This phrase shows you’re a disengaged manager


It’s another busy week for you and your team, and you are feeling very productive while working through your action list. You write a concise email to a few team members with the intent of delegating work for the coming week, and cheerily close with this line:

Let me know how I can help.

— what you said to your team

Those six words have just sent a powerful, yet subtle message to your team:

I want to maintain the appearance of supporting you, but I’m not actually engaged in your success.

— how your team perceives you

Genuine support arises from setting clear direction, being accessible to engage, and providing effective coaching. “Let me know how I can help” creates a veil of accessibility, while placing the burden entirely on the team to understand the direction and seek out the manager’s support. The irony of the disengaged manager is that the team members who could benefit most from support — those with the greatest need for direction and coaching — have the largest barrier to receiving support.

After clearly establishing the mission and purpose for the team (“the why”), setting clear direction means that you’ve defined both what to do and how to do it. To use a trivial example: when my family works together to prepare dinner, the why is an expression of our values (satisfy our nutritional needs, self-sufficiency, appreciation of diverse cuisines, etc.). The what is a set of tasks and recipes that comprise the meal, and the how is a standard of quality and steps to follow so that no one gets hurt and the meal is tasty.

In a work environment, the manager needs to discern whether the team member needs help with what to do or how to do it (or both). Asking questions (“Tell me how…”) and reviewing draft work product (“Show me what…”) are effective techniques to assess any gaps. The manager should be doing much more listening than talking in this interaction. The table below suggests some practical steps for the manager depending on each team member’s situation.

It’s not your team members’ responsibility to let you know how you can help them. As an engaged manager, genuine support arises from:

  • Setting clear direction by expressing the mission and purpose of the team’s work in clear and compelling terms (“the why”)
  • Being accessible to engage by scheduling regular 1:1 checkpoints and leaving blocks in your schedule when your team can find you for informal, ad hoc collaboration
  • Providing effective coaching by assessing whether each team member understands what to do and how to do it, and then following through with the right type of support for the scenario

How does this approach fit with your team culture? What’s stopping you as a manager from engaging more with your team? What’s an even better way to provide genuine support? Leave a comment below…

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