Sometimes being good at your job can feel like a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie. You know the feeling: The more you show you can handle something, the more you become “that person.” Every time that job comes up, it falls to you because “you’re the best at it!”
This is doubly true for new managers, who often feel the twin pressures of excelling at their own jobs while simultaneously delivering the best results from their team. I can’t think of how many times I’ve seen a new manager, especially a woman, do the team’s work or at least finish it because she knows she will do the best job, and results are ultimately what matters.
This is a recipe for burnout, not strength.
The anti-burnout approach
In reality, a manager has three jobs: the two described above, plus facilitating your team members’ growth in skill and competency. By doing too much of the team’s work yourself, you deprive team members of the means to improve themselves and make them completely dependent on you.
Be training wheels, not a crutch; this approach will let you transition to being a guide later when the training wheels come off.
That means managing the demands made on your time as well as people’s expectations of you. I’m not advocating that you withhold your help as some form of “tough love,” but rather restructure the help you provide to make sure you’re assisting employees’ efforts, not just doing the job for them.
For example: a team member has an assignment but has no idea where to start, so he asks you for help. You could be “helpful” by showing him how you would start it, but that is a slippery slope. Your team may subconsciously internalize that they should always ask you before starting something, because you’re going to have better ideas than them anyway. It’s not necessarily laziness on their part, but a pattern of behavior that you may be unwittingly incentivizing.
Instead, you could try telling the requester that you would love to help. He should send you an email with five ideas (provide a concrete number to avoid being vague) by 10 a.m. the next day (a concrete deadline), and you will respond with your comments/suggestions by 10 a.m. the following day (a concrete deadline for you). It may be the same amount of work—or even more, at first—for you, but eventually it will be less. And you’re nudging the person to bring you some evidence of his own efforts before you will add your expertise to the mix.
Preventing burnout — with a bonus
This process has the bonus effect of letting you praise employees for their great ideas. Often, when a person asks for your help or suggestions, it’s because he is sure that you’re such a competent, experienced expert that you will have much better ideas than he will. You not only boost the employee’s confidence by praising his work when he gets it right (or is on the path to getting it right), you also show him what kind of behavior, ideas, and work to repeat. We are often just “throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks,” meaning we may not know when we do something right until someone tells us so.
As with everything in life, balance and flexibility are key, but so is radical honesty with yourself and your team about what behavior you are incentivizing. Positive reinforcement of the behavior you want always gets better results than penalizing bad behavior, and it makes you and your team feel great too.
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