The Power of Delegating

People want autonomy and a feeling of inclusion more than ever. So it’s a good time to check if your culture promotes it.

Association executives have a lot of teams to manage—boards, staffs, committees—all of which are prone to disruption. There are all sorts of reasons for that, but one underappreciated one is how included participants feel they are—or aren’t—in the team.

Or, worse, participants are passive-aggressively told what their role on the team is. In a recent piece at the MIT Sloan Management Review, business scholars David Hollis and Alex Wright call this practice “managerial ventriloquism.” This is different than simply telling team members what their tasks are; rather, it’s where people in the middle presume to say what top leadership wants. (Think “The CEO wants….” or “The board would like…”) 

It’s a recipe for alienation all around, they write: “Speaking for others in this way engenders a managerial culture where responsibility is forever being passed on to someone else, with no one willing to take ownership of decisions.”

Little has changed in terms of favorable characteristics among leaders, with one notable exception: Inclusiveness

What’s so wrong, exactly, with middle managers or committee leaders saying what the CEO or board wants? Isn’t it their job to relay the word from the top? The problem is twofold, according to the article. First, it erodes the authority the middle managers have; can they stand up for themselves or their teams in the moment when they’re always appealing to a higher authority? Second, and most critical for top leaders, it suggests a broken culture where those top leaders are denying them any agency, a situation where “managers possess too little autonomy and are compelled to speak the words of others.” Some of this may be a matter of leadership skills and learning to be more assertive; but it’s worth a gut check to see if your leadership style is closing off the ability to assert.

Cultivating a feeling of autonomy in your organization is increasingly important: In the latest Harvard Business Review, author Sylvia Ann Hewlett reveals results of surveys she conducted with executives in 2012 and 2022. Not a lot has changed in terms of favorable characteristics among leaders, but there’s one notable exception: Inclusiveness. “Inclusiveness, in all its manifestations—respecting others, listening to learn, telegraphing authenticity—has shot onto the list,” she writes, a change that “reflects the new weight of diversity, equity, and inclusion in business strategy.”

Hewlett lays out a few strategies for cultivating inclusiveness, one of which she describes as “informed empathy.” Using the example of a resorts company, she notes how it came out of the pandemic successfully by empowering its middle managers. It promoted a “culture of yes” that involved “authorizing managers to say yes to employees—whether they were seeking three-day workweeks, short shifts, or the ability to move from hourly work to the management track.”

Associations will have their own goals around a “culture of yes”—standing up new products, changing up the membership model, or tweaking meetings formats to draw new audiences. But the concept is the same—good things can happen when top leaders not only clearly communicate their big goals, but empower team leaders to express their autonomy within them. The top leader is the ultimate decision-maker, but stronger teams develop when others get to be decisive as well. 

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