You’re trying to focus on a project when one of your direct reports messages you, asking where to find a piece of information they need to do their job. You respond by sending them a resource and then try to turn back to your own project.
A few minutes later, another one of your team members messages you and asks for your help making a small decision about the task they’re working on. Before you know it, the morning has gone by, and it feels like all you’ve done is answer questions and share resources.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
In fact, according to an article from Women of HR, a lack of employee independence is an all-too-common issue. “Every day, we hear stories from managers complaining about how over-reliant their employees have become on their managers to solve the tiniest of problems.”
And over-reliant employees don’t just cause frustration. They also lead to a reduction in productivity. Their need to talk over every issue with you slows down decision-making and reduces the amount of time you have to focus on other important tasks.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to encourage greater employee independence.
Clearly Explain Their Roles and Expectations
According to a study on management effectiveness, only half of employees feel their managers set appropriate performance expectations.
That’s a recipe for disaster.
When employees don’t understand what they’re responsible for and how their performance will be evaluated, they’re much more likely to seek feedback and approval for every decision they make—no matter how insignificant it is.
Make sure your employees know exactly when you expect them to take ownership and what results you expect them to achieve. If certain projects are higher priority than others, make sure employees understand those priorities and how they feed into company goals. This will give them the right mix of structure and freedom to take matters into their own hands.
Emphasize Goals Rather Than Tactics
In many cases, employees become over-reliant on their managers because they’ve been trained that way.
If you’re constantly telling your staff what they should be doing, instead of what you want them to achieve, they’ll learn to seek you out before taking any action.
According to Jennifer Chatman, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, a dose of humility might help address this issue. “Recognize that your way is not the only, or even necessarily the best way,” she explained.
Instead, set goals for your team that align with your organization’s strategic objectives and give employees the creative freedom to explore unique ways to achieve those goals.
Set Regular Status Check-Ins
Meeting regularly with your employees is a great way to prevent random disruptions. While you want to encourage your team to make their own decisions, there are times when they will need your help eliminating roadblocks to their success.
Encourage employees to use your regularly scheduled one-on-ones to bring up all non-urgent issues. This will prevent them from blindsiding you with concerns.
Just make sure to stick to the schedule. As executive coach Kristi Hedges warned in an article for Forbes, “although it’s a nice idea to think you can catch up with your direct reports on the fly, that’s harder to do in reality. By making a commitment to a schedule, whether once a week or once a month, both parties will better prepare and take the meeting more seriously. This is often the prime time for work to be discussed and advanced, so this time on the front end saves you dearly on the back end.”
In addition to helping you and your employees better prepare for effective collaboration, the space between meetings often gives your team the time they need to address concerns on their own.
While we would never suggest ignoring poor performance, it’s important to remember that mistakes happen.
If your employees don’t feel comfortable making mistakes, they’ll be tempted to shift responsibility to you by asking for you to make decisions for them.
So, how do you address your team’s missteps, while instilling the confidence needed for employee independence?
HR Daily Advisor recommends asking questions that help employees reflect on how they can achieve better results in the future, such as: “If we did this project again, what could we do differently to change the outcome?”
Give Them Access to the Information They Need to Be Successful
Sometimes, employees that seem overly dependent on their manager simply have legitimate questions they need answered before they can effectively make a decision. And if the information they need only exists in the mind of their manager or a member of another team, their projects can stall out until they track down the person with the answers.
If your company—like many others—suffers from information silos, employees may have to go through gatekeepers to get answers to their questions, or may not know where to find critical information, forcing them to go to you.
Investing in a knowledge sharing platform can quickly eliminate this problem by empowering employees to electronically store, share, and access important documentation, as well as ask and answer questions across departments. When employees see that they can save time by searching for information in a knowledge sharing platform before going to their manager, they’ll start using the platform more and interrupting their manager less.
Reward Self-Sufficient Behavior
By following the tips above, you can inspire greater self-sufficiency among your team— but changing behavior long-term isn’t easy.
To ensure your team doesn’t fall back into old habits, make sure to acknowledge and reward their new behaviors. For example, you could recognize your employees who have been making the most effective use of your question and answer base in your weekly company meeting, or even use gamification to motivate employees to use and contribute to your knowledge sharing platform.
Make it as easy as possible for employees to search for and share information—and make sure finding and acting on that information is a positive experience—and you’ll be well on your way to shifting from a workplace culture of dependency to one of employee empowerment.