May 31, 2021 ☼ Leadership
Be lazy and go home. Yes, you heard me right! It is the most important thing I’ve learned in the past months. I guess this is not what you’d expect to hear as advice for leading a team. I didn’t either. After a past 1:1 conversation with my manager Katie, it became clear that I was doing something right without knowing too much about it. There are some great learnings that I hope inspire some of you to become a better leader.
If you are not a fan of the word “lazy,” another way to describe this is “laissez-faire” leadership. “Laissez-faire” literally translated means “let it be.” So call it “Let it Be” Leadership if you will (and put on the Beatles 😅).
A little disclaimer before I’ll dive into the topic: What I am describing here is a certain kind of leadership style. This style might be helpful for some and maybe only for specific situations. Nonetheless, it is an important topic to talk about. But in settings where more direction is needed, you may find that you need to adopt a different kind of leadership. That is ok. I am doing so too. There is never just one way of leading. Examining your style and honing your skills to adapt more will make you become a better leader.
Recently I’ve got promoted to Senior Engineering Manager at Buffer. One of the new responsibilities I’ve had now for a few months is to be in charge of two teams in two separate areas of our product organization. Of course, this is not the busiest a manager can be. Some managers and leaders have far more people to organize around and collaborate with. The point here is not the number of people one manages. It is the transition from one team to two or more. More specifically, the number of context switches that will have to happen for you. By context switches, I mean how often you have to think about something else or realign your focus throughout your day.
Nowadays, we value being productive over being creative. If we spend our days reading or talking to people, we seem or think of ourselves as lazy. But if we spend our time staring at email or Slack messages all day, we seem super busy. Many of us are obsessed with the mirage of total efficiency. Using every minute of the day, searching for the next best productivity hack. While priding ourselves with skipping breaks and punishing us when we get distracted. Sleeping, being sick, or even having burnout are considered weaknesses. One thing I learned is that effectiveness is not the same thing as efficiency.
As managers, we tend to feel like we need to know and be involved in everything. If someone approaches us with a question about a project or ongoing process, we think that we have to have the answer. We want to feel important.
I learned by observing my behavior that it is more helpful to let things be, trust your team, and instead ask, “What’s the status of X?”, “How is project A going so far?”, “Can someone point to where I can find out more about Y?”. In the beginning, I felt that I am not doing my job correctly. That I should know the answer to all those questions. But at some point, I realized that I couldn’t do it all on my own. Even though delegation shouldn’t be new to you as a manager or leader, delegation reaches new levels with this kind of leadership. You might miss important issues and opportunities by just being too much in the daily business and trying to catch up with every bit of detail.
A great article by Camille Fournier (that I referenced two years ago, talking about a similar topic) talks about this in more detail. Without effective delegation you are prone to a bunch of things. Micromanagement, for example. Losing control of your time and failing to take on more or lead bigger initiatives. The key learning here is that as a manager, you have to stop taking over work in the name of helpfulness. As a manager, don’t feel you have to help out all the time or take over work all the time. It will just lead to a busy day and a team that isn’t growing. In professional terms, things that hinder you from delegating are called Delegation Barriers.
So what do we do with that extra time that we gain? Well, we are not gaining time but rather creating slack time. Slack is the degree of freedom we require to effect change. Slack is the natural enemy of efficiency. It represents the operational capacity sacrificed in the interests of long-term health. DeMarco writes in his book “Slack.”
It’s not all just about delegation and being lazy. What it comes down to is that our teams and we rarely have enough slack. But slack is vital because it prevents us from getting locked into our current state, unable to respond or adapt. After all, we don’t have the capacity.
Having a little bit of wiggle room allows us to respond to changing circumstances in a much calmer way. Change Management is a constant topic nowadays as the way we work evolves almost week by week. If you’ve got a bit of slack, it’ll allow for more reflection and possible moments to see if you are still doing the right thing and whether you are wasting resources or not.
Imagine if every hour in our schedules would be accounted for. We couldn’t slow down to reflect, recover from a cold, shift our focus a bit, learning a new essential skill, or think about a problem. We need more slack than we expect. And as managers and leaders, we have a specific responsibility to role model this behavior. Only in very open and transparent cultures can this happen from the bottom up. In most cases, we need to behave authentically and display the behavior we want our team members to mirror.
Going Home, in that sense, then means to finish your workday when you say you would—not sending out the email at 11 pm or on a Sunday. If you don’t want your team to overwork, then you shouldn’t either. Being a role model is super important, especially in a virtual environment. People don’t get to see you in real life very often. They only see avatars and dots that represent a status. Being vocal and transparent about your work/life balance and approach to work is vital.
Of course this style of leadership doesn’t just have advantages. There are some downsides to this. You can read 5 of my pros and cons of this style over here in a new article.
To finish it off, I wanted to share this quote from the “Tao of Leadership”:
It puzzles people at first, to see how little the able leader actually does, and yet how much gets done. But the leader knows that is how things work. After all, Tao does nothing at all, yet everything gets done. When the leader gets too busy, the time has come to return to selfless silence. Selflessness gives one center. Center creates order. When there is order, there is little to do.
So be lazy and go home. 😉