Paint the White Lines on the Side of the Road and Set Them Free

It’s tempting to want people to do their work “our way.” This is particularly true if we used to do the job they are doing and we’ve been promoted to manage the group. “After all,” we reason, “doing it the way I did it is what made me successful—they should just do the same thing.” It sounds logical. It sounds reasonable. And, it doesn’t work.

Joanne’s Challenge

Joanne is a bright young manager at an insurance company. She’s been promoted to manage the group where she’d worked. This group has very repetitive work. She approached me after a workshop I delivered.

“How can I get people excited about doing a task I found boring?” she asked. “I sure didn’t enjoy it that much…why should they be enthusiastic aboutEmployee engagement,improve morale it?”

I encouraged her to continue. “I standardize their work as much as I can to avoid errors, and I tell them exactly how I want them to do it. All they have to do is follow the process I used when I did their job. I try to keep it simple for them. But, when you walk into our work area, it feels depressing. I’m at my wits end. They complain all the time. I’m just not sure what to do to turn it around.”

Her intentions are good. She wants her people to succeed. And, she’s going about it the wrong way. Having them do it “her way” takes away the opportunity for her team to be creative, bring their talents to bear on the process, find new solutions, innovate, and be challenged.

The Solution

Joanne would do better to provide her people with clear goals and expectations, and let them find their own path to success.

People need to know what is expected of them. It is our role as leaders to define the end result, to define the outcome. We must work with our people to define clear, challenging goals and objectives. We need to define how results will be measured and rewarded.

Then comes the hard part. We have to set them free to do it their way! We have to let them use their talents, skills, and creativity to get to that end result.

employee engagement, high moraleThink about a road trip. As leaders, you define the destination—the required outcome. You also need to set the white lines on the side of the road. This means that you identify any constraints, guidelines, policies, timelines, or standards that must be adhered to. Then, you set them free.

You let them choose their own route and encourage them to do it their way. They are simply required to deliver the agreed to outcome within the parameters you set.

As Joanne began to lead differently, as she drew the white lines on the side of the road and set her team free to apply their best thinking to their jobs, there was a huge shift in their attitudes.

People began to look for improvements to the processes. They began to share new solutions with each other. They felt that their input was valued, and they found new ways to contribute.

Joanne worked with her team to find ways to make the work more interesting. They began to have more fun. Morale improved. People were motivated, they focused on delivering their best, and productivity improved. And, individuals stopped looking for ways to leave the department.

Some of you might be squirming as you read this. You might be feeling that you’d be giving up too much control if you let people do it their way.

To create a culture of success:

• Develop clear, challenging goals, with a defined end result
• Give people the resources they need to do their work
• Let people know you appreciate and care for them
Recognize and praise good work
• Provide timely, effective feedback
Tie rewards to performance
• Create an environment of trust—walk your talk—do what you say you’ll do
Set people free to do their jobs “their way” within the white lines you’ve painted.

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