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Case Study: Increasing the independence of an overly dependent workgroup

Background: You manage a workgroup of 15 people responsible for customer service for one of the company’s largest and most profitable products. You have recently been promoted to the manager role having worked previously in other areas of the organization. In your most recent role, you had 10 people reporting up to you and they were also a customer service group. After only three weeks in the new role, you noticed a number of differences between the two groups. This new workgroup seemed very “needy.” They did not do anything without checking with you first. They didn’t solve the smallest problem or make even the most minor of decisions without asking your thoughts. Your last group was very independent and made many decisions on their own, working within parameters established early on. When they really needed your support, they reached out. Otherwise, they were excellent in their roles and didn’t rely on you day-after-day. This new workgroup would tell some of the top customers of the company that they had to call them back because you were unavailable and they needed to talk to you first.

A Bit of Research: You decided to do a bit of research to see what was going on. You first looked at the background of each of your new workgroup members. Of the 15 individuals reporting up to you, 5 of them had been with the company, in this role for an average of 8 years. The other 10 had an average of 3 years with the company. As for ages, they fell between 22 and 44 years of age.

You then spoke with the last manager of the group (he has recently been moved into another role in the company.) You learned that his management style was significantly different than yours. This was apparent in a number of comments he made including this one, “Why are you concerned that the group relies on you to solve their problems? That’s your job. You’re the boss, not them;” and this one, “Only once did one of the more tenured team members make a decision on his own. It was not the decision I would have made and I made sure they knew from that point on that they needed to come to me for any decisions related to customers.”

Your Conversation with the Workgroup: You met with the group and told them you were going to call a meeting that was to be an afternoon meeting with a dinner for the group afterwards. The meeting would be off-site. You had others filling in for them on the phones during this afternoon. The purpose, you told the team, was twofold. One – to set expectations and two – to let the group get to know you better and for you to get to know them. The group was excited about an afternoon off from the phones and a group dinner afterwards. They have never done anything like this before.

Prior to the meeting, you sent a brief email around with a link to a survey. You asked the group to respond to one question:

  • What do they need to be more comfortable with taking on additional problem-solving and decision-making responsibilities?

The Results of the Survey: All 15 workgroup members responded to the survey. Their responses to question 1 included:

  • Training around decision-making and problem solving
  • A defined process for solving problems and making decisions
  • Clear expectations from you as to their roles and responsibilities
  • Guarantee that they won’t be held solely responsible if a poor decision is made

The Meeting and Dinner: The day of the meeting and dinner arrived. In addition to having a conversation around problem solving and decision making, you also had a number of team building activities planned. Dinner was to be an informal event with the purpose of continuing to get to know each other on a personal basis.

Two hours was spent planning processes and procedures for solving problems and making decisions with you relying on the team to outline how they would work together and take ownership of problems and decision-making. Parameters were set that enabled them to feel comfortable taking on these responsibilities and, additionally, you reminded them that you remained accountable for the work of the group – and you told them you would put that in writing. The team seemed energized and a number of them told you during a break that they were excited to be taking on more of a leadership role and never felt comfortable doing so before.

Additionally, you told them that you also arranged for a workshop on problem solving and decision making to provide them some practice. The workshop was a 2 day session scheduled for next week. They would have coverage on their phones during this time so there was no distractions.

The team building activities went well – not only did everyone participate but they had a ton of fun doing so!

Dinner also went well and a number of the team stayed together afterwards to have a drink together. You joined them and those who were there thanked you for taking the time to get to know them and allowing them to get to know you.

Four Months Later: Four months later things are still going well. The team takes responsibility and ownership to solve problems and make decisions with customers. In fact, they have taken on even more responsibility within the group and a number have taken on team leader roles. Feedback from customers is the best it has ever been and the VP of Sales commented to you that she heard from a number of their key customers that they were thrilled with the support from your group. Three new people joined the group since that meeting and the group has done a great job including them. They have adapted well to the culture and work effectively with the team. The team did this on their own. You are pleased with the turnaround in the group in the short time period. The once overly depending workgroup was quite independent and were doing exceptionally well.