If you need your team to step up, you need to show them how.
Last week I introduced the topic of educational scaffolding, a method that enables a student to learn how to carry out a task independently by gradually removing the support of a person with greater knowledge and expertise. In the workplace, this concept can be really useful for the manager as coach.
If you use a ‘sink or swim’ approach when assigning work, you are pretty much guaranteeing failure. The most likely outcomes are that your staff member will fail at the delegated task and lose confidence; and you will have to clean up the mess. It’s bad for productivity and bad for morale. It can also leave your own boss wondering about your skills as a manager – and your technical skills, since you are now doing work at the level of your reports instead of at your own level.
Fortunately, most managers assist their staff to develop skills by assigning work and providing feedback over a period of time. This is a good start but what’s missing is the structured notion of scaffolding.
Highly effective managers provide levels of support tailored to the individual skills and knowledge of each staff member. Depending on the task and the individual, the degree of support ranges from high to low and takes more or less time. Here is how it works.
- Start by clearly explaining what needs to be done and how.
- Assess how much support your staff member will need. This will help you adjust the next steps.
- Provide examples of good practice and models to copy.
- Provide opportunities for your staff to work with you and other more knowledgeable people as they develop their skills.
- Next, give them opportunities to attempt a task or elements of a task without initial support, followed by feedback and support. A lower risk task should be attempted first.
- Finally, let them do the whole task from start to finish on their own and then help them bring it up to standard.
One example of how to apply this method is with high level meetings. Here a staff member might first accompany a manager to senior meetings and listen only; later they might attend less critical meetings with peers; and finally begin to represent the organisation at increasingly high stakes meetings.
I have used this method to introduce aspiring leaders to the Managing Director and then the Board. In this case, they were subject matter experts with no experience in presenting to senior meetings. By supporting them through the process, I gave them the chance to show the Managing Director and the Board just how much they knew.
When you take this path, you get the credit for their expertise. You get the credit for bringing the best out of your staff and training them as future leaders.
I also had this experience as a junior member of staff. My boss, a wonderful mentor and teacher, asked me to draft a letter, then shared the final version with me. I was embarrassed to see only one of my sentences remained in the final version. But then he patiently explained every change he had made. Next, he gave me another letter to draft. Again, he shared the final version and explained the rationale behind his changes. As I progressed, we co-wrote a lot of documents and I learned to understand the sophisticated approaches he was using. Finally. the day came when one of my documents came back unchanged. I was delighted and so was my boss.
Managers I have coached have found this approach really helpful, particularly the idea that the amount of support given must be tailored to the skills and knowledge of the individual staff member and to the task. They have found that, over time, they have been able to delegate far more effectively, having ensured their team knew what they were doing.
Although applying educational scaffolding to workplace learning is time consuming, my experience has shown that it builds not only skills but independence and self-confidence in the team. Its success will mean that managers are able to confidently delegate work over time, knowing that their staff member will have the skills, knowledge and learning to complete the tasks themselves.
Contributor: Dr Catherine Burrows is a Founding Partner of Executive Coach Exchange and the CEO and owner of Innoverum independent consulting.