Strike a Balance Between Overseeing and Trusting Your Employees

Strike a Balance Between Overseeing and Trusting Your Employees

It's good that you're engaged with your work. When you balance guiding your employees with trusting them, however, you'll end up with a more confident and capable team.

By Matt Alderton


Small business owners are a lot like parents. Their companies are their babies, and they have a really hard time letting go once they've grown up. Like moms and dads, they have their offspring's best interests in mind, but too often their good intentions are poorly manifested, mangled into overbearing and controlling behaviors that don't help, but rather hurt, their maturing businesses.

"Starting a business and managing a business are tremendously different animals," says Todd Dewett, associate professor of management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and author of the forthcoming book, Leadership Redefined. "Starting a business requires capital, good ideas, the willingness to expend great efforts and the willingness to take risks. Running an ongoing business is all of that and much more. It includes building a team and learning how to motivate others."

In other words, it requires turning yourself from an entrepreneur into a manager. "Once they have survived startup, and have customers and cash flow that will sustain them for a time, the ideal small business owner recognizes that a transition will be in order," Dewett says, adding that the transition should most often be from an autocratic beginning to a more team-centric future.

Being both a hands-on manager and a permissive leader is not only possible, but it's also essential. Let go of your reins in order to unleash the speed, strength and stimulus your company needs to get both bigger and better.

Understand Causes, Consequences
If you find yourself leaning over shoulders, telling employees what to do and how to do it, you're not necessarily a bad manager. You are an attentive one, though, according to Dewett. "The typical small business owner is more hands-on," he says. Their intimate involvement with every facet of the business is typically what makes their startups successful.

When your desire for involvement evolves into a need for control, however, it's crossed the line, according to Terri Levine, author of Stop Managing, Start Coaching and president of The Coaching Institute, a North Wales, Pa.-based management consultancy. Managers are necessary, she insists, but micromanagers are decidedly unnecessary. Micromanagers delegate tasks and yet they want to oversee every step of the process, she says. "They are scared that if they turn away, things won't run right."

And yet, turning away is critical. Although micromanaged employees are more likely to quit, more likely to be aggressive and less likely to actually do work, employees who are empowered to work independently are more likely to be loyal, happy and productive. "Employees actually do perform at their highest potential when no one is standing over them and managing them," Levine says. "Over-management causes lack of motivation and lower productivity."

Hire Trustworthy Employees
The first step in learning to trust your employees is to hire trustworthy individuals. If you start with a team that you're confident in, granting them independence will be many times easier. "Always strive to hire the very best people possible," Dewett advises. "The more you nail the hiring equation, the less you need to worry about your people."

Hiring the right employees doesn't happen overnight. So, if your urge is to fill holes in your team quickly, you might want to reconsider your strategy, filling them effectively, instead.

Of course, the trust buck doesn't stop at the job interview. Once you've hired people, you must continue to build trust with them. "The challenge is in recognizing that people very naturally make mistakes as a part of the process of learning and growing," Dewett says. "Thus, the question is not, 'Will my folks make some potentially costly mistakes as I attempt to trust them?' No. The question is, 'Am I willing and able to take these unavoidable bumps in the road and use them as learning events that will make my employees even better?'"

Create Systems
Learning events are vital to trust. In order to create them, Levine suggests building operational systems with which to teach, monitor and evaluate your employees.

"Have the employees create a step-by-step sheet of each task they do," she says, indicating that this prevents the need for you to hover over your team. "When something isn't working on one of their steps, they need to come to you."

Dennis Reina, co-author of Trust & Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in Your Organization, 2nd Edition, and co-founder of The Reina Trust Building Institute, a Stowe, Vt.-based organizational research and development firm, echoes the need for systems. He suggests building contractual trust with employees by working out mutual goals and expectations with them in person, then articulating them on paper. "Make the implicit explicit," he suggests.

Dewett agrees. "You must learn the basics of any performance management system: goal setting and accountability," he stresses. "If you specify with great precision the expectations what must be met and hold people meaningfully accountable, micromanaging becomes far less necessary."

Next to contractual trust comes communication trust, making sure that employees have the tools they need to do their jobs right, and competence trust, allowing them to do their jobs right. "Tell them what you want done," Reina says. "But don't tell them how to do the job."

Finally, if employees aren't earning your trust or they're failing to meet your expectations, talk to them, train them and teach them. "Employees want to know how they're doing," Reina says. "To keep people engaged and motivated, help them learn new skills and grow into the jobs for which you've hired them."