A Time to be Hands-On, A Time to be Hands-Off

Whether you supervise one person or lead 10,000, being deliberate and consistent about when you are hands-on versus hands-off with your team’s work is one of the most meaningful skills a leader can master.

Most executives I coach need to work on this balance. Much like being right- or left-handed, we tend to default to being more hands-on or hands-off, and either extreme can be a problem. Leaders who default to being overly involved in their people’s work may demotivate them and cause dependency, rather than autonomy. Leaders who are too hands-off can miss impending meltdowns, allow under-performance to linger, and create confusion about roles and responsibilities, organizational goals, and roadmaps to achieve them.

Knowing when to be more or less involved in your people’s work is a balancing act—one that requires dynamically responding to individuals and changing conditions in a consistent way.

Through my many years of leading and coaching other leaders, I’ve pinpointed seven guidelines you can follow to ensure that your team is operating at the highest level of autonomy:

1. Tenure and experience: What is your staff members’ professional experience and how long have they been in their current role or a related role? The less tenure and experience they have, the more you need to be involved.

2. Results: Do they have a pattern of success in executing and delivering good results on time and within budget? Is their work, and that of their team, accurate? The stronger their track record, the likelier it is you can be informed rather than involved.

3. Capability and capacity: Do they demonstrate innovation, creativity, common sense, critical thinking, and problem-solving capabilities? The weaker they are in these areas, the more involved you’ll need to be. If a problem stems from a temporary situation, like their current workload is overwhelming, then you can adjust accordingly. Otherwise, you may need to make a change.

4. Fit: Are they a good fit in their role and in your organization? When people are a good fit and they’ve met many of the other standards on this list, you can likely default to staying informed rather than being involved.

5. Jeopardy: Is there a level of crisis or peril within the organization or in an employee’s specific project or area of responsibility? The greater the jeopardy, the more you’ll need to be hands-on.

6. Savvy: Do your team members have proven ability to navigate interpersonal nuances and organizational complexities? Can they influence and garner support? How much do they inspire confidence in you and others? The less savvy they are, particularly in more complex organizations, your involvement will likely be more necessary.

7. Impact: How much would their potential failure impact the organization? If their failure would result in a material issue for your organization, then you’ll likely need to be more involved.

Develop and consistently stick to your own guidelines for when to be hands-on versus hands-off. Maintaining that balance will help your team work more independently, make you an effective leader, and allow for a more scalable and smarter organization.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

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