Step 3: Stop doing your employees' work!

This is Step 3 in our control freak recovery series. In this step we talk about how it’s not the boss’ job to clean up our employee’s messes or do their job for them. Read Step 1 and Step 2 here.

This is a long journey, and none of us can go it alone. We hope you’re reaching out to a trusted friend — several trusted friends or mentors — as you embark on this journey of recovery. If you can own your control freak issue, and you’ve got your head around letting go of the need to obsess and manage efficiency all the time; then you’re ready for the big leagues. Some of these ideas have been presented in my prior post, when we were talking about that internal shift; but it’s worth reiterating them in the context of an external shift in behavior. Ready?

employees work

Step 3: Let people do their work

Control freaks often take on the work of others because they can’t tolerate that work being done differently from the way they would do it, or because explaining it might take too long or be too difficult. As a result, they train their staff to turn in work that’s sort of right (because you are going to change it no matter how much effort they put into it) or to stop every time they reach an obstacle and come bring it to you (You will solve it for them.) You’ve trained them that you will fix everything, and they’ve cooperated by giving you work that needs fixing.

The way out of this cycle is two simple questions.

“Is this your best work?”

When someone brings you work that they have “completed”, before you even looked at it, ask them, “Is this your best work?” You can then explain that you are interested in looking at work that’s in it’s final form — ready to go to the client. Further, you will be judging their performance based on the quality of the work that is being brought to you. You are going to assume that what you see here represents their best work. You then can offer, “Do you want to look this over one more time?”

Training your staff to bring you their best work means that when you get something from them and the first page has 4 typos or mis-spellings, you don’t fix it. You send it back to them! If this is their best work, maybe we need someone else to do that work. Or maybe they just need to look it over again to make sure that this is their best work. Don’t do their work for them.

“I don’t’ know, what do you think you should do?”

Your job isn’t only to review work product. You should also be a sounding board — providing your experience and expertise to get the team past situations that are difficult or new to them. Sometimes you need to be a problem solver.

Unfortunately, control freaks get into the habit of solving problems that aren’t their’s to solve. We like solving problems, we like displaying our expertise. Unfortunately, when we have to be the expert all the time, it undermines our team’s confidence (and our confidence in them, “Don’t they know this by now?”).

So instead of being “the problem solver” you need to play dumb. Listen to the problem or dilemma that your team member is bringing to you and then ask, “I don’t know, what do you think we should do?”

I know this seems inefficient. 

Asking this question means that you are training your team not to bring you problems, but to bring you solutions. You aren’t going to be the problem solver, you are going to be the sounding board that can help to clarify, or add perspective to the ideas that your team has already devised. If they don’t have an idea, send them back to think up some and set a time to review their ideas later on.

When they do come to you with ideas and solutions, you get to hear their best thinking before you respond. I’m always amazed when I hear ideas that are better than what I would have prescribed. That builds my confidence in my team, and builds their confidence in their decisions. When you say, “Great idea — you should do just that.” It feels great for you both.

Focus on doing your own work

By asking these questions you can start to get out of the habit of doing work that should be done by your team, and instead you get to focus on your own work.

How has it been going? What have you noticed about yourself and your team as you embarked on the journey of recovery? Keep writing it all down. And start now, just asking “Is this your best work?” – and tell us what happens!

Photo credit: jurvetson


  1. peterdurand says:

    Thanks. I needed that. Especially the “don’t do their work” which I hear again and again (but fail to follow!). The thin book, The One Minute Manager and The Monkey calls those tasks we steal from our tam “monkeys”. A monkey isn’t a problem, it is the next right move. So asking “I don’t know, what do you think we should do?” is a way NOT to accidentally pick up your team member’s monkey!

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