A question that I’ve come across frequently is why a team is not doing what their manager expects them to do. The flip side of this question could be phrased as:
“How can I remove myself from all the discussions I’m constantly being pulled in?”
“How can I get my team to take on more responsibility?”
Leaders who find themselves wondering why their teams aren’t making important decisions on their own tend to be leaders who are constantly pulled into many different discussions. Their calendars are filled to the brim, leaving little time for longer term work.
This can seem like you’re contributing as a manager, like you’re doing important work and keeping yourself busy. It also means that you’ll have less time to focus on strategic work. Which becomes more important as you move into more senior roles.
What is strategic work? For instance:
- Thinking about where your team should be three months from now.
- What processes are missing or need to be tinkered with to make your team more effective.
- Contributing to broader company or engineering initiatives or technical decision making.
- Determining hiring needs for the next six months.
Not being able to scale yourself tends to go hand in hand with your team not meeting unwritten expectations. The good news is that there’s a way to help you resolve both.
“Expectations” Doesn’t Mean Giving Orders
Inexperienced leaders tend to be hesitant setting expectations. I’ve heard reasons like “servant leadership,” or “I want to give my team enough freedom without setting boundaries,” to “I don’t want to give my team orders on what they should do.”
All these are reasonable things to consider as you’re working out a set of expectations for your team. Setting expectations the wrong way can make your team feel like you’re micro-managing them.
Good expectations focus on context and outcomes
Expectations don’t have be set that way. Good expectations focus on providing:
These three focus on providing structure and being clear on what you want your team to come out with at the end.
Context is everything a team needs to know to meet the expectations. This can include approaches you’re taking when you approach the topic you want your team to work on. It can also be company and business context, like a technical vision or the company strategy. It’s anything that helps the team to achieve the desired outcomes.
Frameworks provide your teams with tools they can use. This could include meeting structures, decision making processes, or question they should ask themselves as they work on a topic.
Outcomes set clear goals for what your team should achieve. This could be as simple as “make a decision on X” or “agree on the priorities for the next development cycle.”
You can set expectations and also ask your team to give you feedback on them, to agree on them, or to develop their own expectations and frameworks. In the last case, your expectation can simply be for them to develop their own approach.
How you go about doing this depends on your leadership style, how your team likes to work, and how experienced they are.
Teams can be blocked without clear expectations
When you’re not seeing your team take the initiative and meet your expectations, it’s possible that they’re just waiting for you or someone to either provide them with the answer, or to give them the opportunity to step in.
They may not have known who can make a certain decision, where they can discuss a certain topic, or that you want them to make a decision in the first place.
They might be blocked without knowing it. The surprising effect of setting clear expectations can be that your team is suddenly unblocked and can move forward.
Expectations help grow new leaders
There’s another benefit from setting clear expectations for your team and then letting them take the lead. It’s an opportunity for folks from your team to step up and lead projects, working groups, or meetings. This allows engineers to improve on skills that aren’t associated with writing code but that may become more relevant as they grow more senior.
Setting expectations helps you scale
Delegating more work to your team has a benefit for you as their manager too. Instead of always bringing them the answers, you step out of a cycle. Your team gets used to coming to you for answers and decisions because you always provide them.
Instead you focus on setting the right context and the outcomes rather than be involved in the discussion and decision making. That gives you more time to focus on other things.
It can be deeply uncomfortable to remove yourself from important discussions. You used to have a clear work mode that seemed to contribute value to your team by unblocking them, by making decisions for them, by patiently answering their questions.
By setting expectations you’re not a part of this loop anymore. You find yourself with more free time and less on your plate.
Filling this gap can be a challenge. For a starting point, you could pick one of the topics from the top to get into a more strategic work mode. Or you could work with your manager to find specific areas where you could contribute and grow.
It takes guts and practice to say “Y’all can do this without me. I trust you with this.” But there’s something incredibly freeing about it too.
Setting clear expectations is a leadership skill
Senior technical leadership requires you to remove yourself from many day-to-day discussions. You’ll be focused more on higher level processes so that your team can focus on the work. You’ll be focused on work where your time is spent with the highest leverage, the highest impact on your team. Setting expectations and letting teams lead areas and make decisions on their own is part of this work.
Note that this isn’t quite the same as “getting out of the way.” It’s getting out of the way by setting a clear focus on what your team should focus on and giving them the tools to achieve a good outcome.
The next time you find yourself in a situation where your team involves you in discussions or decisions, take a step back. Check if there’s an opportunity for your team to step up and for you to step away.
- Write down a set of outcomes that you’d like them to achieve and communicate those. Note that an outcome isn’t the same as a specific result. Ideally you focus on what you want them to do rather than dictating the exact result they should back to you with.
- Provide sufficient context for your team to achieve the goal. This could include things that you’re thinking about when you approach the topic at hand.
- If you’re not certain whether your team has the right skills, write down how you would approach going through the process. This can result in a short process description or framework to guide your team.
It takes practice and patience to get your team to take a more active role in decision making and leading discussions. You’ll need to review and adjust your approach and your team’s output several times over until you’ve found the sweet spot. But it’s work worth doing, for your team’s sake and for you as a leader. In the long run, everyone will benefit from clarity on expectations.
Thanks to Daniel Schauenberg for an early review, corrections and feedback.