Haven’t we got people for that?

I recently kicked off a series of posts on insulation that’s meant to talk about the critical ways leaders can become disconnected—and hopefully provide some ideas on how they can fight against it.

I listed four kinds of insulation in the introductory post:

  • From the larger organizational context
  • From the work being done on the ground
  • From wider communities of practice
  • From the marketplace

In this post I want to dig into the second, insulation from the work being done on the ground.

It’s good to be the king?

Insulation from the work being done on the ground tends to be more acute and pervasive the higher you move in the organization. After all, as you move up the food chain, you naturally get more and more abstracted from day-to-day work–what you do becomes more about enabling others to do that work…or enabling others to enable others to enable others to do that work (and so on).

But it can also be a problem for those line managers just one step removed from the work being done in the trenches. I know I’ve seen my fair share of newly-minted managers, fresh from the front lines, who all of a sudden have no clue what their team is doing. it seems that some leaders simply have a tendency to get out of touch with what their directs are doing, no matter that they’re sitting across the aisle from them day in and day out.

Here’s what I don’t mean

Before I dig in, however, I want to clarify what I do and don’t mean by being in touch with the work on the ground. I don’t mean that the leader should be doing the work side by side with their teams or even that they should be able to do it (or even know how it’s done).

Rather, a leader who’s in touch with the work being done on the ground understands the tasks their team is working on at any given time, the constraints on these tasks, the reasons why the work is being done, and the organizational stakeholders counting in it. They “get” what their teams are doing and can articulate it crisply to outsiders (their boss, peers, and others outside their group) and also discuss it intelligently with their teams.

Consequences

I think we’ve all seen what happens when a leader is disconnected from the work being done on the ground (and most of us at one time or another have probably fallen into this trap):

  • They manage at the wrong level. They vacillate between leaving their teams high and dry (which they would call delegating) and micromanaging in an attempt to regain control…usually because they’ve been called out by senior leadership for not knowing what’s going on in their shops.
  • They’re fueled by fear and uncertainty. Because they have to operate second- or third-hand from the work they’re responsible for and because they’re out of touch with it, they can never really be certain whether they’ll be a success or failure, whether they’re being called to the boss’ office to get congratulated or shown the door.
  • They don’t adequately develop the individuals on their teams. And how could they? They don’t know what these folks do, let alone what these aspire to do or how they could help them get there.
  • Their teams get less visibility than they should. How can these leaders act as advocates for their team when they don’t fully understand what they do? They can’t, and so their teams sit by and watch other groups get accolades and recognition while they labor in obscurity.
  • They are almost universally disliked by their teams. They get paid more, but they don’t actually do any of the “real” work, nor do they add value as leaders–what’s to like?

Enough about me, what do YOU think about me

So much for what’s wrong—how can leaders reconnect with the work on the ground if they find themselves disconnected? They need to do three things…

  • Learn how to effectively delegate. There’s a big difference between delegating and ignoring. Delegation is a way to deliberately shift work to others, not only to get the work accomplished more successfully, but also to stretch and professionally develop those you delegate to. It’s not letting things randomly drop off because you’re too busy, harried, or stressed.
  • Recognize that you are not the center of the universe. Yes, as a leader, you have stresses and responsibilities that your team does not. But remember that it goes both ways: your team is responsible for things you are not, and just because you may have been responsible for this things in the past, doesn’t diminish the challenges they currently face.
  • Make the time to stay in touch with your team. You can easily get caught up in the hustle and flow of being a leader and forget that one of your most important tasks is supporting your team–leaders are those who get work done through others–so removing obstacles, clearing administrative brush, and singing their praises is, if not Job One, then it’s Two or Three. Don’t leave it up to chance.

The final word

That’s what I have to say about being insulated from the work on the ground. In the next post, we’ll turn outwards and look at a kind of insulation that cuts leaders off from the wider world: insulation from wider communities of practice.

But while I’m cooking that up, I’d love to hear from those of you out there who have your own thoughts on how leaders can better align with the day-to-day work of the organization: give me criticism and feedback, ask a question of the group, share your own experiences or thoughts…jump in and let’s get the conversation started!

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