How to let go of being a helicopter manager

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Smart leaders know that building trust is key to running a successful team. As hybrid working means employees spend less time at the company HQ, here’s how managers can empower their team while also keeping track of who’s doing what

At some point in their lives, most people have experienced working for someone who seems to be breathing down their neck. Having a controlling manager quickly creates feelings of anxiety, and a sense that, no matter how hard you try, you are never going to get things right.

Although the person in the position of power might have the best intentions, the unfortunate thing about being a ‘helicopter manager’ is that it creates more work for them, at the same time as disempowering those around them. Keeping tabs on your team requires constant effort – and it’s typically wasted effort.

The rise of hybrid (and helicopter managing?)

As many companies adopt a hybrid model of working in the wake of Covid-19, employees will increasingly dip in and out of a central office, their home and a local coworking or flexible workspace. They may even spend some time working from overseas locations.

In circumstances like these, leaders can feel a unique sense of pressure to make sure employees are fulfilling their duties. However, becoming a micromanager only fosters feelings of frustration in less fulfilled, less staff.

Completely letting go isn’t the answer either. If you’re responsible for delivering results, you have to keep track of whether progress is being made somehow – so what’s the solution when you’re dealing with a distributed team you don’t want to demotivate?

‘The Dirty Word’

Alister Esam is an innovator, investor and CEO, as well as the author of The Dirty Word: The word that fills people with dread is the key to business freedom. He says that the key is ‘process’ – a structure that allows everyone to know what they need to achieve, by what deadline and what the team’s shared goals are.

“I was stuck in this horrible cycle of feeling unmotivated,” says Esam. “I wanted my business to be perfect but it seemed like my people were confounding me by forgetting the little things that made us special. This led me into policing quality and micromanaging everyone, which stole all their autonomy and meant they did an even worse job. It made us all miserable. But I learned that they weren’t deliberately confounding me, they just didn’t have the tools to get the job done right.”

According to Esam, “the tools they needed were processes to follow that were theirs, not mine. When they had that, not only did they start to enjoy getting the job right every time but they started to take pride and ownership in those processes and, eventually, made them far better than I ever could have done.”

While it’s a “dirty word”, Esam says, putting processes in place is the answer to empowering employees and supporting managers. He says: “As I realised what was happening, I gradually switched from doubting everything to trusting everyone, and the more I did that the better everything got. It was process that unlocked this for me.”

Communication is key

Regular, good quality communication is vital if a hybrid team is to flourish. When there are empty desks in the office and you aren’t seeing your colleagues for days or weeks on end, it’s easy to begin having doubts about their productivity – it can even breed paranoia. As a manager, a good way of overcoming this is to set up dedicated Slack or instant messaging channels, schedule weekly video call catch-ups and give people the chance to share what they have been working on with the team.

Adopting a company-wide workflow management system can also be incredibly useful as it minimises the need for managers to chase individuals for work or remember when certain projects need to be delivered. Platforms such as, Hive, Click-Up, Nifty and Kissflow allow leaders to define responsibilities, access actionable reports and share calendars. Esam has even designed his own workflow platform called Process Bliss.

Finally, don’t under-estimate the power of an informal, real-world meet-up. Bring hybrid teams together at least once a month for a working lunch, drinks or even an awayday to cement relationships and allow people to discuss ideas.

Alongside events that promote bonding, consider the value of offering your staff access to local coworking or flexible workspaces. These not only offer a welcome break from home working without the need for a long commute – they also provide opportunities for networking and collaboration between colleagues who live close-by.

Overall, remember that great managers don’t focus on the minutiae of their team’s day-to-day performance: they step back and look at the bigger picture. Once staff are empowered and they know what is expected of them, creativity can emerge. Soon, you’ll all be flying high.

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