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Fire all your managers: 'Supportive Leadership' is management's new role

All-knowing bosses have had their day. Managing today's knowledge worker requires 'Supportive Leadership,' according to expert Joseph Flahiff.

The role of the IT manager is not what it used to be, and the people who are playing the old role need to adopt a new approach as a leader or get out of the business of managing people.

What is a manager? According to the top search result in Google, a manager is "a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company or similar organization."

The key words here are controlling or administering. What is not stated in this definition is that management is a means to an end. The end is to make the company or similar organization more profitable and productive.

Traditional management works this way:

I have a project that I need done. As manager, I figure out what needs to be accomplished to complete the project. I decide the best way to do it based on my extensive experience in the industry. I decide who is best to do what part based on my knowledge of my staff, and their skills and interests. I assign that work to them and make sure they start it, do a good job at it and complete it. I check their work to ensure the quality. In the end, I coordinate all the pieces and make sure it all works together in the end.

This approach worked when the work to be done was physical -- manual -- labor, such as assembly and mass production.

The leader doesn't figure out what needs to be done; instead, the leader asks the team.

In the world of knowledge work, productivity and profitability are directly linked to creativity. There is nothing routine in knowledge work; our teams need to be creating something new, and inventing new and better ways of doing things. Unfortunately, the act of controlling and administering inhibits and stifles creativity. In the now famous candle experiment, as performed by Princeton professor Samuel Glucksberg in 1962, the presence of monetary rewards and time pressure have been shown to have a negative correlation on creative problem solving. A new paradigm is necessary to get people who are doing knowledge work to increase productivity and profitability. In place of this traditional management, businesses and organizations need to put in place a system of Supportive Leadership:

Supportive Leadership is an approach to influence that gives authority to the people doing the work, and leader(s) provide support to the people who do the work. 

Change your language

In his previous column, Three steps to creating a great senior leadership team, Joseph Flahiff advised CIOs to practice these behaviors when dealing with their senior IT teams:

1. Lead with questions, not answers

3. Check in, don't check up

3. Communicate the 'why'

So, what does this look like in practical terms? Imagine the same project that we discussed as a traditional manager, but now under the Supportive Leadership model;

There is a project that we need to get done. As the leader, I call my team together and share with them the reasons for the work that we need to do, and the constraints that we are under to get it done. I simply ask, "What do you think we should do?" Then, I shut up. The team brainstorms ideas. The team selects the best approach. The team decides what to do and takes the work on themselves. We all understand the drivers, so the team reviews each other's work to ensure quality. All along, the team talks with each other to collaboratively ensure that it all works together. I, as a leader, support, encourage, remove obstacles and get them the necessary resources.

You will note a few key differences. First, and probably most subtle, is that it is not me and them, but we. The work is owned by the whole team, not by the manager. This may look like a simple shift in language, but it is much more than that: 21st century workers want to be involved; we want ownership. A subtle shift in language can create a dramatic psychological shift in ownership. Changing your language is just the first step towards a supportive leadership style -- it's not about you.

Get out of the way

Next, notice that the leader doesn't figure out what needs to be done; instead, the leader asks the team. When I suggest this to leaders, they always worry that the team won't come up with the best solution, which is really just a fear of losing control. The team will come up with the ideas you had, and chances are, they will come up with ideas you hadn't ever thought of before. This fear that they won't come up with the right solution really blinds leaders to the true benefit of shifting ownership from the manager to the team. When the team owns the work, the team rallies and digs in to get it done. No one has to motivate them; they are intrinsically motivated.

They will not only figure out what needs to be done, but they also will take the work on themselves. Once again, the ownership shifts to the team. When we take on work ourselves, we have a sense of responsibility. We say to ourselves, "This wasn't forced upon me, I volunteered to do it."

In this kind of relationship, the job of the Supportive Leader is to share the purpose, vision and constraints of the work, and to give the team the authority to do the work while providing the resources necessary to be successful. Finally, the job of the Supportive Leader is to smooth the path by removing obstacles in the way of the team.

About the author:
Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at 
Whitewater Projects, Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, start-ups and publicly traded firms, where he has been lauded by executives as an experienced, pragmatic and innovative adviser. He is the author of Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations.

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