Independence at Work Promotes Competency

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Multipliers" by Liz Wiseman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you encourage your employees to work independently and with accountability? What are the top three behaviors that diminish independence?

Allowing your employees to have independence at work has so many benefits. Your employees will learn accountability, self-reliance, responsibility, and gain confidence. You will be able to take time off and trust that your company is doing well.

Continue on to learn why giving your employees independence is so crucial.

The Importance of Independence at Work

Independence Multipliers assume people are intelligent enough to figure things out without them and promote independence at work. They coach, help people learn, and provide resources and support, but they leave the accountability for outcomes with the team and never take over. 

As a result, people in their organizations learn to rely on themselves and each other rather than Multipliers. They become competent and confident and get on just fine when the Multiplier is absent. After a certain point, people are so self-sufficient the Multiplier can leave the organization.

  • For example, one of the founders of Infosys Technologies, Narayana, stepped down as CEO when he turned sixty. He continued to mentor, but the company does just fine without him because the leadership he trained is self-sufficient. 

Three Practices of Independence Multipliers

Independence Multipliers are known for a few key practices that enhance how independent their employees are.

Practice #1: Assign Ownership 

Independence Multipliers assign ownership of projects to their people in three ways. They:

1. Put other people in charge and clearly state who has ownership of which projects. This encourages people to handle the small things themselves (which builds confidence) and ask for second opinions rather than second-guessing themselves. 

  • For example, when Stacey and Jim were working with students to organize a theology showcase, they outlined the task and resources. The students had ideas but kept turning to Stacey and Jim for approval. Stacey and Jim left the room to emphasize that the students were in charge. When they returned, the students had taken ownership and come up with great ideas.

> Workout #1: When you delegate, be clear about what the project involves and invite questions to make sure the team member understands. Then, tell her in numerical terms exactly how much of the ownership she has (give her at least 51%) and how much you have (the remainder). Tell her that having the majority vote means that she’s in charge, she gets to make the final decision (even if you disagree), and she will lead the project. You can emphasize her ownership by telling her you’ll take the task off your to-do list.

> * For example, when Cisco CEO John hired Doug as vice president of customer support control, John told Doug that he had 51% of the vote on how to run his area of the company.

2. Assign big-picture accountability to others. If people are only delegated small tasks and only held accountable for the results of those tasks, they won’t learn how they fit into the bigger picture. Independence Multipliers make their people responsible for the overall results of a project or area of the company.

  • For example, John told Doug he was responsible for 100% of his department’s results.

3. Push people to take ownership of projects outside their comfort zone. Once people get used to having more ownership in their current role, Multipliers give them a challenge they’ll have to stretch for. This forces them to develop their knowledge in new areas. 

  • For example, Mike was the director of sales operations and his job was normally to ensure compliance with company policy. His boss asked him to work on globalizing the company. Mike didn’t have any experience with global operations and protested, but his boss told him he’d be able to figure it out, and he was right.

Practice #2: Provide Resources

Multipliers help and support their team. They:

1. Teach their staff what they know. Even when Multipliers could do something themselves, instead, they teach others how to do it.

  • For example, when McKinsey partner Jae was helping a team to create a presentation, the team and team leader got stuck. Jae could see a storyline and went to the whiteboard. However, he didn’t reorganize the presentation himself, even though everyone in the room would have been fine with it because it was late and they were all tired. Instead, he pointed out some things the team might consider and gave the whiteboard marker back to the team leader so she could continue.

2. Establish a safety net. In high-pressure or challenging situations, people will make mistakes. A Multiplier has a backup plan for when things go wrong. Often, the safety net is someone the person can go to for help, and it’s ideal if the helper isn’t a manager. This is because people assume that managers will judge, and because talking to colleagues better leverages the intelligence of the team.

Practice #3: Don’t Take on Accountability

Multipliers always make others, not themselves, accountable for the results of projects or teams. They:

1. Return accountability. Multipliers sometimes get involved in projects to help or coach, but as soon as they’re finished, they give accountability back.

