/life balance.
Ask what their comfort level is with regard to responsibility and start there. You’ll find, over time, that once their confidence level rises, they’ll be willing to do more and more.. The first steps may be frightening for them (and you), but everyone will benefit if you keep at it. Periodically ask what else they think they can take on: you may be creating an assistant manager in the process.
Parents have been teaching their children to get more confidence and autonomy for generations by simply asking back. When an employee asks you a question, ask what they think the answer is. If they get it right, let them know you knew they knew it all along. If not, offer help. Retraining them to think first, ask second, may take time, but it will boost their confidence and their belief they can do it on their own if your response is a question, rather than an answer.
When an employee does it on their own, let them (and their peers) know you appreciate their taking responsibility and applaud the results. The simplest acknowledgement goes a long way to develop rank and file staff members into employees who take ownership in their work and their role in the company.
Don’t paint with a broad brush
Different employees will have different levels of comfort. Some will jump on the opportunity to be autonomous, others will be hesitant. Don’t assume that since you’re delegating authority everyone will accept their new role without caution or fear. Some may need more attention to build their confidence, others will run with it. It’s worthwhile for everyone if you adjust for comfort levels, make the commitment, and follow through.
Some may need more attention to build their confidence, others will run with it. It’s worthwhile for everyone if you adjust for comfort levels, make the commitment, and follow through.
Allow for mistakes
This is where the spanner can hit the works. You may set rigid guidance on what they can and should do in your absence, but occasionally they will make mistakes. Your response can set the stage for future success or failure. If the error hasn’t cost much and no one was injured, use it as an opportunity for growth for you and the employee. Lessons learned are often invaluable: discuss the situation, how they got it wrong, how they can do better the next time, and let it go if possible.
If the error has a significant impact, you’ll still want to tread lightly. The employee may not be ready for the level of responsibility given, so a step back may be in order. Discuss the situation, letting them know they still have your confidence, but less authority is the right decision for now.
Remember other workers will take note of the way you correct staff members and their mistakes. You can be setting the stage for a team of risk- and responsibility-averse employees depending on how you handle the error. Your response must be appropriate to the situation: minor mistakes just need a quick correction. Bigger errors may require changes, but make sure they’re suitable to the infraction.
Finally, ask yourself, is it me or is it them? Can you go the entire day without calling in to check? If not, it’s time to retrain the person in the mirror, too. You can’t build their confidence and authority unless you leave them alone. It may be hard at first, but if you’re calling in for no specific reason other than “seeing what’s going on,” understand the message you’re sending: “I don’t trust you enough to let you do your job.”
It can be a vicious circle: the more you call, the more they second-guess themselves. That makes it harder for them to take responsibility and for you to get away. Whenever you’re ready to drop in or call, ask yourself if it’s necessary or helpful. If not, resist the urge and let them do what you pay them for. It can be challenging to resist, but the rewards are great.
Check out our People Ops Podcast episode “Unpacking the Science Behind Motivation”