My clients are good people—they care about their teams. They don’t want to burden them with too much work or make unreasonable requests of them. When a challenge shows up, they bend over backward coming up with solutions. They spend time wrestling with how to fix longstanding issues. Strain to get others to see the gravity of failing to act. Prepare diligently. Propose ideas. They try so hard to say things in a way that has their team member say, “This is brilliant, I’m taking this and running with it!”
If this sounds like you, then you are probably an empathetic, empowering leader. You’re also likely doing work that your direct reports should be doing.
If you see yourself in the above, then consider an alternative approach: it’s entirely appropriate to make a simple request for a breakthrough—lay down a challenge for someone to pick up and run with it. What does it look like to request a breakthrough?
A request is a speech act that gets others on the court, and is structured as follows: “I request that you [deliver result] by [date].”
What do we mean by, “I” in the statement, “I request that you [deliver result] by [date]?”
Requests are made by agents: people or a group of people acting as a single agent (executive committees can qualify as a single agent in some cases). But who is empowered to request the breakthrough in the first place? The answer is: the person or group of people with the managerial oversite to coordinate the parties needed to deliver the request.
What do we mean by, “you” in the statement, “I request that you [deliver result] by [date]?”
Requests are made to someone (or some group). But to whom does one request a breakthrough? The answer is: the group of people able to solve it. Note I did not say, “the group of people that report to you.” Instead, you must make the request to the group of people who can do something about it. This often requires a cross-functional body of people. The very nature of functional boundaries often limits coordinated action in service of solving a longstanding problem. Sometimes, simply getting the right people in the same (Zoom) room can go a long way to delivering the breakthrough.
What do we mean by, “[deliver result]” in the statement, “I request that you [deliver result] by [date]?”
Requesting a breakthrough does not mean that you specify the goal to be fulfilled. It does not mean that you request a 10% increase in sales or a throughput increase of 20%. All leaders face circumstances in which this kind of mandate is needed. However, most of the time you should be able to empower your team to define exactly what it is that they are delivering. Under most conditions, people work best when contributing to the design of what they work on. Requesting a breakthrough means giving people the space to define what exactly the breakthrough is.
Finally, requests work when they are responded to by the person or group of people to whom you make the request. Responses include one of the following: accepting, declining, or counter-offering. The request for a breakthrough becomes the following:
“I request that by [X date] you bring me a commitment to deliver a breakthrough in [specific area].”
All the support that you pour into your team is now focused on meeting the challenge that you’ve laid down for them and that they have responded to. They have stepped up, committed to a result, and now own that result.