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Give and take

Joe Benesh is a senior architect with Shive-Hattery and President + CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development, and design thinking consulting firm.

I have always taken special notice of how different managers communicate with their reports. Managers run the gamut of styles, from command and control to leaving their team with complete freedom. How you choose to engage your reports will always have an enormous impact on how they respond and function in their roles.

When my team and I identify tasks for us to complete as part of a work plan, there are several strategic considerations to bear in mind – these early decisions can make or break the dynamics of the workflow and have a direct impact and bearing on the success rate of collaboration-based work.

The following is a brief compilation of considerations that may lead to greater team optimization and more open and transparent teamwork:

  1. Have a preliminary team meeting introducing the project and intended outcomes. Ask team members what they would like to work on to contribute to the success of the project, soliciting input from them, but not deciding at that time what tasks they will undertake. Also ask them what part they feel they would least like to work on.
  2. Following the meeting, develop a matrix of tasks to be performed by team members on one axis and team members of the other, and assign two tasks to each team members; one that they felt they would most enjoy and another they felt was less desirable. This is the first step in establishing a strong team communication dynamic – I will explain. Let’s call task “a” the desirable task and task “b” is the less desirable task.
  3. Schedule a follow-up meeting where you establish the hard metrics for the project, present the project schedule, and talk about roles. When you present roles to team members, a suggested approach is as follows:

             “David, I would like you to complete task ‘a’ and task ‘b’.”

Repeat for each team member, while presenting an overall picture of your work plan, using the matrix as your guide on how to move forward successfully, how tasks are distributed and how they are interdependent, and what each team member will be working on.

The strategy in this approach is multi-faceted. First, you have asked each team member what they would like to work on and what area they may need to improve. This allows the team member to focus on something they enjoy, while also focusing on development in an area that may need work.

When people are asked to work on things they wouldn’t necessarily choose or may need improvement in, they tend to communicate more – by asking questions, by seeking out teammates, or by calling consultants to help them work to solve the task at hand. Pairing tasks like this also allows team members to switch to something they really enjoy when/if their frustration level rises.

There is another layer of this strategy though – the way it is presented. When you ask someone “would you like to”, it is a “taking” question – meaning that you are leaving it to the report to determine if they are qualified to complete the task or in a position to self select; it abdicates responsibility on the management side, which actually can “take” the feeling of empowerment or confidence from the employee or report. It may feel like “giving” to the manager, but what it may transmit is that the manager is not truly invested in the project or the employee’s growth.

In step 1 above, the manager is asking what they would like to work on, but, in step 3, he or she is changing the dynamic to “giving” – meaning that by indicating that the manager is confident in the employee’s ability to complete the task. They are "giving" empowerment and building confidence by reframing to send the message: “I know you are capable of completing these tasks”. Often, the direct report is looking for direction so they can be effective - it is the manager's job to provide that direction.

Subtle changes can alter the course of a project. Sometimes these small changes can alter the dynamics of ownership, individual and team development, communication, and empowerment within teams and build the confidence, qualifications, and collaborative abilities of team members. 


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