This article originally appeared on HBR.org.
When people working with me face a perplexing problem, they often ask for guidance. I can’t help but feel a little flattered. They are obviously stumped, and they expect I will have the answer. My first instinct is to sit back, stroke my chin, recount an impressive story or two, and then tell them what to do.
Though incredibly satisfying, this approach rarely works.
First, I might not even be solving the right problem. I don’t have the insight of those on the front line, so I end up relying on my own history, what I think are similar events. Second, though the team was relieved by my answer, they are probably not fully committed to making it work. It isn’t their idea, after all, and if it doesn’t pan out it’s easy to blame the boss by saying, “We knew it wasn’t going to work all along.”
When it does fail, finger pointing begins. My advice was good, I continue to convince myself, so the problem must have been their execution. The next time I will be even more specific to ensure they don’t mess up again. Soon we are in a doom loop of increasing micromanagement. I want them to succeed, but I suspect they are not capable of doing that by themselves. Like a helicopter parent, I step in to play roles they should play for themselves, undermining the team’s self-confidence and removing their opportunity to develop skills they will need as future leaders.
This approach has a long history. Frederick Winslow Taylor, one of the first management consultants and someone whose ideas were widely influential, taught executives to tightly supervise employees, warning that, in his estimation, workers deliberately try to do no more than one-third to one-half of a proper day’s work, while pretending to appear as busy as possible. Managers must do the thinking and tell others what to do, he asserted, because workers aren’t smart enough to manage themselves. In his 1911 monograph “The Principles of Scientific Management,” Taylor wrote that a worker performing routine tasks “shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type.”
Today, such ideas seem entirely wrong-headed. Nearly 33% of the U.S. population 25 years and older has at least a bachelor’s degree. Younger generations are increasingly data savvy and tech literate. And 30% of the U.S. workforce is part of the creative class, the fastest growing group in developed economies, and one that research has found to be less inspired by money and more by intrinsic motivators such as the ability to make choices.
It’s no surprise that Taylor’s approach has been giving way in recent years to a different understanding of leadership. In his first interview after becoming CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella told The New York Times: “Perhaps the No. 1 thing that leaders have to do [is] to bolster the confidence of the people you’re leading.” Three years later, in his book Hit Refresh, he asserted this even more forcefully: “I have come to understand that my primary job is to curate our culture so that one hundred thousand inspired minds— Microsoft’s employees—can better shape our future.”
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