Like sports coaches, wise managers empower their employees to make necessary decisions within their roles and responsibilities – and the rules of the game offer the necessary controls

In the build-up to the Rugby World Cup, it has been noteworthy how much attention the coaches have received. They play an integral role in the success of the team; even though they never run onto the field, never make a gruelling tackle, push with all their might in a scrum, or sprint with every last breath to score a spectacular try.

It isn’t their role to play the game. Their focus is on preparing the players for success and then to step aside and allow the players to win the game. I have seen coaches do some crazy things, but I have never seen one of them run onto the field and steal the ball in an attempt to score a try, yet, I see this all the time in the workplace. Unfortunately, like many of you, I have experienced this first-hand.

I will never forget the time that I oversaw a project with my team. We spent hours planning the rollout. I was excited about what we intended to do. This positive energy quickly turned sour. I became immensely frustrated and outright annoyed when the CEO made a call concerning the project without running it past me.

Without knowing what we had organised, he gave an instruction to one of my team members that undermined all the work we had done. Many of his directives were poor, because he didn’t have all the details of what we had organised. I was livid because the time and effort we had put in was for nought. If he had questions or ideas, why didn’t he run them past me?

Furthermore, it created confusion. My team no longer knew who to report to and which path to follow. Obviously, the CEO’s instructions trumped any decisions I had made. I felt he didn’t respect my position and subverted my authority.

I couldn’t help giggling, a few weeks later, when he complained that everyone would run to him instead of taking ownership of the projects assigned to them. He became irritated that he was doing everyone’s jobs and had to make all the decisions.

One of the reasons managers are unwilling to delegate and empower their teams is because they are concerned they will mess up. If we can go back to the coaching analogy, no coach sends an ill-prepared or injured player onto the field. While it isn’t the coach’s role to play the game, it is his or her responsibility to train and prepare players to perform at their best.

Likewise, it is irresponsible for managers to allow workers to do work for which they aren’t adequately trained. Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model is a helpful tool when it comes to managing this dynamic.

From a brain perspective, neuroscience is highlighting that people need a sense of autonomy, because it allows us to be in charge of our choices. Among a multitude of studies, Dr Rudorf, from the Institute of Psychology, confirmed that humans are fundamentally hardwired to resist being controlled.

How is this connected to safety? Professor Maier, from the German Neuroscience Centre, explains that when someone’s freedom to make decisions is taken away, it will evoke a threat response in their brain. In order to keep us alive, we react to any perceived dangers in less than a fifth of a second. This is usually in either a fight or flight response.

According to Professor Arnsten, from the Yale School of Medicine, “The loss of prefrontal function occurs when we feel out of control.” Any perception of autonomy being compromised, such as when we are micromanaged, will trigger such a threat response.

The moment we default to our fight or flight mode, we start pumping adrenalin and cortisol into our bloodstream. Dr Aiken elucidates that physiologically the blood flow to our neocortex is restricted.

This is the analytical, rational thinking, problem-solving part of the brain. In the times we most need our faculties to be firing on all cylinders, the blood is directed to the limbic brain. In this state, our capacity to think clearly and make sound decisions is literally derailed. This can have a serious impact on our ability to work safely.

In additional to interfering with our ability to think in a way to re-establish our need for choice, we will often have the urge to counteract instructions. Tell someone they cannot have something then, all of a sudden, they want it.

This is epitomised in teenagers’ rebellion to authority. This has even been seen where warning labels have had the opposite effect. It is possible to overregulate safety in a way that it results in a higher number of non-conformances. How many of our current rules, policies and procedures have been put in place land up impede our drive for zero harm?

Now what? Obviously, we cannot allow people to run around doing whatever they want. In a sports team, each player has a role to fulfil and needs to play according to the rules of the game. If a team member breaks the rules, he or she can be sent off the field. And if anyone fails to perform, the bench is where you’ll find them.

Managers don’t need to fear empowerment. The rules of the game bring in the necessary controls. Typically, people don’t mind authority or rules; they just don’t appreciate being controlled.

Like the sports coach, wise managers empower their employees to make necessary decisions within their roles and responsibilities. Work expectations are clear and frequently monitored. The moment someone’s performance drops the manager calls them aside to discuss an improvement plan. This way, managers can still get what they want without undercutting people’s need for choice.

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