The benefits of doing nothing

Over-management can destroy your business

I once coached a fantastic, 11-year-old mogul skier named Tara. Although I’d competed in mogul skiing at the national level, trained with and competed against several of the best mogul skiers in the world, and even authored a how-to book on mogul skiing, I had the disconcerting sense that I had little to teach her.

Her skiing was beautiful, smooth, fast, masterful and unusual. When I watched her ski, I didn’t always know precisely what I was seeing or why it worked. At just 11, Tara had already become an artist.

All of this was humbling, of course — even embarrassing. I was supposed to be the expert — the 40-year-old with all the knowledge and ability. I felt the eyes of the program director and Tara’s parents upon me. These people were surely expecting me to do something to make Tara a better skier.

I could have done something. I could have picked apart Tara’s skiing and found ways to talk at her. I could have dissected her poling, for example, and done a lot of talking about hand position and wrist motion. But I was afraid of ruining her art.

It seemed the best thing I could do was to let her practice and enjoy what she already did so well. So I decided to coach Tara by doing nothing. I spent the season doing little more than telling her, “go do your thing.”

Plenty of management gurus espouse the benefits of getting out of an employee’s way — of managing by doing nothing. Of course, I’m talking about a sort of nothing that is something. When you do nothing — when you smile at your employee, nod knowingly, and say, “go do your thing” — you do plenty.

Most importantly, you communicate respect and trust. Do this often enough and you free your employee from the burdens of correction and criticism, increasing the likelihood of her discovering autonomy, creativity and pride in her work. All this can lead to the things every manager wants: heightened productivity, high-quality work, good morale and more open communication between manager and employee.

But managers who actually know how and when to let workers work, and to then trust and not meddle with the results, are rare indeed. It’s difficult to keep your hands from the work — to not change or correct, to not advise or criticize. Overt managing (doing something instead of nothing) offers a soothing emotional palliative that’s tough to resist and highly addictive. Over-management can destroy your business.

Real leading

In my line of work (corporate writing), over-management will quickly lower communication effectiveness and morale. It will reduce good writing to an ugly, ineffective hodgepodge of managerial edits, and reduce fulfilled writers to frustrated typists. Just as I could have reduced Tara from an artist of the moguls into a kid who needed to work on her poling.

Tara won nearly every meet she skied in that season, and I always guessed she’d end up on the U.S. Ski Team. Today, she’s nearly there; she’s a three-time junior national champion and a member of the junior world championship team.

When I last bumped into Tara’s dad, he told me I’d been a great coach. But was that just him being a good guy? What role did I really play in Tara’s skiing career? How important were the few things I said to her and showed her? Did my doing nothing provide her with anything? Well, here’s what I think: These are the wrong questions.

These questions are about me and my comfort with myself as a coach, and they’re not the point. The point is Tara the skier, not Dan the coach. The point is her amazing ability and spectacular performances.

Too often, when one human tells another human what to do, it’s more about the teller’s feeling good than it is about real leading, real mentoring, real performance and real results. As difficult as it is to do, we purported authority figures — managers, coaches, teachers, and even parents — need to worry less about our personal importance and just let the greatness, passion, creativity and productivity around us be.

Dan DiPiro of Bedford, a veteran corporate writer and editor, holds graduate degrees in counseling and teaching and is the author of “Everything the Instructors Never Told You about Mogul Skiing.”

Categories: Workplace Advice