Posted by: malstott | July 16, 2013

Purposeful Detachment

Kid on bikeWhen my son was four years old my husband put him on a bicycle. He was a tall kid with two older siblings. Thus, he was confident that he could ride a two-wheeler. David jumped on that bike and took off like a shot. “Look Dad, I’m riding by myself!”.  Within seconds my husband cried out frantically for him to stop. David turned his head around to see what Dad was yelling about…and ran into a parked car.

The helmet was on. He wasn’t hurt and it didn’t deter him from getting back on the bike. David mastered the bike but this also could have been a learning experience for us parents. Give instructions and then let the kid control his own destiny. But we weren’t ready to learn that at the time. Actually we are only now starting to get the hang of it and the kids are no longer living at home. We are slow learners in the parenting department.

As managers in the corporate world we have a similar tendency to over control our employees. We know better. We’ve done the job. We know the pitfalls. It is tempting to coach from the sidelines with sage advice and direction. The consequences of over control are similar to what happened to David. Listening and depending on someone else to call the shots distracts our employees from the task at hand and keeps them from developing their own skills. Failure, as long as it is recoverable, is an effective way to learn.

There is also good reason to purposefully detach from our own work. In my experience as work intensifies, my focus and time commitment goes up and to the right. I don’t take time away because there is just too much to do. Working hard and getting the tasks done is what fuels me. I am a list-maker and I get my kicks crossing off the items as I go. When I’m in the middle of learning something hard, ramping up on a new job or tackling a supply chain crisis I have to do an unnatural act to get the job done well. I have to step away. What I’ve learned over time is that my brain needs a break to clear the registers and to go through a virus check. The reboot doesn’t take days and sometimes can be done in minutes. But, when I come back to the task I stumble less, am more efficient and actually, I think I’m smarter.

Purposefully detaching from employees or from one’s own toxic type A behavior is a skill that can be practiced and perfected. Here are some of my practical ideas:

  • Wait 5 seconds – Before responding to an employee with a problem let seconds tick by. You will be surprised how long 5 seconds actually is. Often the employee will start to solve his or her own problem. Often you will stop yourself from giving the answer.
  • Ask questions – Instead of making declarative statements about a problem, (e.g. That will require a meeting. Call Joe. Reject that ECO.) ask a question (e.g. What is the best way to get input on that? What do you suggest? What are our options?)
  • Ask for a summary write-up – This creates a coaching moment. If the employee sends you a problem with no solutions, you can coach them on what you would like to see. Typically employees will have ideas that they are anxious to share. It is now your job to honor their ideas with a positive response.
  • Take a walk – If you are working with an employee and need give the person some space to talk through a solution, take a walk together. There is less hierarchy as you walk side by side. There is no opportunity for simple dismissal. You can breathe more deeply and can look at the trees or birds or traffic depending on where you are. That momentary distraction can prevent a quick, dismissive answer. Walking is a good tool to keep perspective on your own work as well. Even if the walk is to the coffee maker, it is a way to pull back.
  • Take time to broaden your view – When I first landed an executive level position, a wise mentor of mine told me that the best thing I could do for the organization was to pace myself and to get away. He said that I should take vacation days; I should read; I should network. What I brought to the table at that level was perspective and vision. Yes, I managed a function. But I also needed to be a leader. If my contribution was simply task oriented, then I wasn’t working at the executive level.
  • Embrace serendipity – Serendipity is defined as “the faculty of making desirable discoveries by accident”. This is all about living with your eyes open at all times. It is about finding ways to connect the dots in the world around you. In some ways this is the opposite of detaching but ironically this discovery of the connections allows you to release the grip on the immediate crisis. It creates perspective.

I’ve been advised that the best thing I can do for my kids is to not control them. Contrary to a mother’s instincts, my “20 something” kiddos are ok now without my advice, however wonderful and sage it is. The act of stepping back takes practice as a parent and as a manager. Purposefully detaching is a way to free our employees and our loved ones to discover their full potential.

In racing, they say that your car goes where your eyes go.  The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.”
Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain

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