Strategies on how to support your team without being prescriptive or micro-managing

Giving people room to operate and the chance to solve problems on their own fosters collaboration and builds trust with your team. However, if you step back too much, you’re the absentee manager. Some of your reports may appreciate the independence, but most wish they had your support. How do you walk that fine line of delegating responsibilities — providing guidance to your team and managing risks — without micromanaging?

In this interview Julie Stanescu, RETHINK Founder talks with Aniruddha Kadam, UX Design Manager at LinkedIn, RETHINK advisor and a fantastic coach at Coaching Through Crisis Program about how to strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence, how to evaluate performance without being prescriptive or micromanaging and how asking the right questions can empower people to do things they don't believe they can do on their own.

Hi Aniruddha, can you walk us through your story and origin, how did you get into design management?

Aniruddha: I started officially in a design management track at LinkedIn, but even before LinkedIn I was always mentoring entry level designers either at work and/or in design communities. My experience as a Design Lead in my previous jobs helped me with understanding the ropes for delegating tasks and giving feedback on design work. 

At LinkedIn, a couple of months into my individual contributor role; I remember chatting with my manager around extending the design lead role into a full blown managing role. I was given the option to have a 50-50 split in my role and title, which allowed me to work on projects while managing a small team of two designers. The role came with an escape route where I was told I could go back to being an individual contributor if I did not like this manager-on-training-wheels kind of role. While it sounded great on paper, it wasn't an easy path. 

I struggled a lot but I was determined to give the role a true shot for at least 6-9 months. At the end of the first year at LinkedIn, I looked back and saw how much I had learned about design and design management. I firsthand saw the impact I had on the product I was managing and on the lives the designers I led and forged everlasting relationships with. That was THE moment where I decided that I wanted to grow and continue in the design management role - and spend the next couple of years (or more) designing amazing teams that would design awesome products.

Celebrating LinkedIn design rockstar awards

As a manager, you are a coach and a thought partner for your team. How do you encourage your direct reports to provide their own right answers?

Aniruddha: Management overall draws a lot of parallel and learnings from competitive sports, especially in design management which is similar to sports, where there's no single way to score a point. 

A design manager is a coach empowering designers to find the best solutions for their problems themselves thereby helping them achieve their full potential.

You can always tell someone to do something, and they will do it - but only when it's their voice in their head telling them to do something and not yours - is when they will fully understand how to go about strategizing and solving for that problem. A manager's role all about enabling, encouraging and teaching how to fish, rather than fish for the team.

I have found a lot of success in using a coaching framework by Sir. John Withmore called the GROW model. GROW is an acronym for the four key steps in coaching and helping directs find the answers themselves where.

G - Goals

Helps establishing rapport, understanding the nature of the problem, and getting to the core of what the person ahead is seeking help with. It can be understood with questions like:

  • "What is the biggest challenge you think you will face in reaching this goal?"
  • "What would you like to happen that is not happening now"?

Once you level set on where they want to go, it is important to establish and understand the current state of the problem or the situation they are in, which is done in the second step

R - Reality

Helps you level set on the reality of the situation this person is in. It helps put the problem in perspective, and defines the constraints for solving it. These questions are more similar on lines of answering the Who/What/Where/How Much of the goals — best understood by questions on lines of

  • "Describe the realities of your situation right now"
  • "What would you need to learn to achieve your goals"
  • "What's stopping you from getting to your goal right now?".

As you understand the delta between the expected goals and the current state, ask questions to help understand the different ways to solve the problem — encouraging reports to brainstorm different ways to solve the problem at hand.

O - Options/Opportunities

Helps the person in front of you brainstorm an idea/direction for themselves through a series of questions. At a broad level answering the questions: "What is possible''? Questions are more towards helping them come up with a focussed option/opportunity to pursue depending on their current reality to achieve the goal they have defined for themselves. Questions could be on lines of:

  • "What obstacles you might face while reaching your goal?"
  • "What are the possible options available to you around this goal"?

When this is done, what closes the loop is accountability towards achieving the goal with the final step being.

W - Will

Helps drive towards creating an action plan to keep the person accountable for executing on solving for their goal. This last part of the model focuses on commitment and clarity where questions could be as high level as "What are your next steps?". This could also be an opportunity to get a sense of understanding of what your direct report needs from you clearly with a simple question like "How can I support you? What do you need from me?".

Great managers empower their team to make decisions for them. As a manager you may actually make less day to day decisions than you did as an individual contributor.

Overall, the GROW model works if you are present, empathetic and committed towards helping your direct report solve the problem, and gain confidence, leading to increased productivity and personal satisfaction.

I'd strongly recommend dry runs for the model with friends and family, getting yourself comfortable with the nature of questions. Teach people to fish!

