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Is your team better off without a manager?

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by Driven Organization

A few years ago, I was part of a team to launch new motors into production. We had in our team folks from all the required functional areas, such as purchasing, quality, manufacturing, sales, etc. Together, we developed technical specs, set up manufacturing, arrange for quality control, quality approvals, customer audits, and much more.

We worked by ourselves for quite some time, and although, we had our struggles, we were able to launch complicated projects in less time than expected and with the necessary results. We developed our own little working environment with our own internal tools and we became friends.

Once in a while, we were visited by directors of the functional areas, such as quality, purchasing, and engineering. These managers tried to provide assistance to us, but it not always helped. Sometimes, after they had left, our team struggled to come back to its former performance. This puzzled me. How was it possible that well intended help could turn into not help? Now, years later, I can see what were some of the reasons why their well-intended assistance was not as effective as expected.

  • No one likes to be told what to do.  It has been proven that when people are told what to do, they feel less capable and lose motivation. For example, with small children, psychology researchers have founds a link between the teaching style of teachers and the child's performance; those teachers who had a more controlling style had children who scored lower in tests and felt worse about themselves. (See study here. Some of that happened when the managers told us how to solve our problems, but in contrast, when we developed our own solutions within our team, we felt committed to them, we owned them and tried to make them successful. 
  • Managers often do not foster lowering functional barriers. Often, managers are the reason why their subordinates become rigid and uncooperative with other teammates. It could be that managers are somewhat removed from the project and are less able to see the compromises and allowances that need to take place at the team level, or perhaps they are quite focused on their functional area, resulting in less capacity to see the other functional area's point of view, but unfortunately, it does happen that managers often take stronger positions. Because subordinates are looking for the approval of their managers, they will tend to do what they think managers want more so to their beliefs of what advances the objective of the project the most.
  • Managers are not true motivators. But motivation is one of the most sought after skills in managers, you may say. In reality, however, no one is capable of motivating teams over the long-term. Praise, motivational speeches, pay raises, etc. will do the job only for a few days. Motivation, true motivation, comes from inside of the worker, from the conviction that what he or she does matters and he has the freedom to do it.
  • Criticism tends to hurt motivation. The best way to cause a group to loose motivation is to criticize them. It is better to let them free, and in any case, to be available to help them when  they request assistance.
The good managers provided advice when we requested it, but always respected our solutions, ideas and decisions. These times, the team became more energized and committed to the project, because we all wanted to do the right thing. Those good managers need not to prove anything, not even feel they were useful to us. They knew their stuff and people flocked to them naturally for advice. Instead of command and control, they were facilitators, coaches, advisers, and experts.

Tags: motivation, leadership
Published on 24 Sep. 2012

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