Rebecca SchalmFor over two decades we have been training leaders to manage people by empowering them. Leaders who were authoritarian, who behaved like a parent instead of a coach, were seen as dinosaurs at the end of their era. Times change.

I remember how a conversation I had with a client, an enlightened and successful leader, unfolded: “I was speaking with my boss and he told me that, right now, I need to be more directive with my team.”

I agree, because that is what situational leadership is all about. The times don’t require a return to command-and-control, but they do require leaders to tighten up on fundamental people management principles.

When do you have to be tougher as a leader?

  1. When the environment is uncertain. When there is a high level of uncertainty about people’s ability to make clear and confident decisions or the signs and signals they usually use to guide them are unavailable or conflicting, people can become paralyzed.  Their failure to make a decision means action is also stalled. If people are unable to make decisions you will need to step in and help them.
  2. When time is of the essence. When there is a high sense of urgency around getting things done, a more structured leadership style is appropriate. This is the time to be more prescriptive around ‘what’ and ‘how’. This can feel uncomfortable and may require some deprogramming around how you typically manage. This is the time to provide crystal-clear expectations and closely monitor progress.
  3. When accuracy is critical to success. Ensuring things are done right requires you to spend more time reviewing the output of your team. Don’t be afraid to get out the red pencil and provide very specific correction and feedback. Communicate the importance of attending to details and insist people double-check things before they pass them along to you.
  4. When the demand to deliver intensifies. When you are feeling increased pressure from your manager you need to translate that into a productive action plan for your team. Interestingly enough, stepping up your cheer-leading behaviour rarely leads to increased activity and focus on the part of others. To send a message that something has shifted and people need to behave differently, you need to change how you communicate.

Below are basic people management skills you likely learned when you took on your first leadership role. Discipline in applying them will help you provide structure and focus for others, create critical feedback loops, and enhance your team’s ability to execute under pressure.

  1. Provide an overarching vision. Help people see what you are trying to accomplish and how their work connects to broader goals and objectives.
  2. Set clear expectations. This includes specificity around deliverables and timelines.
  3. Monitor progress. Commit to regular check-in points at critical intervals.
  4. Engage in root cause analysis. Obstacles should be uncovered and discussed. Reasons for delays or gaps should be thoroughly explored and understood. Ask more questions and be more wary of accepting the first answer you get.
  5. Review priorities. As new and competing issues emerge you need to re-evaluate objectives and timelines and re-direct your team as appropriate.
  6. Re-confirm expectations and deadlines. Follow up meetings with short notes in writing as reinforcement.
  7. Measure success. It is critical to follow-through and formally review delivery against expectations. Recognize achievement. Discuss lessons learned.

Good leaders have an arsenal of skills and techniques available to them, and know when and how to apply them.  There are times when giving people a lot of latitude and gentle steering are appropriate. But there are times when you need to provide more structure and discipline. It doesn’t mean you stop being supportive and encouraging. In fact, this is the time to be supportive – not just verbally and emotionally, but by providing the clarity, guidance, and accountability that will help your team succeed.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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