What is your approach for asking the right questions to ensure you're getting the answers you need? 

Aniruddha: I found that a good way to make sure that progress is happening in a constructive and empowering way is by:

  • Communicating priority and cadence -  There will be key projects which you'll want to be updated on a regular basis. It's good to set that expectation early, and let your reports know exactly what parts of the project you'd want to be updated on and at what frequency. 
  • Asking 'Why' over 'What' - I have learned over time that while checking on direct reports focussing on the 'Why OR How’ always gets you a better understanding of the problem and the challenges they are facing rather than the ‘what’. For example, you could ask ‘Why are you prioritizing this project over others’ instead of "What are you doing this week?". This is also a good way to coach and understand the core of the problem your directs are solving. 
  • Offering your help  - And lastly, asking if things are going well, and what challenges are they facing and always offering to help with a simple ‘How can I help?’. Offering a constructive helping hand helps create a safe environment where challenges are seen as an essential part of growth. 

How do you evaluate performance without being prescriptive or micromanaging?

Aniruddha: If you are checking every single pixel, then you are managing wrong (and also risking a burnout). It is easy to be a micromanager and in turn be overwhelmed with the amount of things you'd be checking on as a manager.

Evaluating performance for product designers should be a good mix of not only ‘what’ (designing high quality design illustrating a user centered process) but also ‘how’ (creating relationships to get stuff done and driving projects and influencing strategy through storytelling).  

Three strategies for evaluating performance that I found successful.

1. Always have your hypothesis but rely on 360 degree feedback to validate.

Keep an eye and ear out for noticing themes in performance, make notes to yourself but don’t act on sharing feedback without getting a more comprehensive 360 degree feedback from people who closely work with your direct report. Only then, do analyze themes from the feedback, validate it against your notes - and share opportunities which you think are aimed towards your direct’s growth as a designer. Leave out feedback which isn’t relevant or timely. 

2. Opening up opportunities for risk-free stretch goals.

Stretch goals are a great way to evaluate two things - are they comfortable in their space to take on something that isn’t completely related to their current project and are able to handle the ambiguity of that problem when it isn’t directly tied to their performance.

Secondly it allows you to get insights into how they scale and manage their bandwidth to accommodate things that come into their radar. It is absolutely essential to communicate that stretch goals are completely optional.

Also if they do take up a stretch goal, letting them know it’s completion isn’t tied to their performance. How they perform towards a stretch goal helps you get insights into their potential, and understand how they’d be able to scale as a designer. 

3. Setting clear guidelines for the expected performance.

There’s no way you can build a bridge without knowing how wide the river is. One of the most under-rated strategies is setting clear expectations around the expected performance for the current level as well as the next level. Doing so helps create a self sustaining loop with your direct report where they are in charge of their performance and therefore growth in the company.

Seeing yourself as a coach and facilitator to help them perform in their current role and grow to the next one always seems to be a better strategy than monitoring performance at a micro level. 


Left Photo: Team food theme costume for LinkedIn's design Halloween All-Hands

Right Photo: Building team culture through mini-golf offsite

How do you make your feedback heard for a low performer direct report while making him/her feel safe and empowered to do great work?


Aniruddha: Underperformance is usually encountered on two fronts - it’s either task based or its behavioral. 

1. Task based underperformance is usually quick to be identified. It is pretty visible and finds itself in not meeting expectations with design work - either in the design approach, thinking, understanding of the problem space, or very tactical interaction or visual design. 

2. Behavioral underperformance is difficult to identify over a shorter period of time. You’d usually hear about behavioral underperformance from their peers/designers after a period or time, and it’s easy to dismiss it as a one-time occurrence till you heard about it from different peers multiple times for you to identify it as an underperformance. 

A good way to make feedback heard and acted upon, while creating a safe environment for the direct report is following the following guidelines:

  • Make feedback non-personal. It should be precise and specific.
  • Reinforce what’s going well and what’s positive. 
  • For behavioral feedback call out the patterns, and communicate why that behavior isn’t as per expectation. 
  • Ensure your feedback is being heard. Close the conversation with acknowledging the underperformance, agreeing on learnings and establishing accountability towards an action plan to address the underperformance. Overall this feedback should lead to positive action. 
  • Feedback for underperformance should be actionable and timely. It should be delivered when it’s validated and should not wait for a formal review, which might then be a surprise for the direct report. 

Doing some or all of the above helps create a safe and growth driven approach to addressing underperformance. Consistency in feedback is absolutely essential for creating a safe and empowering environment for great work.

If you made it till the end it means you really enjoyed this interview and learning from Aniruddha. For more insights into designing your process from individual contributor to Manager watch Aniruddha's talk from one of our previous events.


Contributors
Aniruddha Kadam
UX Design Manager at LinkedIn
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