  • For example, when Salesforce’s John sees problems with a user interface, he makes suggestions and asks questions, and then tells his team to figure out how to implement the feedback themselves.

> Workout #2: Before offering help, visualize how you’re going to give the accountability back to the other person. A good way to do this is to choose a point in the hypothetical conversation where you reiterate that they’re in charge of the project. 

> * For example, you might say, “As the leader of this project, how would you like me to help?”

2. Make it clear that when presented with a problem, they also expect to be given a solution. This encourages people to stretch and allows them to reach completion.

  • For example, when the author was working for Kerry, she edited his writing. Usually, she rewrote awkward sentences and fixed grammar and spelling, but one day she came across a passage that she couldn’t figure out how to improve. She labeled it as awkward and gave it back to him. He returned it, saying that he expected more from her than just identifying a problem—he wanted a fix too.

> Workout #3: When people try to give you a problem without a solution, ask them questions—for instance, ask them for some options on how to proceed or for their preferred solution.

3. Let nature take its course. One of the best ways to learn is to fail, so even if Multipliers see ways to rescue someone, they don’t always step in. They let their people experience the consequences of failure so they can learn from and own them.

  • For example, when the author was in Hawaii, her three-year-old son kept going too deep into the surf. She’d pull him back and tell him that the waves were dangerous. He’d immediately forget and go out again. After this happened several times, the author let a wave knock him over (she was standing right beside him so there was no danger). Getting hit by the wave taught him what words couldn’t, and from then on he stayed in safer waters.

To practice this technique, carefully choose the circumstances in which you’ll let nature take its course (don’t pick major, high-stakes projects; start small). If someone fails, talk to her about what happened (asking questions rather than any form of “I told you so”) and help her figure out what to do the next time a similar situation rolls around. If she succeeds, give her credit.

Independence Diminishers

Independence Diminishers assume no one’s smart enough to figure things out without their help. When they see something going wrong and they know how to fix it, they take over and rescue people. This makes people dependent on them, which only reinforces the Diminisher’s assumptions.

Sometimes, Independence Diminishers intervene because they can’t resist the temptation to be a hero, feel important and necessary, receive praise, and solve an intellectual challenge. Other times, they can’t bear to see people in trouble. Regardless of intentions, diminishing not only squelches independence but also results in the Diminisher having to do all the work.

Three Practices of Independence Diminishers

Just like Multipliers, Diminishers are known for certain habits. Here are the three things they do that discourage independence.

Practice #1: Horde Ownership

Diminishers don’t trust anyone else with ownership or responsibility, so they keep it all from themselves. They might delegate, but they only give people small tasks. This can lead to their people purposefully doing less because they know the Diminisher will rescue them—if they don’t do something, the Diminisher will swoop in and do it herself rather than re-asking them to do it.

  • For example, Eva planned out what everyone on her team would do every morning on her commute. When she arrived at work, she explained to everyone what she wanted to be done that day. When her team realized the routine, they realized there was no point in planning out their own days because Eva might send them in a different direction, so they simply waited for her to tell them what to do.

Practice #2: Take Back Tasks

Diminishers give other people small tasks, but as soon as there’s a problem, they either let people give them back or take them away. 

  • For example, when the author was in her first management job, she worked late because, throughout the day, her to-do list got longer and longer as problems came up and people put them back on her desk. Instead of helping people learn to solve things themselves, she took over the problems herself.

Practice #3: Strike Randomly

Diminishers are inconsistent—they don’t take back every task every time—and when the task goes back to being boring or unimportant, they leave. This creates chaos because people can’t do things without them anymore.

  • For example, chief marketing officer Garth does all the work himself on projects that the CEO will notice because he thinks his team isn’t smart enough to do the work themselves and will thus embarrass themselves in front of the CEO. On less visible projects, however, he doesn’t help at all, and his team can’t get the work done without him because they’ve learned to depend on him.

Independence at Work Promotes Competency

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  • Why multipliers make better leaders than diminishers
  • How multipliers increase the total intelligence and capability of a team
  • The 3 steps to follow if you want to reduce your own diminishing qualities

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