How Can Leaders Let Go

While coaching a director from an MNC last week, an interesting topic came about. She was on one hand full-heartedly encouraging her staff to be more innovative and creative, and on the other hand, hand-holding them step by step through various projects so that they do not “f***” things up. She felt burnt out. And not happy. So does her team (perhaps confused as well). Hmm…. Interesting. I paused for a minute to let what she has just said sink in, then we burst into laughter at how silly this situation is. The issue has become clear: Letting Go.

A lot of us are brought up and educated in management mindsets based on hierarchical command and control, micro-managingly instruct and direct, and mind-boggling bureaucratic processes (tons of paperwork!). This approach worked well for driving productivity and efficiency in production economy, but is detrimental for innovation and engagement in our current creativity economy.

The recent Gallup Survey in 2017 shows that more than 67% of the workforce in America are not engaged. Employees who just show up in the office for the sake of showing up and getting their pay-check at the end of the month. Employees who just follow instructions and stopped thinking critically. Employees who are so used to staying in their comfort zones that they stopped growing and challenging each other. Disengaged employees are potential social capital left untapped and costing America somewhere between 450 billion USD to 550 billion USD annually. The bigger question is: How much is it costing your company? The cost of not letting go is just too high. Leaders know they are the problem. And their comfort zone is starting to become uncomfortable.

Growth and change can only happen when we shift from our comfort zone to our courage zone. Leaders would need to adopt a new mindset whereby natural leaders can emerge on the basis of their knowledge and expertise rather than on formal position in organizational structure. Leadership can flow among team members, depending on who has the needed skills, knowledge or attitude in the moment. At various times, different team members can significantly influence the team. Staff are given responsibilities rather than tasks. Leaders have to intentionally build a Culture of trust and transparency, through a structure based on clarity of purpose, values, goals and processes for communication and decision-making. When someone drops the ball or act irresponsibly, those who are affected will respond naturally and proactively.

The dance between freedom and accountability has begun. Ironically, when leaders let go, they actually take back much more in terms of their influence, as staff feels more trusted, engaged, creative and impactful.

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